96 Percent of Children Who Report Sexual Abuse Are Telling the Truth
First, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing a series of children over decades. Now, even closer to home, Daily News sports writer Bill Conlin—a local legend—is accused of molesting kids decades ago. But after all the coverage, are any of us better prepared to protect our own children or recognize suspicious behavior on the part of the adults in our midst?
In Philadelphia, the Joseph J. Peters Institute, a non-profit mental health agency focused on sexual abuse, tries to counsel sex offenders and educate the public to prevent further victims. I spoke to Michael Stinson, director of prevention services at the Peters Institute, to try and figure out what we should take away from these recent, tragic stories.
To what degree do pedophiles focus on any one gender?
Stinson: Let’s back up and talk about that word, “pedophile.” People seem to lump all child sex offenders into the pedophile category. But there are different pathologies involved, and it’s very complicated. For our purposes, in this interview, it’s not even very useful to try and define child sex offenders in these narrower categories. Generally, pedophiles will manipulate people and situations and environments to satisfy a sexual attraction they have toward children. And they will often order their life around gaining that access to a specific type of child. A child molester is more of what we might call an all-purpose offender—a situation arises and they decide to act on the impulse they feel in that moment. I don’t want to talk specifically about Jerry Sandusky or Bill Conlin. Because those stories aren’t fully told yet, and the allegations aren’t resolved.
There are sex offenders, child molesters, who do not necessarily focus on any particular gender or even age. And stranger danger is a smaller percentage of child sex-abuse cases. The majority of cases really are children who are close, in some way, to the person abusing them. When we’re talking about actual pedophiles, then we’re talking about people, often, who go seeking victims. And they can be very difficult to treat because to them their behavior is not strange. It’s part of the way they live, the way they behave, and peer pressure—other people thinking it’s wrong, society declaring it wrong—has less effect on them.
To answer your original question, when you look at adult offenders they usually offend against the opposite sex. But not always. And when it’s a matter of convenience and access, they might offend against either gender.
One of the things I found most striking about the Conlin story is that he cried when he was confronted about his behavior. I understand you can’t comment on Conlin, but in general, are child sex offenders ashamed of their own behavior? Or would tears generally be associated with fear about their own future—being found out, sent to prison, that sort of thing?
Stinson: Well, some offenders do realize their desires and their behaviors, if they are acting on them, are wrong. But without commenting on the Conlin allegation, in particular, tears can be very complicated: real remorse, as well as fear of being found out, fear of punishment, and shame over their desires and what they’ve done. All those things might be in the mix.
Does anyone ever call the institute and say ‘I’m having these desires and I don’t want to act on them. I need help.’
Stinson: Yes. We do get those calls here. And of course we try to help. If offenders are in treatment, they are far less likely to commit the crime again. Particularly in teenagers and young people who have started treatment, the recidivism rate is somewhere around four percent to eight percent. When we over-criminalize these offenses in young people by being overly punitive, with something like Megan’s Law now subjecting teen-age offenders to registration, being labeled in this way causes a whole other host of problems and may be counterproductive. It encourages them not to seek help.
It’s often said that most child abusers were sexually abused themselves, as children. True?
Stinson: No. People who are abused as children, somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of them will either become abusive themselves or carry a re-victimization pattern forward—meaning they will always see themselves as a victim in every situation. But certainly much less than half of sex offenders who abuse children were themselves abused as children.
The last thing we want to do is start a witch hunt. But are there any behaviors, in adults, that should make us ask questions? What might we see that should, rightfully, make us suspicious of an adult in our lives?
Stinson: I think there are things we should be a lot more vigilant of and more deliberate in asking questions about, when an adult’s behavior just doesn’t look right. Sometimes, it’s right to go with your gut feeling. I agree, we don’t want to have witch hunts, and there really are people out there who take a sincere interest in the well-being of children. But if someone is showing overt interest in a particular child or teenager, it is not inappropriate to ask why. What you should really look out for are people who insist on alone time with a child—deliberate alone time, behind closed doors, no one can ask about it, that kind of thing. Let’s say someone singles out a specific child and they accompany them everywhere, often without any other adults or children. That seems to be a deliberate act, a deliberate attempt to create this sort of alone time.
