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How Can We Spot a Child Molester?

Stereotypes of sexual predators can be misleading.

This week, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is on trial for allegedly abusing ten boys over a period of 15 years. The testimony thus far has been graphic. One victim, now 25, said he was forced to have oral sex and then threatened to make him stay silent. Another one, in tears, described a frightening sexual incident when he was just 13.

Another former coach testified that in 2001, he head the sound of “skin on skin” and saw Sandusky naked with a boy in the shower. It looked to him as if the defendant was raping the boy.

Victims seeking help were often dismissed. Few believed that Sandusky was capable of such reprehensible treatment.

It is nearly impossible to prospectively determine who a sexual predator might be. Someone who looks “creepy” is no more an offender than a respectable person; as well, just because someone seems respectable does not eliminate him (or her) as a child molester.

Accurate prediction based on traits, appearance, or behavior still remains outside our reach. I coauthored a book, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, with expert Patrick McGrain, who had plenty to say about offenders who molest children.

Interviews with, and questionnaires given to, pedophiles are among our attempts to learn what child molesters say about their desires and behavior. Although the offenders who skulk around playgrounds or have difficulty hiding their desires are obvious, they’re not that prevalent. We must be concerned with those who skillfully hide their predilections so that they can practice undetected for years.

Pedophiles are often placed into one of four categories. The first is the mysoped. These offenders are interested in molesting and sexually abusing children because they want to physically harm them.

A second type is the regressed child offender. This individual generally has relations with adults, but offends against a child because of a stressful event in the offender’s life that makes him seek someone he can control.

The fixated child offender is stuck at an early stage of psychosexual development. He has little to no activity with people his own age and is often uncomfortable around adults. He loves children and does not want to hurt them, so he rationalizes that abuse is actually affection.

Finally, the naïve pedophile is the individual who, for all intents and purposes, has no sense of right and wrong. The offender is often mentally retarded or unstable, and does not comprehend the rules of normal society.

When researchers Reuben Lang and Roy Frenzel interviewed 52 incest and 50 pedophilic offenders, they found that the average age of child molesters is thirty-four. Updated stats indicate that 25% are over 40. A typical modus operandi is to befriend the parents and offer to babysit the victims. They are attracted to situations in which children are easily attainable, and might even set them up. They gradually insert themselves into the victims’ lives.

Once they achieve success, the most common initial contact is “accidental” touching or cuddling. This allows the offender to be close to a child without him or her suspecting that anything out of the ordinary is occurring. If caught, it’s easy to say it’s a misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, many pedophiles also use coercion, frightening the child into compliance with threats against the child or his family. They might also use bribes to ensure silence or gain consent. In either case, pedophiles will typically misrepresent normal moral standards to gradually seduce children into believing that nothing bad is happening to them. They might also try to shame them into silence.

It’s important to understand that pedophiles often go undetected because they’re so “nice.” Friends and neighbors of Anthony Barron, 54, was stunned when he was convicted of 89 offenses against young girls. Barron was a volunteer treasurer for the Scouts and was active in a parent-teachers organization. He knew how to get people to trust him. But over a period of nine years, he molested at least 11 girls.

A typical “groomer,” Barron befriended the parents first. He came across as reasonable and caring, and he was, after all, a father and grandfather. Some parents allowed him to watch their children when they were away, and he used games, toys, and a charming manner to persuade the girls to cooperate. In his home, he videotaped himself molesting them.

After each sexual encounter, Barron used candy to bribe his victims into remaining mum. In one case, Barron had started a relationship with the mother of a prepubescent child he desired before he moved on to the daughter.

Understanding the predatory sex offender is paramount to public safety, but it is equally important to know the types of children that pedophiles target. Molesters will often choose victims who are shy, vulnerable and needy, as well as those deemed socially troubled or isolated, because they know that such children desperately seek a friend.

Unfortunately, such children are submissive and inhibited, and so are unlikely to give the offender a hard time if he forces them into a sexual situation. They will also keep the secret, especially if bribed or threatened.

When such sexual scandals emerge, people always want to know how the abuse could have gone on for so long without anyone knowing. The truth is, predators can be quite polished in deception. Quite often, they seem ordinary, helpful, and even professional. Since they don’t fit a stereotype, it’s easier for people around them to brush off the red flags.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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