Primer: How to recognize the serial child molester
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The best evidence suggests that pedophiles are born, not made.
Michael Seto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto and author of "Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children," estimates that between 1 and 3 percent of men are sexually attracted to children 12 and under.
"It's my estimate, my best guess," he says, based on clinical studies and surveys.
That isn't to say that every male who has such a predisposition acts on it. But Mr. Seto says the research indicates that the pedophile's brain is different from a normal adult's.
"The evidence doesn't support the idea that this is something people learn," he says. "But that doesn't mean there isn't choice in acting on the predisposition."
Studies also indicate that about a third of child sex offenders were themselves sexually abused. Many in that group, although not all, are among those predisposed to be attracted to children. For some, Mr. Seto says, it could be that sexual abuse as a child triggers the predisposition.
Regardless of the root causes, if 1 to 3 percent of men -- and well over 95 percent of molesters are men -- want to have sex with kids, that makes for a lot of possible molesters. The male population of the United States is roughly 150 million, so at the lower end of Mr. Seto's estimate, 1.5 million of them could be potential offenders.
What's a parent to do?
Most police and agents who investigate child sex crimes say the best defense is to trust your instincts and develop a good relationship with your kids so that they feel comfortable talking to you.
But there are some red flags to watch for in adult behavior, culled from studying offenders.
Experts warn that lists can be dangerous because almost everyone fits some of the categories. Not every man who lives with his parents or left a job without explanation is a child molester, obviously. Taken alone, none of these categories means anything. But the more of them a man fits, the experts say, the more suspicion is warranted:
• He shows excessive interest in children . Defining excessive is difficult. But if someone's interest in children seems too good to be true, maybe it is. Parents should watch for an adult who offers to baby-sit for free, buys children gifts or wants to take them on special outings alone. "Parents should beware of anyone who wants to be with their children more than they do," cautions "Child Molesters: A Behavorial Analysis," written by former FBI profiler Ken Lanning.
• His associates and friends are all young . Many pedophiles have few adult friends and tend to relate to children or young teens, hanging around with them wherever they are at the expense of spending time with people their own age.
• He shows specific gender and sex preferences. True pedophiles prefer children in a certain age range, so parents should watch for any adult who seems to focus attention on children of a specific age. Pedophiles attracted to toddlers are likely to molest both boys and girls. Those attracted to older children seem to prefer boys.
• He focuses on vulnerable children . Pedophiles frequently target children from dysfunctional families, lavishing them with attention they never received at home. That attention often cements a bond between victim and molester that is difficult to break and explains why many victims never come forward.
• He places himself in a position to access children . Sometimes the pedophile will marry a woman with children to get close to the kids, or he may adopt or take in foster children. He may seek a job, such as teacher, school-bus driver or camp counselor, to be near children. He may operate a business that attracts them. Gaining access is one of the most important indicators of a pedophile.
• He excludes adults . The pedophile will continually try to get children into situations where there are no other adults around, such as a weekend camping trip. If he can get the child to change clothes or spend the night with him, sex is almost certain. He will often use a ploy to get a child out of his clothes, such as spraying him with a hose or suggesting he take a shower after a workout.
• He has youth-oriented decorations or attractions in his house. He may have posters of music stars, for example, or video games and toys. He may collect toys or dolls, build models or perform magic tricks.
• He photographs children frequently. This doesn't have to be child porn. He may take lots of photos of children fully dressed at rock concerts, parks or sports contests.
• He shows children pornography. "Any adult who shows sexually explicit material to children of any age should be viewed with suspicion," warns "Child Molesters: A Behavorial Analysis." In addition, almost all pedophiles collect child porn or erotica.
• He lives alone or with his parents and doesn't date.
• If he is married , he has a sexless marriage.
• He changes jobs and moves frequently. When confronted, pedophiles are often asked to leave town by someone in authority, according to "Child Molesters." "They were 'caught,' but not arrested or convicted," writes Mr. Lanning. "Although getting better, this is still a common way to deal with the problem." As a result, pedophiles sometimes show a pattern of leaving good jobs with no explanation. Some also have a history of premature separation from the military for the same reason.
• He had limited social contact as a teen. The pedophile's sexual preference for children usually starts in early adolescence. As a result, he may have shown little interest in people his own age as a teenager and will often have been described as "quiet" or a "loner."
First Published December 11, 2011 12:00 am