Two Horrors: Sexual Predators and False Accusations of Sexual Predators

Hi Readers!  Here’s part of a letter yzfnsdskih
to the editor
in this week’s New Yorker that I found wonderful. It concerns an article from a few weeks back by Malcolm Gladwell — a long, upsetting piece about Jerry Sandusky and some other child molestors. Gladwell detailed the ways some predators appear to be so kind, caring and even goofy that they worm their way into our hearts and homes. We more than trust them with our kids — we love to have them around.

The article was disturbing for two reasons. First of all, it’s awful to think how devious some evildoers can be.  Second, it’s also awful when society starts feeling it should be suspicious of any kindly, kid-friendly adults. Why are they so nice? Why do they REALLY like being around children?

Not only can automatic distrust poison relationships and lead to the kind of over-the-top security precautions described in the post a few below this one, it can also lead to actual injustice, as the letter writer, Gary Chandler, eloquently points out:

…while the sexual abuse of a child is monstrous and unpardonable, falsely accusing or prosecuting someone for such a crime is scarcely less horrific, particularly in a state like Colorado, where the penalty can be life in prison. The majority of cases are far more difficult to decipher, often involving a single incident, with no witnesses or physical evidence, and reliant on the imperfect memory and acuity of a child. Gladwell describes the process and effectiveness of “grooming”—the means used by child molesters to establish themselves in communities they plan to exploit. Doesn’t it stand to reason that children can also be influenced by panicked parents and aggressive or poorly trained investigators? There is ample research showing the fallibility of child outcry and testimony, and the suggestiveness of forensic interviews, anatomical drawings, and other techniques. …. Allegations of sexual abuse are, among other things, a profound test of our dedication to the principle of the presumption of innocence.

That’s a gutsy thing to point out in the wake of the Sandusky trial. Kudos, Mr. Chandler. – L.


29 Responses to Two Horrors: Sexual Predators and False Accusations of Sexual Predators

  1. Yan Seiner October 9, 2012 at 2:11 am #

    On the one hand we bemoan the abandonment of our elders by the young. On the other hand we teach our kids to distrust anyone older than them who shows interest in them.

    Go figure.

  2. Gina October 9, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    My 26 year old son is a preschool teacher. He is absolutely above reproach and adores the kids. He has changed many diapers and helped many children use the potty. Both of those tasks include touching penises and vaginas. I live in fear that he will be falsely accused by a parent who misinterprets a child’s words.

  3. RobynHeud October 9, 2012 at 4:51 am #

    I was thinking about this yesterday when reading an article about a missing girl. There’s a custody dispute between her parents and she was nabbed on her way to school, on a day when her mom couldn’t be reached right away, and so whoever took her had more than an eight hour head start. When I hear all of that, my first thought is her dad took her. But when I read the comments, everyone is making statements about sexual predators and child molesters. I think it’s sad that this mentality is so pervasive in our culture that even when there is motive, and possibly opportunity, for an estranged parent to have taken her (and the odds are in favor of this too), most people still think stranger kidnapping.

  4. John October 9, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    I remember reading an article somewhere about a 5-year-old girl who somehow relayed to her father that the 79-year-old man next door molested her. So her father, in a fit of rage, went next door and bludgeoned the old man to death. Subsequent tests on the girl did not confirm that she was sexually violated. Perhaps she was but the tests did not pick anything up; therefore, nothing was ever confirmed. So for murdering this old man, the father was sentenced to 5 years in prison. This article astutely pointed out that had this guy bludgeoned this old man to death in a road rage incident, he most likely would have been given a life sentence, or maybe even the death penalty. But I guess murdering an old man because he MIGHT have molested his daughter is a reasonable enough excuse in American society today.

  5. BL October 9, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Sandusky wasn’t just a “loveable goofball”. He was someone who had the halo effect of institutional authority – assistant coach at a major university and founder of The Second Mile, an organization (allegedly) devoted to helping children.

    Which is why we need to have second thoughts about the notion that the answer is to create more authorities with more power – like the security enforcers (allegedly) protecting children with ever-restrictive measures. Sounds like a job opportunity for an undetected pedophile.

    One of the things which puzzled me about the Sandusky case was that none of the kids shouted the house down earlier. Many decades ago, when I was in grade school, a newly-hired junior-high teacher propositioned some boys and (I think) may have exposed himself to them. It was reported immediately and he was gone immediately. He got no further. Why didn’t Sandusky’s victims, at least one of them, do the same? Are they so drugged with Ritalin these days they can’t talk? So afraid to offend “someone in authority”? You’d think “at-risk” children (the kind the Second Mile took in) would be the defiant type. I guess not.

