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
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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