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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Child molesting, pedophiles and grooming

A recent inquiry led me to think about how people perceive sex offenders. Based on what the media writes, one would have to conclude that the group is viewed very homogeneously  - all are pedophiles. However, there are real distinctions between a pedophile and a child molester. To the victim, the difference may not seem important, but to those of us who assess these individuals the differences are quite important - in terms of motivation, risk and treatment.

A pedophile is an individual who has a predominant or exclusive sexual attraction to children or minors. It is that population that gives them sexual stimulation and gratification.  While they can certainly be opportunistic in their offences (in other words take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself) they often engage in grooming behaviours. They will take time to get a trusting relationship to gain access to their victims.

This can be done from a position of being a valued family friend, a committed volunteer in a community or an organization or by having a position of trust in the community - a teacher, a coach, a religious figure, for example.

Anne-Marie McAlinden from Belfast University also notes an emerging trend in grooming: and emerging forms of grooming including 'street' or 'localised grooming' as typified by recent cases in England and Wales, 'self-grooming' by offenders, 'peer-to-peer grooming' among children and young people, and what I have termed 'institutional grooming' (McAlinden, 2006) where sex offenders may seek to exploit organisational features or relationships in order to minimise the perceptions of others about potential risk.

Either way, the goal of grooming is to accomplish certain essential goals. The first is to gain predictable access to the child. The second, and this is crucial, is to gain a trusting relationship with the child. In many cases, the groomer also seeks to ensure that those around the child, such as parents, will see the groomer as someone to be trusted. This is why they use things like their position with the child or the community as evidence of their trust worthiness. This helps them to be seen as above reproach. The idea being, who would not trust the child's favourite teacher who spends extra time ensuring that the child is successful at school? Who would not trust the coach who builds the child's talent?

The next crucial element is building a secrecy between the pedophile and the victim. The purpose is obvious but it is such a powerful element in allowing the pedophile to carry on. Sexual activity may come slowly with many enjoyable, but secret activities occurring beforehand.

Grooming can be done in person, but with the advent of internet technology, this is also a potent form of building relationships. Not often discussed is peer to peer grooming where one victim slowly brings another into the equation. The first victim, now fully under the influence of the pedophile, will draw in another friend.

There is another form of grooming which requires attention and reflects some cases which I have seen recently. It is the young adult male who is grooming for prostitution but is using pedophiliac behaviour to gain trust. These victims are brought in through a friend or through drug related street connections. The perpetrator will gain trust through access to drugs and gifts which result in the victim being indebted to the perpetrator. This then leads to demands for sex in exchange going on to sexual favours for friends and then to prostitution.

One  of the greatest powers that pedophiles have in grooming is the naiveté of the victims and those around them. They miss the grooming as grooming.

It is essential that professionals working with vulnerable children recognize that grooming is a conscious process. The groomer is quite aware of what they are doing and what their ultimate goal is. Pedophiles do not enter sexual behaviour by accident or as one off mistake.

Child molesters can be just as damaging although they have sexual attraction to adults. They are not exclusively interested in children. They may also be more prone to opportunity that makes itself available. In my clinical experience, this group is also more willing to place the blame on the child as having come on to them or having initiated the sexual activity. This is simply an effort to shift blame.

Once an offender has begun to victimize a child, the difference between a pedophile and molester may make little difference. Child molesters (as they have come to be known) tend to operate within family systems where they have also sustained "healthy" adult relationships. It is also vital that there be recognition that the child molester in the family system can have many victims.

Either way, sexual offending against children has long term significant damage to the victims. It impairs their sense of safety, seriously disturbs their understanding of relationship , hampers their ability for healthy peer to peer and adult intimate relationships and badly hampers their sense of self.

Most of the pedophiles I have assessed have had strong attractions to children but I have certainly met several who have also sustained long term adult relationships. A hypothetical example illustrates the point:

Joseph is a 58 year old man who has been married to Jenny for 32 years. They had 2 children who both grown up to be quite successful. They went to university and are working professionals. Joseph enjoyed a healthy and appropriate relationship with both children. Joseph, also a professional, has a successful career and is a leader in the community. He has 3 grandchildren, all of whom are quite close to him. The oldest, Sally, aged 6, recently mentioned to her mother that she and grandpa have very special private time. This concerned her mother who inquired further and learned that grandpa (the mother's father) had been touching Sally inappropriately, although there had been no sexual contact. The mother called the police and Joseph was charged. A careful investigation which coincided with a great deal of publicity in the community, yielded no suggestion that there were other victims.

Joseph may well be categorized as a child molester. He does not fit the profile of a pedophile, although to Sally there is little reason to see the difference. She was violated by her grandfather and that will be a long legacy in her life. Fortunately, her mother responded quickly and appropriately. I have seen many cases where the disclosing child was not believed which meant that the child remained in the clutches of the offender. The statistics clearly indicate that false allegations are few.

Professionals need to help families and communities see grooming behavior and focus on steps to stop the offender and protect the child.

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