Mind of a Predator

As the nation watches what may be one of the worst cases of sexual abuse of children ever, we wonder: What makes a pedophile? The possibilities will frighten you—but not for the reasons you may think.

She was a 13-year-old stepdaughter from his third marriage, and in the beginning, he says, the things he did to her didn’t seem so bad.

He told her that he was in pain. Remember my accident in the garden, when you helped pull the splinters from my legs? I am still hurt, and I need you to do these things because they make the pain go away. You make me feel better here. And here. You do it this way…

None of it seemed bad, he says, until a year-and-a-half later, when he began to perform oral sex on her. He looked up at her innocent face as she asked if what they were doing was wrong. It was then, he claims now, that the horror of his actions nearly drove him to suicide.

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He is a 56-year-old white man. When he speaks about this period of his life—from a local work release center—he hides his hands. They appear only to relate how remorseful he is for what happened 14 years ago, or when he covers his eyes when he speaks of seeing his stepdaughter again, of telling her that it wasn’t her fault.

He wears oversized spectacles that make his eyes appear like dots, making it impossible to find any clue to understanding what made him sexually abuse a young girl. His body language is a curled tangle of protection that seems to say, “If I could just disappear from this earth, I would.”

In February, Dr. Earl Bradley, a pediatrician, was indicted on 471 counts of sexual crimes against 103 children at his office, BayBees Pediatrics in Lewes. The 160-page indictment by Attorney General Beau Biden’s office accused Bradley, 56, of molesting patients as young as three months. Charges against Bradley include first-degree and second-degree rape. Since his arrest on December 16, he has been held at Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna while awaiting trial. His bail is set at $5.29 million. No local news story in almost 15 years has put people across the country in such a state of shock and anger.

The case has put a public face on a private wound, one that has resided largely in the secret vaults of family histories, in the locked psyches of thousands of victims and in the cold, hard fact that there are more than 2,700 registered sex offenders in Delaware.

What makes them do what they do?

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A scan of the state’s Sex Offender Central Registry reveals a long list of sex crimes—pedophilia, rape and incest—committed by people as common as our neighbors, teachers and the counter guy at the deli.

“You can’t generalize sex offenders because they’re as varied as any other cross-section of people,” says Chrysanthi Leon, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware. “What is so disturbing to a lot of people is that we share things in common with them. It would be beneficial if they could be identified as something more than freaks of nature, but the truth is they’re not.”

In her book, “Not Monsters,” Pamela D. Schultz, a professor at Alfred University in New York, categorizes sex offenders as “not aberrations or mutations. They are humans, most frequently men, who are driven to their actions by potent stresses and even more potent messages equating sex with power and control. The impulse that inspires some people to molest children doesn’t suddenly appear out of the blue as an inexplicable, uncontrollable desire. Rather, this impulse is programmed into them—and us.”

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The number of people who think about deviant sexual acts is far larger than the number of people who commit related crimes, according to Timothy Foley, a psychologist in the Philadelphia area. “What separates us is that just fantasizing about it is not enough for them,” Foley says. “They have to be willing to act it out.”

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Most sex offenders are men, and most of them are acquainted with their victims. About 30 percent of victims are relatives and 60 percent of victims are “friends” of the family. Though the causes of pedophilia, rape and incest are not known with certainty, there is some evidence that these behaviors may be consistent in families from generation to generation. Whether due to genetics or a learned behavior, no one knows. Other factors, such as abnormalities in male sexual hormones or the brain chemical serotonin, have not been proven. One factor does, however, recur consistently.

“Many sex crimes are traced to repetition compulsion, the perpetrator’s need to repeat the very same trauma that was done to them,” said Stephen C. DiJulio, clinical director at Survivors of Abuse in Recovery, Inc. (SOAR), a Wilmington-based center that provides victims with personal and group therapy. “For some, it’s about power. For others, it’s controlled by substance abuse. But the truth, though, is that there are no hard, cold answers to determine why they do what they do. There is no one mind of a pedophile.”

Daphne Carroll has been a licensed mental health counselor at the Plummer Correction Facility for the past seven years. She conducts individual and group therapy with some of the state’s most serious sex offenders. She has seen the results of generation after generation of sexual abuse in families.

“As a child, their method of coping was, ‘It’s not hurting me that much, and sometimes it feels pretty good,’” Carroll says. “When they become older and if they become offenders themselves, this thinking helps to justify what they are doing.”

A history of childhood sexual abuse could also be a factor. National research indicates that 5 percent to 15 percent of men who commit sex crimes were sexually abused when they were children. The percentage is slightly higher for women. Behavioral learning models have suggested that a child who is the victim or observer of inappropriate sexual behaviors learns to imitate the behavior, which is reinforced with repetition. Deprived of normal social sexual contact, they seek gratification through less socially acceptable means.

The man with the oversized eyeglasses was sexually abused as a child by a family member. He speaks about it vaguely, with swallowed words, as if it has vanished into the blurry fog of memory and died.

He grew up on the Kirch Gons military base in Germany. Before he’d reached puberty, his parents’ friends—mostly U.S. servicemen—would take him into nearby massage parlors and strip clubs, where he would watch naked women dance. When he was 12, his family settled in a small town in Iowa, where he was befriended by a woman in her 20s. She lived with her husband in the neighborhood. Up to three afternoons a week for the next 18 months, she took the boy into her bed after school. Though it was a secret, he didn’t look at what she did as a crime.

After high school, he served in the U.S. Army for 14 years in Germany, Korea, Japan and El Salvador. He rose to the rank of sergeant first class. By the mid-90s, he had become a hospital administrator in Delaware and had married for the third time.

