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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sandusky - A socially skilled child molester?

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a recent article looking at the apparent ability of now accused child sexual abuser Jerry Sandusky to ingratiate himself into lives of children.  As the paper notes:

Long before his arrest this month on 40 charges related to child sex abuse, Sandusky successfully navigated the system's various background checks to become the adoptive father of five sons and a daughter, a foster parent, a host for a half-dozen Fresh Air Fund children from New York City and a congressional honoree as an "Angel in Adoption."
As the article points, no system is perfect but Sandusky appears to have managed to keep a profile as the helpful and supportive person who was there for many children. His behaviour should cause professionals to revisit the work of Carla van Dam, PhD and her 2006 book The Socially Skilled Child Molester. In it, she speaks of the ways in which people like Sandusky become trusted and, even more important, how they continue to get away with it. She notes that information remains buried in one of three ways:

1. Nothing is ever reported;
2. The information is reported but ignored, discounted, discredited and then discounted; or
3. The information is actively suppressed to protect the organization's reputation and the good name of the alleged offender.

The third will seem all too familiar in cases of church abuse, the recent allegations involving the Boy Scouts in Canada and the United States as well as the allegations surrounding Sandusky.

Van Dam speaks of 6 levels that organizations can fall into. They seem helpful as a way to approach organizations and help them to be better prepared to think about the possibility that an abuser could become part of their world. Individuals, organizations and communities can be at these places: 

1. total secrecy - stuck at the level where there is total denial that this could happen and they are naive to the practices of groomers. These are dangerous places for children as groomers may find entry much easier. Even when there are suggestions that something might be going on, it is easier for the groomer to deny, claim it was all a misunderstanding, there is a conspiracy against them, it was all innocent play, it was just poor judgment, there were medical concerns that were being addressed, it was part of parenting, helping out with hygiene or bathing, it was all just an accident or even that in some way the child was the offender or why would that child be believed because the child has problems.

2. Shock and disbelief that leaves the organization immobilized leaving them willing to accept alternative explanations because they don't want to believe that this could happen.

3. Street knowledge in which there is acceptance that molesters exist but not amongst anyone they would know.

4. Complaints are made and believed but they are seen as isolated and can be managed internally.

5. Allegations are taken to the police because there is recognition that even known and well liked people can be involved in molestation of children.

6. These are vigilant groups who recognize the need to be open and talk about what might be happening.

It is never to say that we want to create panic or extreme paranoia - only honest and open awareness. Since no system is perfect, communication, openness and a willingness to accept the possibility of sexual abuse will help to limit what a perpetrator can accomplish.


van Dam, C. (2006). The socially skilled child molseter: Differentiating the guilty from the falsely accused. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Tonight there is the Bernie Fine case from Syracuse that is reported in the New York Times which tends to illustrate some of these points.

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