Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Treating Pedophiles: Reasons for Cautious Optimism

Photo: Keith Brofsky/Getty Images

“Virtuous Pedophiles” sounds like a contradiction in terms – but it is the title of a website. This website does not attempt to justify or excuse child molestation. The men who founded it, both of whom use pseudonyms for obvious reasons, are sexually attracted to children. Yet both assert that they have never sexually touched a child. They recognize that acting on their attraction would inevitably cause harm. Their website is dedicated to informing both the public at large and other people who are attracted to children that it is possible to have this attraction yet refrain from actually abusing children.

Webmasters “Nick Devin” and “Ethan Edwards” believe pedophiles can resist their urges. They also acknowledge that it is vital that pedophiles avoid tempting situations such as ever being alone with a child to whom they feel sexually attracted.

They write, “The goals of our organization are to reduce the stigma attached to pedophilia by letting people know that a substantial number of pedophiles do not molest children, and to provide peer support and information about available resources to help virtuous pedophiles remain law-abiding, and lead happy, productive lives.”

Devin and Edwards hope to “reduce the stigma attached to pedophilia” – the condition of being attracted to children – but not to the act of child molesting that they readily acknowledge is a terrible crime. They urge anyone who suspects a child is being molested to contact police. They believe pedophiles who argue that children can give meaningful consent to sex with adults are making dangerous rationalizations. Devin and Edwards strongly oppose the efforts by some pedophiles to legalize adult-child sex: ”We believe that sexual activity between adults and children is a very bad idea. Because some pedophiles have a selfish interest in having child-adult sexual relationships accepted, we think that their arguments should be greeted skeptically.”

They write that most pedophiles “first become aware of their condition in their early teens. . . . Believing the popular wisdom that we are evil and will inevitably abuse children, many of us experience depression, self-loathing and sometimes become suicidal.”

Devin and Edwards persuasively argue that society has an interest in helping pedophiles realize that they can live without hurting anyone. They believe this will assist those burdened with this sexual desire who want to live good lives and help protect children from sexual abuse.

In a Salon article about Virtuous Pedophiles, author Tracy Clark-Flory quotes James Cantor, a clinical psychologist who is also editor-in-chief of the journal Sexual Abuse, as stating, “We do not know . . . how many pedophiles there are who never commit any offenses and never come to our attention.”

The Salon article also indicates that Cantor believes Virtuous Pedophiles and similar groups could help prevent child molesting. Cantor remarks, “It is hard to imagine someone who would feel more isolated that someone who recognizes that he is sexually interested in children. In my experience, it is in those phases of greatest desperation that a pedophile is most likely to do something desperate, risking harm to a child. Mutual support among people who share the same daily battle with their own desires can go a long way in addressing the extreme isolation, serving as a potential pressure valve, adding [a] layer of protection, helping pedophiles to keep their behaviors under control.”

There is no known way to help pedophiles lose their attraction to children. One authority believes there can be no cure because there is no disease. A Newsweek article quotes Los Angeles, California sex-crimes prosecutor Jacqueline Connor as stating that pedophilia “is nothing more than a preference, like homosexuality. Unfortunately, the [sexual activity] is never consensual.”

Amy Sue Seitz. Family photo.

Some people fear that ineffective treatments free child molesters to molest again. Perhaps the most notorious case of this was the 1978 rape and torture-murder of 2-year-old Amy Sue Seitz. Her murderer, Theodore Frank, had a two decades long history of child molestation. He had been treated for his pedophilia at the Atascadero State Hospital. Newsweek reports that he had been “showcased before other inmates as an example of what therapy could accomplish.” He turned out to be an example of its limitations as he committed the Seitz murder only weeks after leaving Atascadero.

Amy Sue Seitz’s grandmother, Patti Linebaugh, founded Society’s League Against Molestation (SLAM) to lobby for long prison sentences for convicted child molesters.

