Back in 2000, my former elementary school in South East London was shaken when allegations emerged that the headmaster, who insisted children call him "Sir," had been caught in bed with the head-boy during school camp. They weren't doing anything more than lying there, but it was disquieting enough for the teacher who found them to raise the alarm. Others had observed a few questionable moments between the boy and the headmaster before, including a secret lunch and, more disturbingly, an instance where he was found under the headmaster's desk during a meeting.
Despite these incidents, many of the school's parents stuck by the headmaster, insisting he was an eccentric man who just liked to spoil his favorite pupil. The subsequent police investigation found no hard evidence of anything truly amiss, but they had enough to revoke his teaching license. According to police and psychologists, the path the headmaster was going down was consistent with child grooming, and his actions were likely to escalate.
I was ten years old when this happened, and it's stuck with me to this day. The headmaster seemed like a nice guy, I can clearly remember holding his hand when I was six years old and walking around the playground as he made jokes and I laughed. This was an innocent memory, but as I've grown older, and as awareness of sexual abuse has become more prevalent throughout society, my perceptions of the headmaster have shifted. It now feels possible I never knew the guy at all.
When reading about cases of sexual abuse it can be hard to see pedophiles as anything other than evil. However, everything I've read about the psychological profile explains the behavior is a product of brain chemistry, which I suppose comes as no surprise. But it does raise the question of culpability.
Dr. James Cantor is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. He has spent over ten years researching the brains of convicted pedophiles and is one of the world's leading experts on the psychology of sexual abuse. One of the more interesting findings came about in the early 2000s when Dr. Cantor and his team began to find patterns in pedophile physiology. For example, pedophiles are three times more likely to be left handed.
"In the mainstream population somewhere between eight and ten percent are non-right handed, but it was well over 30 percent with pedophiles," explained Dr. Cantor over the phone. "There is only one thing that determines handedness and that is brain structure. So the only way that there can be a difference this large in pedophiles is in the brain, and that's different before birth."
Handedness was just one of several genetic factors Dr. Cantor has found to be more prominent in pedophiles. He explains they're also more likely to have a low IQ, attached ear lobes, or webbing in-between their toes.
Dr. Cantor believes these discoveries suggest pedophilia can be genetic, which prompted him to run some MRI scans. "When we started to do the actual brain scans we saw the differences themselves. We're still debating over which areas of the brain, but over and over again we are seeing that the basic brain structure is different."
I was curious about how it might feel living with a brain wired in this way. After some online research I found a website known as Virtuous Pedophiles, which is essentially a forum for non-offending pedophiles to talk to each other.
Ethan Edwards* is in his 50s, and is one of the founders of Virtuous Pedophiles. According to Ethan it's not wrong to be a pedophile, as long as the feeling is ignored. "For a long time I've had the basic view that thoughts and feelings are not good or bad, only actions are good or bad. So a private attraction to small girls is fine. There is never a moment where I consider acting on this attraction at all. I guess I feel I'm unlucky, though at this point it's enough of a part of my identity that I wouldn't necessarily make it go away. That would feel like trying to change a part of my personality."
When talking to Dr. Cantor I asked him about cases where children have been killed. Because, as much as Edwards claimed to be able to hold himself back, many others don't. Cantor admitted that the most dangerous cases are those who have antisocial tendencies, but as a general population they're rare. "They're the ones who make the newspapers," he said. "The public thinks the most extreme kind is common, but the truth is that they're a relatively rare exception."
Dr. Cantor believes, somewhat controversially, that the best way to curb pedophilia is to help them. As an example he refers to the German health system that provides an anonymous helpline for pedophiles feeling as though they might act on an urge. As he asks, "If everyone had that the day before an offense happened, would it have happened?"
Dr. Cantor is quick to dismiss my argument that taxpayers might oppose bankrolling services for pedophiles, and instead claims my argument is part of the problem. "Offending pedophiles tend to have committed their crimes when they are at their most desperate," he says. "They can't have a relationship, they can't tell a therapist for fear of being turned over, and they can't tell family members. In criminology we know people commit crimes when they are at their most desperate and all we have done with these people is make them worse. It's insane."
Later, I asked Edwards whether he had ever felt desperate in this way. He was somewhat reluctant to go into it but confirmed he had. "It's very rare to find a pedophile who has not at least gone through a stage of feeling very depressed or suicidal," he said.
Despite this, he admitted that being open about his feelings has helped him a lot. He says that as people learn more about pedophilia, their support can cause a change in perception, which in itself will reduce offending. "Progress can happen a few small steps at a time," he says. "Like getting more therapists to know the rules, and to keep their cool and compassion if a client says, 'I'm attracted to kids.' Or spreading the word enough so that if someone tells a friend or family member, they have more confidence that they won't be disowned or shunned."
These conversations helped me to understand just what kind of man my headmaster may have been, and how his biological makeup may have dictated his feelings. Having said that, it doesn't help me feel much better about his actions. So I guess that's the point. Desires and actions in this area are very different, and society's challenge is to see that. Maybe shame, secrecy, and derision are some ways to reduce offending, but that also seems to have been the method most favored by the Church. Instead, treating pedophilia as a mental health issue, rather than a criminal one, might be more effective, regardless of how counterintuitive that seems.
* names have been changed
Follow Charlie on Twitter.