Experts: Pedophilia cases follow predictable patterns
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Ken Lanning's college-age daughter recently suggested to him that something good may come out of the Penn State University scandal in that more people will be made aware of how acquaintance child molesters operate.
He told her he was a bit too jaded to believe that.
Mr. Lanning, a retired FBI profiler who wrote the analysis many police use in investigating child sex offenders, has seen all the big cases come and go.
Yet each time a new one surfaces, it floods the media for a while and everyone seems shocked.
"But this eventually will fade off the pages," he says. "This, too, shall pass."
Until the next high-profile case involving a trusted coach, priest, scout leader or teacher hits the national news and the same question pops up: Why wasn't this guy stopped earlier?
It has already happened, in fact.
Two other major child-sex scandals, both involving proud institutions like Penn State and similar allegations of cover-ups, are playing out in New York and South Carolina.
In Syracuse, N.Y., authorities are investigating claims that former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine molested boys. One accuser filed suit Thursday against Mr. Fine in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, accusing the coach of assaulting him in a Pittsburgh hotel during a Syracuse road trip here in 2002.
At The Citadel, a venerable military college in South Carolina, authorities are investigating Louis ReVille, an accused child molester and former summer camp counselor. Mr. ReVille had been at the center of a complaint in 2007 from a teen who said Mr. ReVille watched porn and masturbated with boys at a Citadel camp. The school investigated the complaint on its own, without involving police, and took no action.
Mr. ReVille went on to molest at least nine boys while working as a coach, teacher and youth group leader at local schools, a church and a gym, according to police. The Citadel's president apologized last month, saying the school should have done more in 2007.
Those who study these kinds of offenders say they typically get away with abusing children for a long time because of a confluence of elements:
First, the molester is good at what he does because he's had years of practice, typically dating to his own adolescence.
Second, his victims -- usually boys -- are often compliant.
And third, the adults around him either aren't paying attention to the signals or don't want to believe the truth.
If the charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky are true, he is the prototypical acquaintance molester -- grooming vulnerable young male targets over time, building a rapport with boys on the cusp of their sexuality, making enough mistakes to raise suspicions but not enough to be prosecuted.
Mr. Lanning, a Virginia consultant who wrote "Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis" as an agent at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, says he doesn't want to comment directly on the Sandusky case because all he knows about it is what he's seen in the media.
But the behavior outlined in the Sandusky grand jury presentment, he says, "is consistent with the patterns I've seen with this type of offender. This is the most persistent and prolific type of molester that we know of."
Police and social service workers who specialize in these types of cases agree that the grand jury descriptions of Mr. Sandusky's behavior match the profile of this type of offender.
Lauren Pettler, intake coordinator at Uptown-based A Child's Place at Mercy who formerly treated sex offenders, says Mr. Sandusky fits the profile "to a T."
Those with experience in this field say the public's simplistic viewpoint about how molesters work helps them remain active.
Molesters exhibit a wide range of behaviors on what researchers call a continuum. At one end is the unsophisticated predator, the "situational" type offender who might grab a child from a playground -- a very rare event. It happens only about 150 times a year in this country. Such offenders may or may not be true pedophiles, but they tend to act on impulse when the opportunity is there.
That kind of incident is the nightmare of all parents and the crux of every "stranger danger" seminar, but the truth is it i wa s the least likely of sex offenses against a child.
At the other end of the spectrum is the much more common offender: The serial acquaintance molester, skilled at communication and manipulation, who seduces children over decades. He's the true pedophile who is sexually drawn to children, typically boys approaching adolescence, with dozens if not hundreds of victims and a stash of child pornography or erotica to fuel a rich fantasy life.
He's the nice soccer coach who takes the team to the out-of-state tournament, the friendly teacher who invites the kids to his house after school, the kindly uncle who puts on the magic shows.
Over and over, according to Mr. Lanning's analysis, "pedophiles are not recognized, investigated, charged, convicted or sent to prison simply because they are 'nice guys.' "
Every so often, they get tripped up by their own desires and end up caught. They make errors, Mr. Lanning says, because they are driven by sexual needs that override their intellect. One example from his analysis is a teacher who had a child-porn tape mailed to him at school. Instead of taking it home to watch in private, he played it on a school VCR because he couldn't wait. He forgot to flip a switch, however, and the tape ended up shown on numerous monitors around the school.
"This was a fantasy-driven, 'needy' mistake typical of preferential sex offenders," according to the behavioral analysis.
Because of such mistakes, molesters are always suspected somewhere along the line -- by someone.
"I've never seen a case where there is no suspicion for 40 years," Mr. Lanning says. "Every once in a while he'll make an error of judgment, but he's able to explain it away. Society doesn't understand this type of molestation. People don't want to believe it, and all kinds of people will support the guy. So what we've discovered is that some suspicion was almost always raised, but no one did anything."
But there is another element in these cases that helps the molester remain hidden: the compliant victim.
The kids may be getting gifts, trips and attention from a molester, but in some cases they may also like the sexual interaction.
Mr. Lanning says he is sometimes attacked at his seminars by those offended by any suggestion that a child can be a participant in sex acts with an adult. But in many instances victims are not physically forced into sex. They're still victims, he says, "but we need to understand that these kids are human beings."
Michael Seto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto and author of "Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children," says victims display a wide range of behaviors, just as offenders do.
"Sexual abuse is complex," he says. "Some victims comply because they are forced or threatened with force. Some comply because they are manipulated or tricked by the perpetrator. Some comply because they have positive feelings about the perpetrator, who may be one of the few adults to treat them with affection and caring. This in no way takes away the responsibility of the adult in this situation."
But victim compliance is tricky for prosecutors, police and a public that doesn't want to confront the idea that children are developing sexual creatures, especially as they approach adolescence.
"Juries don't want to believe that," says Susan Crowley, a retired Allegheny County sex crimes detective who worked with federal agents on the U.S. attorney's Crimes Against Children Task Force. "But sometimes the children absolutely go along with it."
Ms. Pettler has seen the same phenomenon.
"They'll say, 'I enjoyed it. It felt good,' " she says. "Some will have that experience."
As children age, hormones kick in at 12, 13, 14. Boys -- and most victims of this type of molester are boys -- are exploring their own sexuality and are easily aroused. The skilled molester uses that to his advantage, testing the waters to see how far he can go. Some victims will reject those advances, but others will not.
"Many of them come to like this guy," Mr. Lanning says.
That's one reason victims are often reluctant witnesses. For every boy who comes forward, there are maybe 10 who never will.
Another reason they don't tell -- or tell incomplete stories -- is shame, he says.
Victims may focus only on what the molester did to them and omit or lie about their roles because they don't want to be stigmatized as gay -- the ultimate insult in the world of many young teen boys.
Some tell because they have aged out of the molester's preferred range. They may miss the attention and gifts, and they also may be emotionally devastated at being pushed aside by the person who told them they were special or that he loved them.
Regardless of the scenario, the reluctance on the part of victims to disclose the whole story makes investigating cases difficult. It can also lead to inconsistencies in testimony that defense attorneys can use to undermine the victim's credibility.
"The problem is that kids tell you this politically correct version of what happened," Mr. Lanning says. "That is the dilemma that law enforcement is faced with. Police are in a difficult position. Some of these cases just take time to piece together. You need totality of evidence."
First Published December 11, 2011 12:00 am