Can an 11-year-old be a sex offender?

A British case put a pair of little boys on trial. But are they just curious kids -- or potential rapists?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 19, 2010 8:10PM (EDT)

To tell it one way, on Wednesday, a British judge let the two accused sexual assailants of an 8-year-old girl go free. Or to put it another way, a pair of little boys have been put on trial for their innocent curiosity, and now carry the stigma of being registered sex offenders. In this story, nobody wins.

On Oct. 27, in West London, a little girl told her mother she'd been assaulted. She said that two local 10-year-old boys lured her out of her home, exposed themselves to her, pulled down her pants and attacked her. She said they threw her scooter into the bushes and told her she had to do what they said. She said they raped her.

Later, under intense questioning, she said she had lied about being raped, but that she had been "naughty," and that she had been afraid to tell her mother. Attorneys in the case described it as a game of "show me yours and I will show you mine." In her testimony, the girl said she had not been penetrated, and there was no forensic evidence to suggest she had been.

The boys, who now have the distinction of being Britain's youngest registered sex offenders, received three years probation. They will be supervised, and work with social workers who will "train, guide and educate" them. In handing down the sentence, the judge said, "The jury decided that you did something very wrong which if you had been older would have very serious consequences for you. But you are very young and while I do not accept what happened was a game, I do accept that you didn’t realize how serious what you were doing was."

Because of the age of the three parties involved, the details of exactly what went on during the alleged attack are very sketchy. Back in May, the barrister for one of the boys, Linda Sprudwick, told the jury, "Maybe it went too far, maybe it went to touching."

But how far is too far? How young is too young to be accountable? Does it matter that one of the boys was described as a model student whose teacher wrote a glowing endorsement for the jury, while the other had been expelled from his previous school and moved to one for children with behavioral disorders? Is this a story where, as the Irish Herald described, "Boys walk free after trying to rape an eight-year-old girl"? Or is writer Philip Johnston correct to ask, "Why did the authorities respond to a story of rape from an eight-year-old, who cannot possibly know what it means?" Actress Mo'Nique has said the inspiration for her monstrous "Precious" character came from her brother, who began molesting her when he was 13, a time, she says, "We were both children." We are reminded on an agonizingly regular basis that despite Mr. Johnston's blustery naiveté, a child doesn't have to know what sex abuse is to have it happen -- or even to perpetuate it.

In handing down that sentence, it would appear the judge tried to strike a compassionate balance of sensitivity for all involved -- allowing that something went "too far" for the girl, but that the boys may not have fully understood that themselves. The boys will be 14 when their probation ends. And we will only know if their sentence was too harsh or insufficient by what they become and how they behave in the next few years. Lacking the vocabulary to define events, children leave it to us to tell them what happened to them. They leave it to us to decide if they are victims or abusers, and then that is the label they have to live with. And we struggle, incompletely, unsatisfactorily, to make sense of what happened between three children in an English field on an October day.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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