Seventy New Yorkers were arrested this week for the possession and distribution of child pornography. They were nabbed in an undercover sting that exposed the nefarious activities of community leaders, including a Westchester police chief, a rabbi, two cops, two nurses, a paramedic, an au pair, and a Boy Scout leader/Little League coach. In discussing the accused, James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent for Homeland Security, said he found the professional status of the perps troubling: “We can no longer assume that the only people who would stoop to prey on children are unemployed drifters.”
Hayes is talking to the parents of America who, despite all evidence, maintain the belief that pedophiles are dirty, old man in raincoats who lurk at playgrounds. Constant news reports about abductees like Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, and the Cleveland kidnapping victims reinforce the image of predators as deranged derelicts with dirty hair, unkempt clothes, and crazy eyes. As a result, people think the biggest danger to children is disturbed strangers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Less than 10% of all child molestations are committed by strangers. 90% of all child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child already knows. The real dangers to children are teachers, coaches, pediatricians, babysitters, clergymen, neighbors, friends, family, husbands, and even our teenage sons.
The truth about pedophiles is hard for most parents to swallow. It means there are people they know and trust and maybe love right now who collect pictures of naked kids. Some people don’t realize they have kiddie porn in their own homes—hidden on the family laptop in the upstairs bedroom. My mother was such a person. She was married to a pedophile teacher who molested me and lots of his students. He ran the Drama Club at our school and tutored kids for free on weekends. Most people thought he was a fine, upstanding guy who went out of his way to help the children in his care.
My dad collected child pornography, like nearly every pedophile. He traded images with other pedophiles in a ring similar to the one that just got busted. As far as I know, there were no unemployed drifters in the ring—just teachers, policemen, a guy who sold rare coins, an executive at Crayola, and the fellow who owned the local hoagie shop. These were regular guys. Most of them were married with kids. They belonged to the PTA and coached the school sports teams. They weren’t strangers.
Well, not on the outside.
That’s what’s so hard about these kinds of stories. They remind us that there are people we know who we don’t really know at all. Pedophiles are master manipulators who live among us and delight in conning parents and kids. In order to effectively deceive, they almost always lead a double life. They have families, work solid jobs, and become members of a church. In short, they deliberately establish themselves as the good guys. Then, under their covers as model citizens, they pursue their real goal—sex with children.
Is it any wonder that when these good guys are arrested, we have trouble believing it? These are our beloved neighbors, coaches, uncles, husbands. How could they suddenly turn around and do something so horrible?
What most people can’t accept is the fact that they didn’t suddenly, in a weak moment, decide to hurt a child. This something they’ve been doing for years. We just didn’t see it. We see a dedicated teacher/priest/friend who inexplicably exploited a child. In reality, the role of teacher/priest/friend is just the pedophile’s cover—his means of accessing victims.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).