Sandusky case: Child sexual abuse needs prevention, not just punishment

If we identify and treat, perhaps we can save both victim and perpetrator

July 18, 2012|Susan Reimer

The report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh castigated the men in the upper reaches of Penn State's administration, as well football coach Joe Paterno, for not acting in 1998 when they learned that a mother had complained to campus police that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was showering with her 11-year-old son in the football locker room.

Mr. Freeh suggests, rightly, that more than a decade of sexual abuse of young boys would have been prevented if Mr. Sandusky had been stopped then. Instead, he continued to enjoy the privileges of the storied football program that were the lure he used to groom, and then abuse, boys from troubled homes.

"Just don't bring the boys on campus," was the wrist-slap Mr. Sandusky was given — and one he ignored.

But whatever you think of Penn State's callous disregard for those victims, no action taken in 1998 would have saved the first young boy Mr. Sandusky abused, whoever he was and whenever it happened.

That's because child sexual abuse is seen solely as a criminal matter in this country, not a matter for treatment and prevention.

And the vision of the slack-faced and unrepentant old man in handcuffs being led to jail after he was convicted on 43 out of 45 counts — and accused by his own adopted son — has so poisoned the atmosphere around this deeply troubling sexual impulse that there will not soon be help for pedophiles, let alone sympathy.

"I fear that we will have a new spate of Sandusky laws," said Elizabeth Letourneau, associate professor in the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Such as mandatory background checks. And a lot of money will go to the background check people. But that wouldn't have stopped Sandusky because he didn't have any priors.

"And not one damn thing will be done to prevent sexual abuse."

There is emerging research, Ms. Letourneau said, that suggests some men are born with a sexual preference for children. But a sexual preference for children doesn't have to result in actual sexual behavior toward children. Pedophilia and child molestation are not synonyms.

"The science suggests that there are people who, through no fault of their own, were born with a sex drive that they must continuously resist, without exception, throughout their entire lives," writes James Cantor of the University of Toronto, who studies sexual behavior and abuse. "Little if any assistance is ever available.

"No one has been able to find a way to change pedophiles into nonpedophiles," he continued. "But that doesn't mean we cannot prevent child molestation.

"It is too early to tell whether these efforts are effective over the long term, but preliminary reports are encouraging," Mr. Cantor said, describing programs in Europe and Canada supporting pedophiles who want to control their urges.

The criminal justice system goes immediately to DefCon 5 with child molesters, and the community follows. Prison and a lifetime on a sex-offenders list. Families turn away or are harassed. Neighbors complain, and suddenly jobs, housing or a place in school might disappear.

"Pedophiles who go on to become actual child molesters do so when they feel the most desperate," wrote Mr. Cantor. "Yet much of what society does has been to increase rather than decrease their desperation."

Because we believe them to be irredeemable, a convicted child sex offender faces a lifetime of surveillance to which even murderers are not subjected.

"We have a strong national sense that sex offenders are all destined to reoffend regardless of whether they get punished or treated," said Ms. Letourneau.

"There is no way," she said, "for someone to get help for themselves or someone else without involving the criminate justice system. And that has very serious consequences."

Ms. Letourneau's hope is that the Sandusky case brings much needed attention — and research dollars — to the matter of how to identify pedophiles and how to prevent them from abusing children.

But she isn't hopeful that there will be a sudden groundswell to identify and treat this dark impulse instead of just punishing it. Neither am I.

"Nobody has any empathy for these men," said Ms. Letourneau. "We see them as complete monsters and we refuse to see that they may have done good things in their lives."

And that is part of the conundrum for anyone who might be harboring suspicions about a man in their community.

"If you are a sex offender, you are a monster," she said. "But if you are my husband or my boyfriend or my Uncle Joe, I know you are not a monster because I know the good part of you. I like you or I love you, so you can't be a sex offender.

"This dichotomy has the effect of causing people to miss the red flags."

There is another point worth making here. A mother is quoted in the Freeh report saying that her son often came home from Mr. Sandusky's house without his underpants. She says in the report that she wished administration officials had done something to protect her son.

This question needs asking: Why didn't that mother do something to protect her son? Your child repeatedly returns home without his underwear, and you don't ask any questions or take any action?

Clearly, a public health information campaign directed at the first line of child protectors — parents and teachers — would be a good first step.

Those powerful men at Penn State and the school's legendary coach did nothing to stop Mr. Sandusky from abusing more children, and that is beyond forgiveness. Other people in positions of authority will learn from this that they can be held accountable for not acting, too, and face the wrath of the law. And that is a good thing.

But what about that first child, the first victim? What is to be done to protect him?

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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