  6. Erin October 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    I have always wondered about the different standard we hold sexual predators to….they have to register after they’ve served their time. No other criminal has to (at least, I don’t know of another category). They can’t live near a school….all sorts of other restrictions.

    Not only is there no “presumption of innocence” in these cases, but there’s no “they’ve served their time” either.

    I’m not saying we should change their restrictions, but as Mr. Chandler intimated….shouldn’t we at least have the conversation?

  7. BL October 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    @Erin “different standard we hold sexual predators ”

    It’s not exactly the same as registration, but there are all sorts of things ex-felons in general can’t do. The recent Stossel link in Lenore’s twitter-feed recounted an ex-felon who picked up a stray bullet he found on a road and was sent back to prison for “possessing ammunition” which he wasn’t allowed to do as an ex-felon.

  8. Captain America October 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    My wife’s took a seminar with the Girl Scouts about this topic, and she came away with the lesson that pedophilia is actually all about control and power. . . more a matter of having pleasure through the lies, acting and evasion, constructing a false reality, than about physical pleasure.

    This may well be true. I don’t know. With this issue, the more science we have, the better. . . and the less politicization, the better.

    Part of me does think some of our present concern is like a witch hunt, and overkill. (This part of me also disagrees greatly with all the “security” concerns taking place across America, the assertion of power over Other Peoples Lives being done by various minor authorities; such a power grab feels good to the officials).

  9. Warren October 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    I have no problem with registering sex offenders in theory. It is how it is put into practice that bothers me.
    The broad range of offenses that land people on these lists can ruin people’s lives, for nothing more than a vengeful parent or a momentary lapse in judgement.
    The boyfriend who has relations with his willing girlfriend, at state imposed inappropriate ages. The drunk that gooses a cocktail waitress, though wrong, is not a reason to ruin, his life. And there are others, including wrongful accusations.
    Yes if the person has been convicted of those crimes that do in fact traumatize and ruin children, or women or men, they should be monitored by registering.

    In my opinion we have over civilized ourselves, in the course of creating a society that is ruled by law and order.
    For example the drunk with wondering hands can lead to convictions for sexual assualt, and if someone or a bouncer acted to defend the lady, charges of assault. Twenty years ago, the drunk would have been forced to apologize, and tossed out on his butt, and probably told not to come back, unless he can behave. A second occurance would lead to a more physical removal, and a ban from the establishment. Problem solved. I am not minimalizing the act, I am just asserting that we do not have to overreact to it.
    As for the randy teens, but for the grace of god, alot of others would be on the sex offenders registery.
    We can register, background check, monitor and whatever all we want, it will never ever remove the threat, or risk to children. That said, we cannot let the fear rule our lives, our childrens lives or how we conduct ourselves.
    Give our kids the mental and emotional tools, support and guidance that they need to carry on and move into adulthood prepared. Alot of what they need can be taught, but just as much can only come from doing, and gaining the confidence and independance they need.

  10. jb October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    The Gladwell piece also has in interesting section on how child predators select their victims (using the example of a real-life child molesting teacher). Pretty much it boils down to, if a kid’s parents are involved in their lives (so will know if the kid is being kept after school, etc), and the kid has been taught to think for him or herself and question authority (so he or she won’t just go along with an odd request by a teacher)–I.E., if the kid is raised free-range–the child molester will actively avoid molesting them.

    That gets to an important and often-overlooked point: Child molesters, although evil/sick/etc, are not completely irrational. They want to pick an easy target that won’t get them caught. If a kid is not an easy target, the molesters will leave them alone. Even if they could molest them, it won’t be worth the risk. To keep your kids safe, you don’t need to make it impossible to harm them, you just need to make it a bad idea.

  11. Warren October 9, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Along the lines of victim targeting…….
    Kids that grow up being sheltered and guarded all their lives, have a tendancy to become adults who are shy, or meek, or fearful, or loners, and these are personality traits that can be picked up on rather easily. These are also traits that those searching for a victim look for. So these kids are safe as kids, only to become adults that exhibit the exact behaviour to make them targets.

  12. Lis Lubar October 9, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    To speak to the fact of false accusations – – I know of a lovely gentle man who wound up committing suicide after his reputation and finances were ruined by an accusation of improper behavior — for having a little girl sit on his lap … not even anything more specific or re-occurring. Hopefully the majority will wake up soon to the false fears and focus on the real dangers. Thanks Lenore for spreading the word!

