Sandusky Will Die in Prison, and We Talked to a Pedophilia Expert

By Vinnie Rotondaro


Photo via Huffington Post

A judge in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania sentenced Jerry Sandusky to 30 to 60 years behind bars today. "The crime is not only what you did to their bodies,” Judge John Cleland said of the ten boys who the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football coach sexually molested, “but to their psyches and their souls, and the assault to the wellbeing of the larger community in which we all live.”

Truly, the Sandusky case has exposed just how fixated, morally disgusted, and yet befuddled we are by pedophilia as a society. Horace Mann, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, now Sandusky… it keeps coming up. But what’s behind it? For cultural and political reasons, pedophilia remains a poorly understood phenomenon. Few have decided to study it in earnest.

Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic out of Johns Hopkins University, is one of them.  

Berlin has counseled pedophilic men for over 30 years. In that time, he has come to view pedophilia as a kind of innate sexual orientation, not unlike homosexuality or heterosexuality, but fundamentally different in that it must never be acted upon. I met with Berlin in his Baltimore office, where we talked about the problem of men who love boys, and how society doesn’t get it.

VICE: Do we do ourselves a disservice when we call people like Jerry Sandusky monsters? Are they monsters, or just sick? Should they be taken to a mental hospital, or to prison?
Fred Berlin: I’d look at this as being similar to alcoholism. We have to have a criminal justice component; we have to have laws against drunk driving. But nobody would think we could solve the problems associated with alcoholism simply by putting every drunk driver on a registry or handing out stiffer sentences. We need research. We need a criminal justice and a public health approach. Having said this, I don’t think society gets it. I think society has the sense that we can legislate or punish this problem away. And to the extent that we’re not concentrating on the public health side of it—that we’re not helping people deal with these urges before they act—I believe as a physician that we’re doing ourselves a tremendous disservice, not only to the children who are abused, but to the men who have these conditions.

You consider pedophilia to be a sexual orientation. Could you explain that?
What we know is that we don’t decide who it is that we’re going to be attracted to. When we were little kids we didn’t sit down and say, “Look, we’ve got choices.” We discover who we’re attracted to, and people who discover they’re attracted to prepubescent children have that attraction through no fault of their own. If you didn’t make a value judgment—and I think we should—but if you’re just looking at it in terms of the fact that people differ from one another sexually, it’s just a difference. Now having said that, I think that we do have a right and should be making value judgments. As a psychiatrist, I don’t want my profession or the government involved in the bedrooms of consenting adults, but I do believe that we have an obligation as a society and as a medical profession to protect children.

So where does that leave the people with pedophilia?
I feel sad for the people with pedophilia because what we’re saying to them is that, unlike the rest of us, you can’t express your sexual attractions. But we need to help these people understand why they can’t. Children are not miniature adults. They don’t vote, they can’t buy alcohol, they don’t drive cars, and they don’t have the degree of maturation that would enable them to be in a situation where they can meaningfully consent or not consent.

What kind of feelings do they have for children?
There’s a tremendous spectrum. There are people who are attracted to children who are not simply lusting for them. They have feelings of affection, even of romance. I mean, intellectually they know they shouldn’t be feeling this way about a child, but the fact of the matter is that they do. And then there are others who may just be wanting sex for sex’s sake.

What are they like as people?
It’s important to understand that knowing something about a person’s sexual attractions tells you nothing about their personality. You don’t know if they’re kind or caring, conscientious or not conscientious. I think most people when we use the term pedophilia assume that the person must be characterologically flawed. That they don’t have any redeeming qualities. That’s absolutely not true. They may be fundamentally decent people. The problem is that most of society has a very hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that someone who experiences these attractions or gives into them could be a human being deserving of assistance. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why we don’t reach out and try to help these people before they’ve acted, because we don’t think they’re deserving.

That’s a raw deal. They’re born with urges they can’t act on, and we vilify them whether they act on them or not. So what sense of responsibility should they have?
I think it would go something like this: It’s not my fault I have pedophilia, it is my responsibility to do something about it. But doing something about it may be getting access to proper and needed psychiatric assistance, and I think it would be much easier to hold people accountable if we as a society were saying, “If you’re having these problems, please come in before you act, we’re interested in helping you.” Right now, I think we actually frighten people to the point where we drive the problem underground. And it’s harder to hold people accountable when the help they needed is unavailable or when there are even impediments. For example, many have heard about mandatory reporting laws and are worried that if they come in for help they will be sent to prison.

