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What We Must Do ... To Protect Our Children

The Difference Between "Sick" and "Evil"

By Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade, July 14, 2002

Also available in Russian (
And German:

Andrew Vachss, a PARADE Contributing Editor, is a lawyer whose only clients are children. For more than three decades, he has observed the devastating effects of child abuse firsthand. In light of recent headlines, we asked him to share his unique perspective on a subject of grave importance to us all.

The Difference Between 'Sick' and 'Evil' by Andrew Vachss

The shock waves caused by the recent exposures of so–called "pedophile priests" have reverberated throughout America. But beneath our anger and revulsion, a fundamental question pulsates: Are those who abuse their positions of trust to prey upon children—a category certainly not limited to those in religious orders—sick ... or are they evil?

We need the answer to that fundamental question. Because, without the truth, we cannot act. And until we act, nothing will change.

My job is protecting children. It has taken me from big cities to rural outposts, from ghettos to penthouses, and from courtrooms to genocidal battlefields. But whatever the venue, the truth remains constant: Some humans intentionally hurt children. They commit unspeakable acts—for their pleasure, their profit, or both.

Many people who hear of my cases against humans who rape, torture, and package children for sale or rent immediately respond with, "That's sick!" Crimes against children seem so grotesquely abnormal that the most obvious explanation is that the perpetrator must be mentally ill—helpless in the grip of a force beyond his or her control.

The crimes are so unspeakable, many believe that those who commit them must be mentally ill. But that very natural reaction is what prevents us from seeing the truth.

But that very natural reaction has, inadvertently, created a special category of "blameless predator." That confusion of "sick" with "sickening" is the single greatest barrier to our primary biological and ethical mandate: the protection of our children.

The difference between sick and evil cannot be dismissed with facile eye–of–the–beholder rhetoric. There are specific criteria we can employ to give us the answers in every case, every time.

Some of those answers are self–evident and beyond dispute: A mother who puts her baby in the oven because she hears voices commanding her to bake the devil out of the child's spirit is sick; and a mother who sells or rents her baby to child pornographers is evil. But most cases of child sexual abuse—especially those whose "nonviolent" perpetrators come from within the child's circle of trust—seem, on their surface, to be far more complex.

That complexity is an illusion. The truth is as simple as it is terrifying:

Sickness is a condition.

Evil is a behavior.

Evil is always a matter of choice. Evil is not thought; it is conduct. And that conduct is always volitional.

And just as evil is always a choice, sickness is always the absence of choice. Sickness happens. Evil is inflicted.

Until we perceive the difference clearly, we will continue to give aid and comfort to our most pernicious enemies. We, as a society, decide whether something is sick or evil. Either decision confers an obligation upon us. Sickness should be treated. Evil must be fought.

For some the question, "Does evil exist?" is philosophical. But for those who've been victimized, there is no question at all.

If a person has desires or fantasies about sexually exploiting children, that individual may be sick. (Indeed, if such desires are disturbing, as opposed to gratifying, to the individual, there may even be a "cure.") But if the individual chooses to act upon those feelings, that conduct is evil. People are not what they think; they are what they do.

Our society distrusts the term "evil." It has an almost biblical ring to it—something we believe in (or not), but never actually understand. We prefer scientific–sounding terms, such as "sociopath." But sociopathy is not a mental condition; it is a specific cluster of behaviors. The diagnosis is only made from actual criminal conduct.

No reputable psychiatrist claims to be able to cure a sociopath—or, for that matter, a predatory pedophile. Even the most optimistic professionals do not aim to change such a person's thoughts and feelings. What they hope is that the predator can learn self–control, leading to a change in behavior.

Such hopes ignore the inescapable fact that the overwhelming majority of those who prey upon children don't want to change their behavior—they want only to minimize the consequences of being caught at it.

In the animal kingdom, there is a food chain—predators and prey. But among humans, there is no such natural order. Among our species, predators select themselves for that role.

Psychology has given us many insights of great value. But it has also clouded our vision with euphemisms. To say a person suffers from the "disease" of pedophilia is to absolve the predator of responsibility for his behavior.