  13. C.J. October 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    False accusations are dangerous for many reasons. Ruining an innocent persons life is obvious. I also think if false accusations become a frequent event at some point people will stop taking all accusations seriously.

  14. Neil M October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Let’s not forget the McMartin trial, which ate up seven years, $14 million, and produced not a single conviction. As I recall, the children involved were so heavily coached and confused that several of them identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the assailants. (I have it on good authority that Chuck Norris was NOT employed at the McMartin day care facility.)

    Vigilance is fine, so long as we know exactly what we truly need to be afraid of.

  15. Andrew October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Western society and American society in particular, love to look for monsters in the closet. 1692, Salem, Ma., People who wanted other peoples property were willing to believe anything a group of children were willing to say to get what they wanted. Anyone who dared to question the truthfulness or the motives of the accusers were then accused. Boston 1981?, McMartin preschool, now we know that there was pressure on the children to say what the parents and investigators wanted them to say. The same thing happened in Jordan,Mn. a few years later.
    Now recently a lot of accusers are coming forward and recanting their stories, but are told that they aren’t allowed to recant. It seems that we can’t seem to learn from our mistakes.
    I wonder if 300 years from now if our descendants will be talking about what superstitious savages we were and wondering what we were thinking.

  16. Claudia October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    It does make me wonder how *do* we tell grooming from an adult who simply likes to be friendly and supportive to kids? Historically, I am sure that far more adults have displayed ‘grooming’ behaviour with entirely the best of motives than those intending to abuse a child.

    Sadly one suspects the ‘answer’ has to be that adults be expected to maintain a professional distance from any child not related to them and never go beyond the call of duty to prevent any ‘misunderstandings’.

  17. Kathleen October 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    It is so great to hear this serious topic discussed sensibly, without the hysteria and wild “opinions” instead of facts. I hope this kind of intelligence spreads.

  18. Donna October 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    @Erin – The kids that Sandusky is convicted of molesting were poor kids without much parenting. The things we argue about here – classes, sports, homeschooling – are nonissues for them because as they are not even in the realm of possibility. People here have made comments that make it clear that there is really no societal understanding of how bereft of anything remotely positive the lives of kids like Sandusky’s victims are.

    So Sandusky came in and offered them something positive. Victim #4 (the actual first known victim) is quoted as saying at the sentencing that something good was finally happening to him and he didn’t want it to end. I’m guessing that the showers seemed like a small price to pay at the time for doing things that he never in a million years thought he would get to do – go to college football games, travel with the team to places he’d never see otherwise, attend practices, get treated like a king.

    Kids in that environment usually have very little self esteem. They don’t feel that they are worth anything. They are treated as less by their schools, by their classmates and by society their entire lives. Their welfare recipient mothers thought of as nothing more than parasites on society. Many probably felt that there was no point in telling. Nobody would believe them over the almighty Paterno, Happy Valley and Penn State.

    Some may have wanted to tell but had no responsible adult to tell. Some may have told, but the people they told didn’t believe them. Some may have told but their mothers had no faith that they’d be listened to and did nothing.

    The fact is that you have very powerful people on one side and people who are viewed as worthless by much of society on the other.

  19. oncefallendotcom October 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    My view of this can be summed up in a single word.


    McMartin was one of the two biggest cases in what was known as the SRAs (Satanic Ritual Abuse). It is possible for people to have FALSE memories, influenced by overzealous prosecutors and paranoid parental units.

    Whenever we hear the media hoopla, remember that one word and what it entails.

    There are a number of cases where what was seen in the public eye as an “open and shut” case was not so much once it went to trial.

    OJ Simpson. The ‘Duke Lacrosse’ case. Even the Casey Anthony trial. They were all convicted in the court of public opinion yet they were found NOT GUILTY. We can’t accept it because we are a bloodthirsty and unforgiving society.

    And somewhere along the way, people became “experts” and “legal analysts” without taking any training or classes. Yet these are the same people who need disclaimers so people allergic to peanuts won’t eat a jar of peanut butter.

  20. BL October 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    @Erin M “Vigilance is fine, so long as we know exactly what we truly need to be afraid of”

    If anyone asks “so if you’re against all these security measures, what would you put in their place?”, that’s the answer. Individual, reasonable vigilance.

