Julian Sher
Investigative journalist, author and trainer
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     Cover Story - MacLean's Magazine, April 23, 2007

The secret network of child predators

Pedophilia has exponentially worsened through communities of the like-minded

BRIAN BETHUNE | April 23, 2007 |

In Britain, London police once arrested a photographer with 130,000 pornographic images of children. That was in 1874, a striking reminder from investigative journalist Julian Sher in his One Child at a Time (Random House) that there have always been pedophiles among us. Sher's riveting account of online predators and their police pursuers also cites a famous survey of 200 male undergraduates in California in which one in five admitted to some kind of sexual attraction to small children, while almost one in 10 reported having sexual fantasies about them. Seven per cent said they might even have sex with a child if they could avoid detection and punishment. In Canada, Dr. John Bradford of the Royal Ottawa Hospital's Sexual Behaviours Clinic estimates that two to seven per cent of the population could have pedophiliac tendencies.

Pedophiles are thus scattered across society: well off or poor, tortured with guilt or enthusiastic participants, involved in functioning sexual relationships with other adults or complete loners. Their prevalence means that up to 20 per cent of adults were molested as children in some manner. And not by strangers: up to 90 per cent of victims suffer at the hands of relatives or others they know well. For all we don't know about pedophilia, though, there is one evermore manifest fact. Just as it has proved for millions of ordinary people, the Internet has become for pedophiles the greatest empowering tool ever created. Which means, according to Sher, that what has always been part of the human condition is now growing exponentially worse, "both in magnitude and in severity."

The Internet "doesn't create pedophilia," Sher notes, "but it certainly does fuel it." In the past, pedophiles were isolated, repressed by the revulsion most people felt toward them and limited in their opportunities. "But now offender after offender will tell you about their eureka moment," says Sher, "when they first went online and saw not only the images -- the live images -- available, but immersed themselves in the acceptance, the assurance they were among like-minded people."

The Net has vastly increased the money-making possibilities of child pornography, and hence the supply on offer. In the late 1990s, Thomas and Janice Reedy, a Dallas couple who never earned enough to own a home, were parking his and hers Mercedes in their mansion driveway. Their money came from Landslide, an Internet portal that offered credit-card customers access to 5,000 porn sites. Business limped along at first, Thomas Reedy later confessed, until he realized where the real money was. In the first month of offering access to a site called Child Rape, the Reedys garnered 1,277 registrations, and over the next two years Landslide brought in more than $10 million.

More insidiously, the Internet doesn't just make access easier, it facilitates supply: the Washington-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children now finds that as much as 10 per cent of their seized material comes from older children who have taken compromising pictures of themselves. More often than not these self-made images were the result of what NCMEC calls "online enticement" -- children manipulated by a "friend" met on the Web who coaxed them into snapping pictures of their own bodies. In a U.S. Justice Department survey, one in seven young Web surfers reported encountering unwanted sexual material or online harassment.

Worst of all, adds Sher, "the Internet drags in those who probably wouldn't have done what they did otherwise." Canadians will need no further reminder of that than the case of Michael Briere. In his confession to the rape and murder of 10-year-old Holly Jones, Briere told the court he had fantasized about molesting a girl for "maybe a year or two." He kept alive what he called his "dark secret" on the Web: "The more I saw it, the more I longed for it in my heart." On the night of May 12, 2003, "I viewed some material beforehand. I just got excited. I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to have sex with a child. I just came out of my place and she was just there." Forty minutes later Holly was dead.

Briere's tipping point goes to the heart of the first and, to Sher, most important myth he wants to dispel with his book. "It's not just pictures," Sher says emphatically. "They're crime-scene photos. But you still hear from people that 'Better perverts look at dirty pictures than actually molest a child.' Looking doesn't deter doing; study after study shows that 35 to 40 per cent of those arrested for pornography possession are also hands-on abusers." Another common misconception, according to Sher, is that many of the victims are already sexual beings -- underaged only by law. In fact, fully 39 per cent of known victims, according to NCMEC, are only 5 or younger; 19 per cent are under 3.

We still don't know much about the men -- and most are men, although a tenth are women -- responsible for this spiral of abuse, especially what we really want to know: the combination of brain chemistry, genetics and personal experience that makes them what they are. The nature vs. nurture argument, as so often, rages inconclusively around them. Much points to a hard-wired nature: Sher cites British psychologist Joe Sullivan, who found that 80 per cent of offenders knew by age 18 that they were sexually attracted to children. On the other hand, 33 per cent of offenders were abused themselves as children, a rate statistically higher than the general population -- fodder for the nurture side. Whatever the cause, the condition is incurable. "They know it doesn't go away," Sullivan says. "Once you've got it, you've got it."

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