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How We Can Fight Child Abuse

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade Magazine, Aug. 20, 1989

Also available in Russian (

What can be done about sexual abuse of children? In newspapers, radio, television and film, the question has been raised increasingly across America in recent years. To find an answer, we asked Andrew Vachss, one of this country's leading authorities on the subject, for his views. What follows is his outspoken and forthright response, including a number of practical suggestions.

Recently I had a conversation with a man I greatly respect, a man who once risked his life to protect this country and now devotes that life to improving it. We talked about child sexual abuse.

PARADE August 20, 1989The conversation ended when he asked me a blunt question: What can be done about it?

A pedophile is an individual with intense, recurrent sexually arousing fantasies and urges involving prepubescent children. Such feelings are "sick." To act on such feelings, to make them reality, is evil. The predatory pedophile is as dangerous as cancer. He works as quietly, and his presence becomes known only by the horrendous damage he leaves. He (or she) may be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, a scout leader, a police officer, an athletic coach, a religious counselor. And he is protected not only by our ignorance of his presence, but also by our unwillingness to confront the truth.

I have encountered many predatory pedophiles. Some boast of their crimes, claiming that only a rigid, puritanical society prevents children from "freedom of sexual expression." Some claim they are "addicts," unable to stop themselves from preying on children. But the only pedophiles I have ever heard express remorse for their acts are those facing a sentencing court or a parole board.

Predatory pedophiles are clever, calculating criminals. They stalk their victims with great care, working themselves into positions of trust. They study children as carefully as any psychologist, and their camouflage is our unwillingness to see the shark in our swimming pool.

The consequences of their depravity can be found in our psychiatric wards, our prisons and our graveyards: The runaway who turns to child prostitution, the violent juvenile criminal, the teenage suicide...all too many members of this army of victims can be traced to a predatory pedophile's original attack.

The ultimate protection of such criminals, the near–immunity they enjoy, is the perception that any individual who sexually molests a child must be "sick." That trump card is only played when they are caught and prosecuted. That rarely happens. And the "rehabilitation" of predatory pedophiles is fast becoming a growth industry.

What can be done? The answer is simple: raise the stakes.

The only pedophiles I have ever heard express remorse for their acts are those facing a sentencing court or a parole board.

The essence of criminal rehabilitation is remorse. Even if it is true that predatory pedophiles are "sick," that does not mean they can be treated. But, sick or not, they are certainly contagious.

Sexual molestation of children is a volitional act. It is a matter of choice.

Kiddie pornography is not a "first amendment" issue. It is a picture of a crime.

Incest is not "family dysfunction." It is rape–by–extortion.

Most child molesters are not strangers to their victims. We are far more endangered by those who have our trust than by the relatively rare kidnapper.

Pedophiles do not regret their actions, they glory in them. They regret only the possibility of consequences to themselves, not the certainty of damage to their victims.

Pedophiles are not "homosexuals." We would not call a man who molested a five–year–old girl a "heterosexual." Whatever the sex of the adult and the child, the proper description is simple: the adult is the perpetrator, the child is the victim.

The new pedophile defense is "addiction." They cannot help themselves. If true, such individuals will remain dangerous, and must be treated accordingly.

If we had an amnesty, allowed predatory pedophiles to turn themselves in, promised immunity from prosecution upon an agreement that they volunteer for treatment, I believe we would have no candidates.

We debate "solutions" to the narcotics problem. The solutions come down to two: interdict or legalize. Neither is possible with predatory pedophiles. Therefore, if we cannot eliminate evil, we must increase its consequences to perpetrators.

This is how we raise the stakes:

  • Significant incarceration for offenders. Child molesters are among the least likely criminals to be prosecuted and, when prosecuted, are first in line to receive "alternative" sentencing options such as probation with psychiatric treatment. We have no problem with treatment programs for addicts. But we also have no problem with criminal sentences for those addicts who commit crimes to "support" their addiction. Nor with life sentences for those who traffic in narcotics. Is child sexual abuse a lesser threat to the youth of this country?

  • If we are truly concerned about crime in America, if we truly understand that today's victim is tomorrow's criminal, we must act.
  • The crime of "incest" should be eliminated, and replaced with a flat law against sexual intercourse with minors, regardless of the biological relationship between perpetrator and victim. An offender should not enjoy a lesser exposure to prison simply because he grew his own victim.
  • Enhanced penalties for child sexual offenses involving more than one offense against any victim. Second offenses must result in mandatory incarceration.
  • Increased penalties for "networking" of any kind, including: child sex rings, trafficking in children, distribution of kiddie pornography (and the use of telephone and computer lines to promote or distribute the same).
  • National registration of convicted child molesters, with agencies and institutions that work with children required to check each potential employee.
  • Intensive probation supervision for released child molesters, with specialists assigned to each.
  • Increased use of federal resources for interstate crimes involving child sex abuse, including use of the RICO racketeering statutes for prosecution of child sex abuse rings.
  • Training of specialized law enforcement units, both investigative and prosecutorial. Increased support for those already in existence.
  • Development of new weapons and adaptation of existing ones to this vital task. For example, a regulation bringing child prostitution and pornography within the scope of the child labor laws. This would require only the passage of a regulation, not legislation, and would give federal authorities immediate access to the child exploitation industry. If child prostitution and pornography are not hazardous occupations, what is?
  • Let all "rehabilitative" experiments with predatory pedophiles continue. But let them continue behind bars.

Some predatory pedophiles will be deterred, and children will be spared. Some will not, and the enhanced penalties will keep them away from their new victims for much longer periods of time. Either way, we benefit.

The trend today is toward accountability. It seems the ultimate irony that while some are demanding children be tried as adults on ground of "accountability," there is still no groundswell of support for the proposition that predatory pedophiles are responsible for their crimes. If we are truly concerned about crime in America, if we truly understand that today's victim is tomorrow's criminal, we must act.

We must raise the stakes in this most evil of games. The predatory pedophile has upped the ante to include not only our country's children, but its future as well. It's time to call, or fold.

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

For more information on child sexual abuse, write to the Children's Safety Project,
Dept. P., PO Box 30201, New York, NY, 10011.

Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.


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