Claims by best-selling author John Grisham that America is wrongly jailing too many people for watching child pornography have been condemned by the head of a leading child protection charity.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Grisham – whose legal thrillers have sold in millions – said that America's judges had "gone crazy" and were locking up too many people, including those who had watched child pornography.
"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said. "But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."
However, Simon Bass, chief executive of the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) said that he was "astounded and appalled" at Grisham's words and accused him of "naivety".
Grisham referred to a friend whose "drinking was out of control, and he went to a website ... And it said '16-year-old girls'. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff – it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.
"He shouldn't 'a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys. He didn't touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: 'FBI!' and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people – sex offenders – and he went to prison for three years."
Grisham, a Southern Baptist whose Christian faith has led him to campaign against the death penalty and wrongful convictions, called for a distinction to be made between 'real-world' abusers and those who only viewed images. "I have no sympathy for real paedophiles," he said. "God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that's what they're getting."
Debate has been sparked in the US legal world since it emerged that viewers of child pornography sometimes received harsher sentences than those who carried out physical abuse.
However, Simon Bass said: "We are not talking about children in a state of undress. These images are often of children in the act of being abused. This is a crime scene.
"It blurs things when someone talks about being drunk and just wandering off to a website."
He added: "Grisham does a disservice to the children captured on these images."
He said that viewing child abuse online was itself abusive, referring to recent scandals involving celebrities who had had naked 'selfies' posted online and said that they had felt 'violated' by the use of the stolen images. Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, he said, at least had control over whether they made the images in the first place. "How much worse is it for a child who has no control at all?"
Regarding sentencing options, Bass said that Grisham's legal knowledge might have equipped him to make constructive comments about risk assessments and rehabilitation which might prevent offenders going on to harm children. "His career as a novelist has been built on a very successful understanding of legal processes. That has not been apparent in this case," he said.