Imagine if an attorney, defending someone accused of committing a dozen holdups, told the jury his poor client was suffering from "armed–robberia." That jury would decide that the only crazy person in the courtroom was the lawyer.

When a perpetrator claims to be sick, the timing of that claim is critical to discovering the truth. Predatory pedophiles carefully insinuate themselves into positions of trust. They select their prey and approach cautiously. Gradually, sometimes over a period of years, they gain greater control over their victims. Eventually, they leave dozens of permanently damaged children in their wake.

But only when they are caught do predatory pedophiles declare themselves to be sick. And the higher the victim count, the sicker (and, therefore less responsible), they claim to be.

In too many cases, a veil of secrecy and protection then descends. The predator's own organization appoints itself judge and jury. The perpetrator is deemed sick, and sent off for in–house "treatment." The truth is never made public. And when some secret tribunal decides a cure has been achieved, the perpetrator's rights and privileges are restored, and he or she is given a new assignment.

In fact, such privileged predators actually are assisted. They enter new communities with the blessing of their own organization, their history and propensities kept secret. As a direct result, unsuspecting parents entrust their children to them. Inevitably, the predator eventually resumes his or her conduct and preys upon children again. And when that conduct comes to light, the claim of "sickness" re–emerges as well.

Too often, our society contorts itself to excuse such predators. We are so eager to call those who sexually abuse children "sick," so quick to understand their demons. Why? Because sickness not only offers the possibility of finding a cure but also assures us that the predator didn't really mean it. After all, it is human nature to try to understand inhuman conduct.

Conversely, the concept of evil terrifies us. The idea that some humans choose to prey upon our children is frightening, and their demonstrated skill at camouflage only heightens this fear.

For some, the question, "Does evil exist?" is philosophical. But for those who have confronted or been victimized by predatory pedophiles, there is no question at all. We are what we do.

We are not helpless. We do have the power to change the behavior of predatory pedophiles. We can close one pathway to evil.

Just as conduct is a choice, so is our present helplessness. We may be powerless to change the arrogance of those who believe they alone should have the power to decide whether predatory pedophiles are "sick," or when they are "cured." But, as with the perpetrators themselves, we do have the power to change their behavior.

In every state, laws designate certain professions that regularly come into contact with children—such as teachers, doctors, social workers, and day-care employees—as "mandated reporters." Such personnel are required to report reasonable suspicion of child abuse when it comes to their attention. Failure to do so is a crime.

Until now, we have exempted religious organizations from mandated–reporter laws. Recent events have proven the catastrophic consequences of this exemption. We must demand—now—that our legislators close this pathway to evil.

A predatory pedophile who is recycled into an unsuspecting community enters it cloaked with a protection no other sex offender enjoys. If members of religious orders were mandated reporters, we would not have to rely on their good-faith belief that a predator is cured. We could make our own informed decisions on this most vital issue.

Modifying the law in this way would not interfere with priest–penitent privileges: When child victims or their parents disclose abuse, they are not confessing, they are crying for help. Neither confidentiality nor religious freedom would in any way be compromised by mandatory reporting.

Changing the laws so that religious orders join the ranks of mandated reporters is the right thing to do. And the time is right now.

© 2002 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

What You Can Do

If this article makes you angry, act on that anger. Write your state legislators; tell them you think priests, rabbis, preachers, imams, elders ... all those working in religious orders ... should be "mandated reporters"—should be required by law to report reasonable suspicion of child abuse when it comes to their attention. The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, recently acknowledged that the law gave those in religious orders "options" they sometimes exercised in immoral and dangerous ways:

"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities because the law did not require this."
—Bishop Wilton Gregory
President, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

(From Bishop Gregory's opening address at the United States Conference of Bishops, June 13, 2002, in Dallas, TX; and as reported by CNN.)

Modifying the law in this way would not interfere with priest–penitent privileges: When child victims or their parents disclose abuse, they are not confessing, they are crying for help. Neither confidentiality nor religious freedom would in any way be compromised by mandatory reporting.


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

This is a blatant apologia for the church's practice of "recycling" pedophile priests.


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