Also, we should be cautious of someone who encourages silence from children or enlists them in secret-keeping. Children do keep secrets—with other children. Not with 45-year-old men or women. Another might be an adult referring to a child as their “friend.” Relationships between adults and children aren’t normally “friend” relationships. So if you have an adult expressing these sorts of sentiments in a way that seems inappropriate, that’s something you should pay attention to.
I really felt shook up about the allegations against Conlin because, it’s naïve, but you’d like to think these people reveal themselves in some way, even if it’s only in retrospect. I’d like to think of these people as somehow dysfunctional in some obvious way. But, I read Bill Conlin for many years. I watched him on The Sports Reporters on ESPN, and he seemed such a funny, social, bright guy—and a great writer, the quintessential sports writer. And it’s just stunning …
Stinson: Yeah, well, it’s really not like that. I mean, I agree—we all want to think of a sex offender as scraggly haired and one-toothed. But they really can be anybody. And they can be hugely successful and high-functioning in other areas of their life. And that’s why it’s important we learn about these things, however uncomfortable the topic might make us, and talk about it so that people understand. We have public and private selves. And people don’t talk about their sexual impulses over a beer and they certainly don’t talk about them at work. So that “work self” is a construction. The person you are privately, at home, away from work—that’s who we really are.
What behaviors should people look out for, from their children, to suggest they may be withholding information about being abused?
Stinson: What we like to get across to people is they need to be engaged with their children, all the time, so they can recognize when their behavior is off somehow. Some indicators might be they don’t want to go to sleep. Or they don’t want to stay asleep. Or they start having nightmares. Maybe they shut down at odd times. They are there with you, engaged with you and whatever’s happening, and then suddenly they just go blank and shut down. It could be because something has just happened, in the environment, that has reminded them of the behaviors that take place immediately before the abuse.
As for sleeping problems … the process of getting ready for bed can be a sort of ritual that goes on around the abuse. The adult offender often does the same things. They put them in bed, they turn the lights down, they read them a story, and then maybe they say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to lay here a while until you fall asleep’—and then the abuse occurs. That can spark a lot of changes in the sleep patterns of an abused child. Maybe they have flashbacks when they go to sleep, or nightmares.
Other signs can be regressive behavior. They stopped wetting the bed two years ago, and now they have started again. Or they start defecating again, in their clothes. Also, oversexualized behavior—doing things that are ahead of where they should be, developmentally.
What is the proper first response we give a child if they tell us they’ve been abused? By that I really mean, the first response—what do we say to the child right there in the moment?
Stinson: The first response is to take a deep breath. Then support their decision to disclose. Say “It’s good you’re telling me this,” and stay calm, and stay comforting. Include yourself in the situation and the solution in the language you use. And what I mean is, say things like, ‘We will get through this,’ and ‘You’re not alone.’ ‘We’re in this together.’ Don’t lead them or provide extra words or concepts. Let them tell the story in their own language and don’t re-label anything. This part can be a little hard because sometimes the way children tell a story like this, it can sound fantastical. In young children, their brains aren’t developed yet, and they don’t know how to compartmentalize the story in the way adults would so. The beginning, middle and end may be told out of order or they connect things in odd ways.
Maybe they’d say: ‘I was put in the dark room, no one was around, and they were screaming at me, and then someone was touching me.’ That sounds satanic, and really odd. But the dark room may turn out to be their bedroom, and it was bedtime, and before the lights were turned out the abuser or someone else read them a story, and they screamed when they acted out what they were reading to the child, and then the abuse occurred. So, you have to let them tell the story in their own words and worry about sorting it out later. It needs to be authentic to the child.
Something else to keep in mind is that children do not generally spill out the whole story—it may take several hours or even days for them to share everything. What they do is, they tell you a little bit, and then they stop. The reason is because they’re waiting to see how you react: Are they going to get in trouble for sharing this story? Do you believe them? Once they see you believe them and they won’t get in trouble they feel safe enough to share a little bit more. What people need to know is that, according to the literature on the subject, if a child discloses abuse, about 96 percent of the time some sort of abuse did occur. That’s the figure—around 96 percent.