  21. maggie October 10, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    I was watching an episode of the Waltons today. In it, Olivia Walton (Mama) was taking an art class. Her younger art teacher took a liking to her, and at one point grabbed her and kissed her. And then….she left. He later and came and apologized. She went back to art class. No police were called, no sexual assault charges were filed, no names put on public registries. In short, no lives were ruined for what was, in the 1930s or 1970s,essentially a misplaced kiss. As opposed to the 2000s, where that misplaced kiss could easily turn into a life altering kiss.
    (I realize this post is mainly about the sexual predators of children, but I am trying to make a point about how far into this witch hunt we’ve traveled. And my first thought after The Kiss happened was not, “oh no, her husband will get mad” or, “will she slap him?” but, “if that had happened on one of today’s TV shows, his butt would be toast!”

  22. Annie October 10, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    Re Captain America comment..What the GirlScouts really should be doing is teaching about the real possibility that anyone in thier organization could become a falsely accused. Law enforcement, Girl Scouts, Child help agencies, etc…They are all part of the propaganda to spread this hysteria. Most, not all of the human beings on the registries across this nation are INNOCENT. Our corrupt justice system has found a way to convince the majority of people that we have a problem, when in fact we don’t have a problem. This hysteria and hatred is driving millions of people insane. My husband was falsely accused 30 years ago, and in 2010 he was told that he must now register as a sex offender till he dies, and then he will still be listed on it even after he dies. Do any of you know what that feels like. We cannot do or go pretty much anywhere anymore. We basically stay home and hide. Our children have no playmates or family to visit. We spend every holiday at home with just us here, and it will always be like this. We will never be able to enjoy grandchildren or family vacations, or trips to the zoo or to an amusement park. The list goes on and on. Our lives are ruined by a false allegation, no evidence what so ever, and that is pretty much the norm in hundreds of thousands of these cases.
    We need to stand up and fight this government. It is corrupt to the bone. Most people do not realize the magnitude until they are in the belly of the beast. These charges will hit you like a blind bull coming out of left field. The only way to protect oneself 100% is to get away from society completely.

  23. Annie October 10, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    No proof necessary. If the defendant goes to trial, the jury will almost always find them guilty, and he is looking at multiple life sentences. Take a plea and get probations and a lifetime ride on the registry, plus 10 years of demeaning sex offender therapy, AND YOUR INNOCENT. This scenario is happening to thousands of people every single day in this country. Thousands of people are being added to the registries daily. No evidence necessary. All prosecutors need is a good liar and of course all of their Sane nurses and counselors saying what they want them to say so a conviction is in the bag. It is like suffocatong in a plastic bag and everyone is watching you die, and no one helps you out.

  24. Captain America October 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    I agree with the notion that there IS a whole industry of pseudo-professionals all selling the Fear business.

    That’s why facts are so important.

    That’s why the damnmedia should be reciting the facts instead of whipping up hysteria.

  25. Gina October 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    I live in CO, and just want to clarify a few things. There wasn’t a custody dispute between Jessica Ridgeway’s parents. They evidently got on fine. The father was looked at briefly, but was excluded from consideration as a suspect very quickly. And considering the parent/s as possible suspects is the opposite of creating fear of strangers, since in cases like these, the person responsible is so often someone the child knows.

    As far as the Sandusky case, the quote here makes me really uneasy. In a world where so much of the prevailing attitude is that women routinely make up allegations of rape out of vindictiveness or “buyer’s remorse”, do we really need to extend a version of this idea to children who are abused? I’ve lived in a town where a male preschool teacher was caught with photographs of his students without clothing, etc, and the thing is, no one suspected him. No one panicked about a male teacher, everyone trusted him implicitly, and it came as a total chock to the parents and community alike. In Sandusky’s case, there was also no panic. Children were left alone with him and people felt grateful for his care and attention. There was no witch hunt here. This really happened. Children were really assaulted and adults looked the other way. Again, the opposite of Pedophile Panic. The quote is a straw man, and an unbecoming one for this site.

  26. Andrew October 11, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    “I’ve lived in a town where a male preschool teacher was caught with photographs of his students without clothing, etc, and the thing is, no one suspected him. No one panicked about a male teacher, everyone trusted him implicitly, and it came as a total chock to the parents and community alike. In Sandusky’s case, there was also no panic. Children were left alone with him and people felt grateful for his care and attention. There was no witch hunt here. This really happened. Children were really assaulted and adults looked the other way. Again, the opposite of Pedophile Panic. The quote is a straw man, and an unbecoming one for this site.”