And what are the laws?
We’ve had mandatory reporting laws since the mid-1960s stating that if you see a child who’s been abused you should report it, and I completely agree with that. But there was a time here in Maryland, when if a person who had acted on an urge came in and wanted help, we weren’t mandated to report him. The law changed back in 1988 or 1989. Before then we had about 70 people come to my clinic, and we helped them. If they were teachers we got them to leave that position. We think we did a lot to help safeguard the community. We still get calls from people saying they want help, but now we have to tell them that if we suspect they’ve committed an act we’ll report them. So the irony from my point of view is that a law that is supposed to be protecting children is deterring undetected people who want help from coming forward and getting the very assistance that might make the community safer. Now, I can sit here and discuss this with you at length, but often the way it works in political sound bites is, “If you’re for children you want mandatory reporting,” and if you’re not you’re not concerned enough about children. Politically speaking, it’s a very hard point to get across.

When the Catholic abuse scandals resurfaced a few years ago some pointed to the culture of celibacy and the priesthood. Does culture, or subculture, play a role in the phenomenon of pedophilia? [Berlin provided professional information and advice to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops during their sexual abuse crisis.]
Culture affects so much, but there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that celibacy was a root cause or even contributed to the abuse. Now, since priests have taken a vow of celibacy it’s not only seen as an abuse of trust, it’s seen as an abuse of sacred trust. We look at it even more aghast than we would in other circumstances. But the idea that the culture of celibacy caused it? Absolutely not. I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of priests, including those in positions of authority, were not human beings who had a disregard for the wellbeing of children. I think there is a subculture of people who have these attractions and who, because they have them, aren’t able to look objectively at the ramifications. Just the same way alcoholics often fail to see how serious their problems are until they get help. But that’s different from saying that somehow the Church as an institution wasn’t concerned about the wellbeing of children. Now, with twenty-twenty hindsight the Church has come to appreciate that there are things they could and should have done differently. But that’s with the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight. It’s easy to look back at something that happened 30 years ago and say, “That should have been so obvious.” But 30 years ago we were looking at things very differently. I mean, if you go back to the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s—and some of the Catholic abuse goes back a long, long way—you hardly find any articles about pedophilia. Most of the public had almost no familiarity with the term. It’s hard to imagine that now.

But there are people who seem to turn a blind eye towards pedophilia. What psychological elements come into play when someone witnesses a pedophilic act?
We tend to assume that there’s only one motivation, particularly when it comes to institutions—that they’re thinking of protecting themselves. I find it difficult to imagine that a large group of people, people in institutions—people who work hard and tend to have values that we respect—would get together and with clear vision say, “We’re going to put protecting our brand ahead of kids.” I think that if we stop and think about it, that is really a stretch. But we don’t, and these are very complicated issues. When events are very rare we’re not used to knowing how to deal with them. If I remember right in the Penn State case, the assistant coast (Mike McQueary) was at first just stunned. He didn’t know what to do. It was such an unexpected and rare thing, that he had to process it. It took time.

There is also the fact that we tend to care most about people we know, and that’s often more of a presence to us than children who are abstract and at a distance. So yes, there are psychological dynamics at play.

I was having a discussion with a close friend of mine about this. I said, “You know, if I saw you do something like this I’m actually not sure what I would do.”
I remember breaking up street fights as a kid. Most people would just stand around, look, and it would be easy to criticize them. I remember a guy had a crow bar. A friend of mine went to stop him from hitting somebody. Most everyone else was standing around. It was only after the two of us went in that they finally started to react. But I didn’t fault them. It was really, really scary. You were afraid you were going to get hurt. You weren’t sure for a second what you were seeing. You read about it in the paper, someone assaulted someone and people stood by. But that doesn’t capture the emotion of it.There’s all this emotion. And in a situation where someone is accused of child abuse, it’s so foreign. Most people have no experience with it. The idea that the average person didn’t do what they should have done because they don’t give a damn about the children, that’s what I find to be an incredible stretch. I think it’s most often other reasons, and not often to protect an image. I think people are confused. I think people don’t understand the situation.

What do we need in order to really treat this problem? What’s the right fix?
We need public education and awareness. We need to get away from oversimplifying and turning the world into just the good guys and the bad guys. We need to understand that we’re all on the same side. That working with people with pedophilia to help them be in full control is just the opposite end of the same coin. If we really want prevention, we not only need to work with kids who have already been abused but we need to work on these other issues as well. You always hear these public service announcements: “You have a drug problem, you have an alcohol problem, you have depression, you have anorexia—please come in and get help.” When have you ever heard, “If you’re worried about losing control sexually, please, get up the courage, come in, and talk with us before you hurt someone, before you ruin your own life”? We don’t have any of that. That’s exactly what we need.

Also by Vinnie Rotondaro:

The Kids Are All Libertarian

Biking John Wilkes Booth's Escape Route

The Intuitionist: A Citrusy Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

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