Imprisonment separates child molesters from their prey but that separation is usually temporary. Newsweek quotes Dr. Gene G. Abel, who treats sex offenders and is currently Medical Director of the Behavioral Medicine Institute of Atlanta, as observing that the harassment a child molester typically receives from fellow inmates means that the incarcerated offender “focuses more and more on his fantasies and he comes out the way he came in.”

Are those who actually commit child molesting (as opposed to pedophiles who have never sexually abused) doomed to endlessly repeat this heinous offensive unless incarcerated?

Studies of recidivism clearly show that this is not the case. In an article entitled “Recidivism of Sex Offenders” published in the journal of the Center for Sex Offender Management, author Tim Bynum examined a multiplicity of studies on re-offending by convicted sex offenders. Bynum acknowledges that sex crimes are under-reported which can skew studies of recidivism. However, all studies indicate that many convicted child molesters never molest again.

Bynum cites a 1995 study as showing that child molesters had a lower rate of recidivism than rapists while a 1997 study found that over a 25-year period, child molesters had a higher recidivism rate than rapists with 52% of the former re-offending vs. 39% of the latter. Bynum points to a 1990 review of studies that found the recidivism rate for child molesters varied from 10% to 40%. As bad as any re-offense is for this horrible crime, it should be noted that no study Bynum mentions found that 100% of child molesters re-offended.

What effect does treatment have on recidivism rates for child molesters? Bynum notes, “Sex offender treatment typically consists of three principal approaches: the cognitive-behavioral approach, which emphasizes changing patterns of thinking that are related to sexual offending and changing deviant patterns of arousal; the psycho-educational approach, which stresses increasing the offender’s concern for the victim and recognition of responsibility for their offense; and the pharmacological approach, which is based upon the use of medication to reduce sexual arousal.”

Bynum elaborates that treatment programs often combine these approaches. Studies of recidivism rates comparing treated and untreated child molesters have yielded mixed results. He discusses a 1988 study comparing child molesters in a cognitive-behavioral treatment program to those receiving no treatment. The treated group had an 18% recidivism rate in the four-year period covered while the untreated group had a 43% recidivism rate. However, Bynum cites that a 1991 found no difference in recidivism between child molesters receiving behavioral treatment and those untreated. Bynum states that most studies he examined found that treatment lowered recidivism by statistically significant but not dramatic rates.

Dr. Abel believes child molesters can be successfully treated. “I’ve worked with child molesters since 1969,” he states. “I’ve seen about 8,000 child molesters. We can’t do long-term studies such as those that follow people for 20 years but we generally do follow-ups of about six years. Relapse into child molesting is about 4% for the follow-ups I’ve done on child molesters who have been in treatment.”

The Behavioral Medicine Institute of Atlanta considers the cognitive-behavioral approach the most appropriate treatment for this group. “When you look at the world literature in studies of which treatments have been effective for child molesters, that’s the only one that stands up over time,” he explains.

Does Dr. Abel believe that there are people who are strongly attracted to children but do not actually molest them? “I attempted to answer that question when I had a grant for a study about 15 years ago,” he says. “We evaluated 561 people in that project who said they were child molesters. We also talked to a group that said they were sexually attracted to children but had not molested them.” Unfortunately, interviews with the latter group disclosed that they were rationalizing their conduct. “When we actually talked to them they said they had only touched but not penetrated or that they had penetrated but not used force,” Dr. Abel recalls. “The ones we talked to had all molested even though they first claimed they had not.”

However, Dr. Abel does not conclude that people such as those described on the Virtuous Pedophiles website do not exist. “We did not find them in that study,” he comments. “That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. After all, many people have sexual interests that they don’t act on. I believe it is possible that there are pedophiles who have never molested.”

Child molesting is a horrible crime. However, fantasies are not crimes and people who are attracted to children are not compelled to abuse them. Those who have sexually abused children in the past do not necessarily continue to do so. Treatment is not a magic wand but appears to help. For this most despised category of crime, there is much reason to be cautious – yet hopeful.

Bibliography on following page. 

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