Pedophilia -- What Parents Should Know

By Pia K. Hansen

Millions of Americans fit the profile of a pedophile. They come in all ages and from all social groups, but most are men. Some abuse girls and some abuse boys. Just as most rape victims know their perpetrator, most victims of child molestation or sexual abuse know the abuser. And don't be too quick to point the finger at coaches, scout leaders and priests: statistics show that as many as half of all sexual abusers are the parents of the victims; furthermore, an additional 18 percent of the abuse is committed by family relatives.

Today it's widely believed that pedophiles -- much like alcoholics -- can't be cured. Decades ago, treatment programs involving small electrical shocks administered at the time of the "unwanted" thoughts were employed, but with very little effect. Pedophiles can be helped to live with and control their urges through group therapy, counseling and some drugs, but mostly they face a lifelong struggle.

"Community safety is the focus now, not making the assumption that somehow pedophiles can be healed or fixed," says Melissa Cilley, director of advocacy and education at the SAFeT response center, which is run by Lutheran Social Services. "They will be here always; they are part of the community."

Cilley says monitoring of known pedophiles is paramount to keeping them from reoffending.

"Offenders need to be in appropriate settings where they can be monitored and watched," she says. "Here in Spokane, we have a huge number of pedophiles [and other sex offenders] who live in the streets. They are simply homeless. That makes it hard to keep track of them."

In most instances, a child is carefully watched and "groomed" by the pedophile before any actual sexual contact is made. Grooming is a sometimes slow yet very deliberate process employed by the pedophile to gain the trust of the child.

"Often pedophiles spend a lot of time gaining the trust of the parents or parent," says Cilley. "A single mother with young children may encounter a person helping out, babysitting, being the perfect friend when she really needs it. But any person who spends an unusual amount of time with the children and connects very well with children, often preferring children's company to that of adults -- any person like that is a person to watch out for."

Cilley adds that parents often feel horrible that they have to be so suspicious -- there really are very wonderful people out there who are just trying to help, she says -- but it's necessary to be very careful about who has access to your children and for how long.

"You have got to listen to your gut instinct," says Cilley. "The number one thing to do is to listen to your children. Children often report numerous times before someone listens to them. And children will try to explain what happened -- that it was just an accident the babysitter touched them in that way. And many parents don't want to believe that this can have happened, because they have spent so much time getting to know this person, they trust the person -- they just don't want to hear it."

If a child comes forward and tells about inappropriate touching or about feeling uncomfortable around a certain adult, it's important that parents make it clear that they believe what the child is saying.

"Even if you as a parent can't quite cope with it right that moment, always say you believe the child," says Cilley. "Then, later, when the kids are in bed or whatever, you can call our crisis hotline and we'll help you figure out what to do. And of course, from then on, you have to be there when the child is with the person in question."

Parents' feelings of guilt often prevent them from seeking help, and that, combined with a child who feels responsible for what happened -- "I shouldn't have been in the car alone with him" -- is one of the main reasons secrets can be kept for so long.

Children may also fear their parents' retaliation if they tell about the sex abuse or molestation, especially if the pedophile is someone their parents know and like.

"Pedophiles are professionals. They spend a lot of time perfecting their grooming skills, becoming as good at this as possible," says Cilley. "People are afraid to seek help because they are afraid of how it's going to reflect on them. But here's the thing: A pedophile is going to find a child no matter if it's your child or not. The fault belongs fully to the offender, not with the child or the parent. That is the really hard part to understand."

For help, the SAFeT 24-hour crisis hotline is 624-RAPE (7273).

During business hours, call 747-8224 or visit the office at 7 S. Howard St., Suite 200.

Publication date: 1/22/04

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