Penn State Scandal Reminds Us It’s Hard to ID Sex Offenders

Forget the creepy guys in trench coats—the Penn State scandal reminds us that it’s harder than you might imagine to identify a child molester in your community, says a former FBI profiler. Plus, Jacob Bernstein & Jessica Bennett on Penn State's veil of secrecy.

11.12.11 5:00 AM ET

In the midst of the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal, many people are asking the questions: How could anyone stand by and do nothing? Why didn’t anyone notice or do something sooner?

The answers to those questions are not as cut and dried as one would think. Many people say they believe that they would have suspected Jerry Sandusky—that they would have been able to tell, just by looking at him or talking to him, that something “wasn’t right.” I doubt that this is the case. Sandusky is alleged to have sexually assaulted young boys in public showers. This is brazen, high-risk behavior, the behavior of someone who is thinking, “I’m not going to get caught. I’ve been getting away with this for years.”

If the accusations are true and Sandusky is a sex offender, there’s reason to believe that this behavior may indeed have gone on for years. Pedophilia is a disorder that tends to develop and manifest during the teenage years, and the incidents are alleged to have taken place late in Sandusky’s life. Were there years of his refining his victim access selection and predatory behavior? Could there be many more victims? Were there other witnesses? Again, assuming the charges are founded, it’s quite likely.

How could so many people turn a blind eye? The answer to that question isn’t as black and white as it might seem initially. Among the reasons people suspect a sex offender is at work, but still do nothing are:

•    Icon intimidation. Often the perpetrator is seen as too important or powerful to accuse. People who might suspect wrongdoing remain quiet out of fear or because they have a vested interest in staying quiet. Those who do come forward often risk public ridicule or the loss of their jobs. One only needs to watch the recent protests by thousands of students at Penn State to understand what these witnesses were up against. They were accusing a man who was revered—someone who was considered a legend.

•    Victim selection. We live in a culture that erroneously values the welfare of some children (young girls from middle- to upper-class homes) over others (poor, young, at-risk boys). Sexual predators know this, and they tend to prey on victims who are vulnerable in multiple ways. This vulnerability can keep the children and the people around them from reporting the crime because the predator appears to care about them, and is even seen as changing their lives for the better.

•    Silent victims. How can a child stand up to someone who is viewed as an icon? Who will believe the child? The child might be full of fear, guilt, or self-loathing over what is happening to him, but also ambivalent because the offender—in other ways—is being so nice to him.

•    Grooming. Sexual predators can be very sophisticated in grooming both their victims and the people around them. This grooming can include providing the victims with attention, gifts, and experiences they never would otherwise have (such as a trip to a bowl game). Predators groom parents, too. And they groom people who might suspect wrongdoing, creating a sophisticated illusion that allows them to continually get away with their crimes.

•    Doubts. Many people doubt themselves when they see evidence of what could be sexual molestation. They assume that "it's not what I think it is" or "there must be some other explanation." They think that, “Someone like this would never molest children!” Most people do not know how to look for or interpret the signs that someone might be a child molester. If they do confront someone, they don’t know how to read the answers they hear. When questioned about their behavior, a sexual predator might say, “How could you say I am hurting these children? I love these children. I spent my whole life helping these kids and improving their lives. Look at how much better off they are because of me.” Suddenly the accuser has doubts. Did he really see what he thought he saw? Is this person a sexual predator or a Good Samaritan? Is he someone to be reviled or is he really a hero? The witness becomes insecure and doubtful. The crime then goes unreported.

•    Stereotypes. Our flawed beliefs and instincts about what a sexual predator is often cause us to suspect people who are not predators, and to not suspect the very people who are. Sexual predators can be very skilled at hiding their secret lives. These are not the stereotypically creepy men in trench coats. They can be very normal-looking, fit into society, and not look any different from you or me. They can be found in professions and activities that give them access to children. They will seek out jobs as bus drivers, nannies, coaches, and camp counselors to be around children, and they often will excel in these positions. Sometimes, rather than suspecting them of harming children, parents and others will do the opposite: thank them for going above and beyond the call of duty for taking care of their children and for being so dedicated to their jobs.

In the end, the best things parents and others can do to protect children go against their instincts. Don’t automatically trust or revere people who seem normal, people of high status, and people who spend their time helping children. Do a thorough assessment of anyone who wants to be in close contact with your children. Ask questions. Be wary of anyone who takes an unusual interest in your child, no matter how well-intentioned that person might seem. Be especially wary of people who want to spend time with your children when you are not around. And give your children the attention, care, and recognition they crave so they are less likely to seek it from someone who could hurt them.