I recently saw the movie Spotlight. It’s a compelling drama of The Boston Globe‘s discovery that the Catholic church was covering up child sex abuse by nearly 90 local priests. In the movie one sees the story from the perspectives of the journalists and the victims and, to some extent, from the perspectives of attorneys and church officials. But one does not see it, except in one short scene, from the perspective of the offending priests.
That’s the way it usually is. In mass media, men who molest children are not really human beings. They are cartoon figures to be reviled.
Not so at The Marshall Defense Firm. We embrace our work on behalf of persons accurately accused of molesting children as vigorously as our work on behalf of the falsely accused. Unlike most people, we have gotten to know many child molesters rather well.
And you know what? We like them.
We don’t like it that they have molested children. All of us at the firm have children ourselves. But we get to see many facets of the lives of our clients, not just the part that has molested. And we find most of these men (they are almost always men) to have many virtues. Most of them are, believe it or not, easy to like.
I’ve just read an article that does a fine job of explaining that most men who molest children are not monsters. Author Jennifer Bleyer weaves the true story of “Eugene,” a man who fell into sex offending late in life, with insights from experts in sexual deviance.
There are many ironies in public attitudes toward child molesters. Prime among the ironies is that our fear of these men has led us to isolate them—yet a man’s social isolation is often a large factor in his abusive behavior.
Another irony is that our intense condemnation of child abusers prevents them from seeking the help we want them to get. Their shame is too intense for them to seek help from anyone. Bleyer writes:
The profound stigma that surrounds sexual attraction to children actually ends up abetting the very behavior it stigmatizes, amounting to a catch-22 with abhorrent consequences.
Bleyer goes on to quote Charles Flinton, a forensic psychologist in San Francisco who provides court-mandated therapy to sex offenders and conducts evaluations to determine their risk status:
People with a sexual interest in children don’t have any reality check to bounce up against. We engage in sexual decision making, as with any decision making, by communicating and interacting with others about our dilemmas. But these people are totally isolated, which only increases their risk of acting out.
I’m still in frequent contact with a man, now in prison, whom I represented several years ago. Like “Eugene,” he was apprehended late in life, but unlike Eugene, he had begun offending decades earlier. I never spoke truer words than when I told the sentencing judge, “The day he was apprehended was one of the best days of his life. He no longer had a terrible secret to keep. The secret was out.” Now that his shame was public, he felt free to seek help, and he has done so enthusiastically and persistently in the years since.
Thinking of child molesters as monsters who troll playgrounds in search of innocents causes us not to notice them when we—and maybe our kids—encounter them. Says Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University:
Sex offenders are in fact people all around us. It’s very easy to call them monsters, but doing so literally blinds us to when the people in our lives are engaging in inappropriate behaviors.
A person who finds himself drinking too much or gambling too much has many places he can safely turn for help. Not so a man who finds he is sexually attracted to children. His first obstacle is mandatory reporting laws. Writes Bleyer:
Mandatory reporting laws . . . have had the inadvertent effect of making it very hard for someone who is attracted to children, and who may even be inching along the pathway toward abuse—by looking at child pornography, for instance, or touching a kid’s thigh, as Eugene did—to ask for help without risking the infamy of being identified.
Jill Levenson, associate professor of social work at Barry University, says:
Self-preservation steps in. Even if they’ve never acted on them, men who are concerned about their attractions are reluctant to seek counseling, because they’re afraid they’re going to be reported.
If someone comes in and says, “I’ve been looking at pictures of children in bathing suits in a Macy’s catalog,” that’s not usually something that would have to be reported.
But the men who need counseling don’t know that looking at a Macy’s catalogue never requires a report. So they don’t get counseling.
As I’ve written, Germany has no mandatory reporting law and so has the edge in reaching pedophiles who want help keeping their desires in check. Bleyer identifies Blue Rock Institute, in the San Francisco area as an example of “proactive prevention of sexual abuse” that fits within the American legal framework.
Eugene’s wife was stunned, of course, when he was arrested. She stayed with him, though, and now visits him regularly in prison. She says, “He’s still the same person I married 33 years ago, the same person I know and love.”
I have no trouble believing her. I love quite a few child molesters myself.