Protecting Kids From Sexual Abuse: It's More Complicated 'Than See Something Say Something'

Child molesters are very, very good at what they do, yet few understand enough of the molester's sophisticated scheme of behavior to recognize the warning signs.
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If Jerry Sandusky is convicted of the charges against him, then anyone who cares about protecting children from molestation will need to understand exactly how he got away with it for so many years. It's deceptively easy to answer that question with the explanations that have been repeated in the media so often in this last week that they now seem obvious: it was the conspiracy of institutional silence, along with the malfeasance of individual Penn State officials who chose to look the other way in order to preserve the university's reputation, that gave Sandusky access to all those young boys--right? Wrong.

That was only a part of what made it possible; if it were the leading factor, then the revamping of the State's mandatory reporting laws that Governor Corbett and his fellow Pennsylvania legislators have called for would stamp out or drastically reduce these horrific crimes against children. Unfortunately stricter reporting laws such as those proposed, while they will help, are not the silver bullet they are made out to be. That's because most indicators of sexual abuse are far more subtle and hard to be certain of than the rhythmic slaps Mr. McQueary allegedly heard before he glimpsed what a 58-year-old man was doing to a 10 year old boy in the shower that day in 2002. While it is easy to blame McQueary, Paterno and others at Penn State for not reporting directly to the police, stop to realize that all over America, every day, people are walking away from signs that are more elusive but just as dangerous. This is where our real challenge as a nation lies.

This challenge is heightened by the fact that child molesters are very, very good at what they do. If everyone did not know the word 'grooming' before the Penn State debacle, they certainly know it now. However, few really know what it means beyond the giving of gifts and compliments, and fewer still understand enough of the molester's sophisticated scheme of behavior to recognize the warning signs.

Over more than thirty years of representing hundreds of victims of sexual abuse throughout the U.S., one of the primary lessons I have learned is that child molesters are successful not because they are merely manipulative or filled with evil intentions, but because they are highly skilled. It takes years, even decades for a molester to perfect his craft. These men spend their lives not only learning what children like but more important, what they need. The tragic key to their success is the ability to form a bond with the child as close as that of a parent, and some times, even closer. They are pied pipers incarnate.

Molesters are a patient bunch. They know it takes months - sometimes years - to capture a child's trust and win over his heart and mind. For a man like this, selecting victims is like fly fishing, constantly casting out some shiny bait until he gets a bite. Over the years he develops a finely tuned sense of when to take the next step of drawing the child further into his web, or when he has to immediately walk away and go on to the next child. The last thing a molester wants is to raise suspicions about his behavior, so he reserves his most finely tuned antennae to sense the child who resists his initial touches, or the parent who asks too many questions. He knows that there are plenty of potential victims, as well as parents and caregivers he is able to hoodwink; he does not have to waste his time unless he is sure there is a high likelihood of success with little or no risk of being caught. While there are no hard numbers, it is not uncommon for a child molester, especially one who occupies a position of trust, to have abused dozens , sometimes even hundreds of children during his life. Years of using their position to interact with untold numbers of children (Sandusky's charity is classic) teaches these valuable lessons, perhaps the most important being a keen sense of which children make the ideal victims: disenfranchised kids, needy kids with poor self- esteem, or those who receive little attention at home.

Yet identifying and targeting vulnerable children is only half the puzzle, for just as important to the success of the child molester is his ability to win over and exploit the trust of the parent. In fact the grooming of the parent--a skill and a process which has been completely left out of the current national discussion--is just as integral to the pedophile achieving his objective. The molester knows he has to make the parent feel comfortable enough to allow him to spend time alone with the child, and he does so in a very slow and deliberate way. He knows that swooping in and immediately trying to usher the child off to overnight trips will not work. So the process begins with visits to the home for friendly chit chat, maybe dinner, or offers to babysit; then he asks for permission to take the boy on casual outings, like for ice cream after school, or a sports activity. Once the comfort level for these activities is secured, invitations follow to take the child to dinner or to the mall to buy new clothes. By proceeding at a cautious pace, the molester normalizes his presence in the child's life, and then poof, he disappears into the fabric of the family trust. The fix is in. Once a stranger, this man has now been given virtual carte blanche with the child's life.

Experts agree that about one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused--that means children you know have almost certainly been victims. As a nation we should reflect on the fact that the solution to this massive problem is just not as easy as 'see something, say something.' We will never be able to give our children the protection they need until we understand the complex, nuanced and difficult nature of these crimes.

Paul Mones is a children's rights attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse throughout the nation. In 2010 he won the largest verdict for sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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