Penn State case spotlights molestation nationally

Posted: November 11, 2011

Pennsylvania State University's virtual meltdown this week over the university's handling of accusations that a trusted coach and founder of a program for underprivileged children molested eight boys over 15 years has once again made sexual abuse of children a hot topic.

Theodore Glackman, executive director, and Thomas Haworth, director of child and adolescent services, at the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, weighed in Thursday on how abuse is surprisingly common, how perpetrators may have been abused, too, and how treatment can help. Their 55-year-old agency treats about 650 victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Jerry Sandusky, 67, a former assistant football coach, has been accused of molesting eight boys of elementary- and middle-school age between the mid-1990s and 2008 at home, on campus, and on team trips. The boys had met Sandusky, who retired from Penn State in 1999, through Second Mile, a charity he founded in 1977.

Helpful as it might be to have a profile of a typical offender, Glackman and Haworth said, people who sexually abuse children are a diverse lot, though the vast majority are men.

"There is no classic profile," Haworth said. "The far majority of people who molest children are people in our homes and people with access to our families."

"If you know one [molester], you know one," Glackman said.

Technically, a pedophile is someone who abuses prepubescent children. Some use the term hebephilia for people who prefer youths in the early stages of puberty.

Glackman recalled a conference where a speaker discussed what an abuser looks like. He showed a picture of a big family reunion. He looks like "one of these guys," the speaker said.

Abuse is common. About a quarter of girls and 16 percent of college-age adults say they were abused as children. About half of the men caught abusing children say they were victims of abuse, too.

Children who are vulnerable - those with disabilities or in single-parent homes - are at higher risk of being victims. Abusers often gravitate to institutions - schools, Little League, the Boy Scouts - that serve children.

Boys are less likely to report abuse, and they take longer to do so.

How do groups that work with children prevent situations like this one?

Haworth said the solution needs to start earlier. "Anything we can do to communicate to people about talking to their kids about safety and talking about OK and not-OK touch is important," he said.

Glackman said adults who are fighting the urge to have sexual contact with children should also feel safer to seek treatment. Sometimes laws that demonize molesters or require reporting make it harder for families to bring troubling behavior to light.

Most important, institutions like Penn State need to educate their communities about abuse and the appropriate response to it.

"It's almost shocking when you read about the lack of very obvious and appropriate activity" in response to the alleged assaults, Glackman said.

While it's tempting to say organizations that serve children should never allow an adult to be alone with a child, Haworth said it would be a shame to deprive children of the kind of mentoring and advice they are more likely to get in private.

He grew up in Camden in a family where no one had gone to college. Private conversations with priests and teachers changed the course of his life, he said. "Those relationships were central to my becoming who I am at this point in my life," he said.

That said, he has trouble understanding how individual children from Second Life went on what appeared to be private field trips to Penn State. And, he said, "I don't think adults should be showering with kids."

Glackman and Haworth said child molestation was a less intractable problem than many people believe. The recidivism rate for people arrested for sexually abusing children is about 14 percent. Treatment can make it lower. A history of several offenses with different victims under risky circumstances may make successful treatment more challenging.

Treatment typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy and use of antidepressants and drugs that affect hormones.

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or


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