    Yes, children do get abused, and the guilty should be punished. However, in the last few years, anyone accused of sexual abuse is assumed guilty and must prove his/her innocence. I’ve heard of many investigators not pursuing and investigation beyond interviewing the accuser and are offended that the accused has the nerve to take his case to trial. Their attitude is “you’ve been accused now just plead guilty or accept our plea bargain so we don’t have to take any more time with this.”
    I’m not saying this happens all the time but it happens enough that one should be suspicious when it pops up all of the sudden. In this day and age where everything is archived and available to be viewed, a false accusation can destroy a life in an instant. A person being arrested is on page one, the story that he is not guilty is on page 11.
    Oh, and in Jerry Sandusky’s case, am I the only one who has noticed that 3 of the accusers went to lawyers to see about monetary compensation before going to the police and just how quickly the trial was over with? Just wondering.

  27. JLR October 19, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    On the other hand, I have a dear friend whose husband sexually molested their 3 year old daughter (at the time). And now, 5 1/2 years later, that little girl is REQUIRED by the family court to have WEEKLY visitation with her father, where he “grooms” her – in front of a court-appointed family therapist – by offering presents, or $20 if she talks to him instead of sitting on the floor behind the couch for the 50-minute visit.

    She has been incredibly clear about what he did to her, and her story hasn’t changed once in 5 1/2 years; however, neither she nor her MOTHER have ever been allowed to speak in court to ask that this insanity stop.

    Sometimes the nightmare doesn’t end, even when it is reported.

  28. Amberoni October 21, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    I know this wasn’t in the scope of the original post, but the lawsuit against the Boy Scouts has brought up a whole new horde of problems with accusations. I have a very good friend who worked with the Boy Scouts 30 years ago, then, over a disagreement with administration over how merit badges were being awarded, he gave up his membership and started working with Kiwanis instead. He found out yesterday, through his local newspaper, that HE had been accused of improper activities, had been investigated by the Boy Scouts, police, and his employer (school district) and found completely innocent but he had never been told of ANY of this. He literally found out yesterday, when the entire rest of his community found out. He’s resigned his volunteer activities (because there was contact with kids and he didn’t want the organization to have any problems). He’s a retired man, living with his dog, no family in the area, and now he is looked at in the community as a child molester.

  29. Christine August 9, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    This is an intense topic for me. I was molested by my father for years as a prepubescent kid. He is currently on year 12 of a 31 year sentence (but will get out in about 4 more years).
    Pedophiles are master manipulators. They will find the one kid who for any number of reasons is easy prey (chaotic home life, single parent home, desiring any attention, or they are by nature shy, people pleasers). Then they methodically gain the trust of the child and family. Often they desensitize the child to sexual situations. My dad talked about 6 yr olds getting pregnant, sibling sex play, ect. If the child does not run and tell, the perp takes it another step; tickling and grazing a breast, viewing pornography…again, if the child still hasn’t told (and been heard) by another adult then it goes on. Sometimes a child’s fears are used against him/her. I was told my brother and I would go to different foster homes and never see each other again. It’s insidious, manipulation of power and control for a pedophile.
    Sexual predators are a reality. I know, I have one I call Dad. We, as parents need to do several things to help our kids avoid being a target. 1) teach proper terminology for body parts. If a kid calls her vulva a cookie and then tells her teacher someone touches her cookie, how are we to know what is really going on! 2) teach children that they have ownership over their body and no one is allowed to touch them without permission. 3) simply carry an open dialogue and actively listen to your child. Sexual health cannot start at 9! Teach, in age appropriate ways, about sex differences, reproduction, and they will value their bodies and what it can do. 4) give them the freedom to tell ANY trusted adult if they have been touched in a way that doesn’t feel right. Teach them to keep telling other adults until they are heard. Too many kids tell an adult and are ignored so they continue to be abused.
    I have two daughters. One I can confidently say will tell the whole world if she is ever touched inappropriately. The other is a target. I hate to say it, but at least I know I need to reinforce to her more than her sister that her body belongs to her and not be so shy she suffers abuse. It’s my reality.
    All that being said, I do not shelter them. They are Free Range kiddos who are learning they can navigate their world confidently. Safety and Free Range has often been said to go hand in hand. Knowledge is power. Know it’s probably not the registered offender but someone close to you who may violate your kids and equip them with the tools necessary to avoid or tell until heard and believed.
    Balancing giving freedom and independence with the knowledge (not terror) that bad things sometimes do happen and how best to try to avoid them is key.