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His wife, diagnosed with depression, had been admitted to the Rockford Center for treatment, leaving him to care for her 13-year-old daughter. The abuse began, he says, when he caught glimpses of her as she was trying on dresses for a school dance. Then came the accident in the garden, when he asked her to help him remove the splinters.

“I then began lying in order to get her to do things, like back massages,” he says. “Then I gradually talked her into doing more and more. It evolved. It became a different kind of thing.” He fondled her breasts at first, then her buttocks. Then he asked her to massage lotion onto his penis because, he told her, it still hurt from the accident.

“In my mind, it hadn’t reached the point yet where I felt it was wrong, but when I began to touch her orally, it was if a switch had flipped in my brain that said, ‘This is wrong. This cannot happen.’”

He says he stopped the activities immediately, but a veil of secrecy had been erected in the home. For the next three years, he had wanted to speak with his stepdaughter about the incidents, but chose not to. It was safer that way.

When he threatened to ground the girl, then 15, a couple years later, the veil came down. Shortly after she told her mother what had happened, the man was arrested for continuous abuse of a minor. That was in 1997. He issued a statement, waived all rights, and served one year at Gander Hill State Prison and 10 years at what is now the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.

“A rape is about anger and control, but the sexual abuse of a minor is about sexual attention,” Carroll says. “I used to wonder, ‘How is it that someone can do so much hurt to someone and not feel?’ I realized that it is nothing to hurt another person when you have hurt inside of you. It’s hard to feel for others when you’ve shut it down inside.”

When it comes to pedophiles, however, most experts believe that the largest motivator is their need to have absolute control over the powerless.

The woman looks down at the tissue in the palms of her hands. All she can remember with any clarity about being molested as a child—for four straight years—is looking through a basement window of her home toward another house and seeing flowers, radiant and bursting. It was a keen observation for a girl of seven.

She is now 53, a mother from Hockessin, sitting on a couch in her therapist’s office in North Wilmington. As she recalls, her abuser, a family friend, had a special word. “Whenever he used the word, I would go under the table and rub up against him,” she says.

It began under the table, but then the word started being used in other places: the bathroom, her bedroom, in the basement room where he lived. She felt like she was doing something wrong, but she continued to see him nearly every night. “If you tell your parents, they’ll hate you,” he said. “They’ll say it’s all your fault”

“He was a salesman, forcing me to make a decision and knowing that I didn’t yet have the tools to make the right decision,” she says. “That’s how abusers operate. They find the little things in a person that aren’t strong.”

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He would tell her she was a fat little girl, that she was an ugly little girl. He would victimize her with the foulest of language. And as he did, she convinced herself that it wasn’t happening to her, that it was happening to the little girl with her head down on the basement floor. She had already trained herself to focus on the beautiful flowers outside of the window.

The abuse didn’t end until she was 11. “My father walked in on us,” she says. “First, they spoke to him, and then they spoke to me. I lied to protect him because if I told them the truth, I knew it would kill my parents.”

Those were the 1960s. Sexual abuse and rape were not part of the public conversation. Rather than report the man, her parents took him to see a priest. “Yes, a priest,” the woman says. “You see, that’s what they knew then.”

She did not see the family friend again for another 15 years. By then, she was a married young mother. Though her abuser is now estranged from her family, he remained a minor part of her mother and father’s life.

The man once confessed to the woman that it was compulsion—he knew his behavior was wrong, but he loved the attention. “Thank God it was only oral sex,” she told him. “Thank God that we didn’t allow it to go any…”

But it did go further, he told her. Didn’t she recall? There was much more.

Hearing his revelation was like being left for dead, and it began the great magical act of her disappearance into a world that would become, over the next few decades, a haze.

Her abuser, though he expressed his remorse to her, was never arrested, tried or convicted.

A big part of the treatment for sex offenders is teaching them to avoid the situations that have led them to trouble,” Foley says. “I see people who are socially inadequate, have a history of being rejected by adults, and suddenly, they see a child as a surrogate. Pedophilia becomes a sexual orientation. They develop an attraction to sexually immature people.

“Some people say, ‘It’s the only thing I’m interested in. Did someone give me a choice when I was a teenager? No, it’s just the way it happened.’ Their situations and their preferences are mirrors of each other.”

While talking on the phone from his home in Oklahoma, Wayne Bowers watched Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on television speak about several incidents of sexual impropriety that Roethlisberger had been accused of, all of which threaten to derail his career. Bowers calls Roethlisberger a man with no boundaries.

“The way you keep your boundaries safe is to know what your triggers are,” Bowers says. “You need to honor those, or else you’ll never come to the edge of your boundaries.”

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Bowers is the national director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), an outreach program of the Sex Abuse Treatment Alliance, which provides support to those who work with or are interested in issues of sexual abuse and its prevention. For the past several years, Bowers has championed the CURE-affiliated Sex Offenders Restored through Treatment (SORT) as a leading advocate of sex offenders as they work to restore their places in mainstream society.

“Is there a cure for those with sex offenses?” Bowers asks. “Most will tell you that there is none. Am I cured? No. Am I in control? Absolutely.”

In 1972 Bowers served a 20-month sentence in a Kansas state prison after being charged with the crime of indecent liberties with a child. Eleven years later, in 1983, he was convicted of the same offense again. While incarcerated, Bowers received treatment through an innovative program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He stayed in the program for six years.

“There was a part of me that was afraid, that I would fail, that I would go back to where I was,” Bowers says. “I didn’t want to go back to the secrecy. It had cost me two jobs. Therapy opened up for me the idea that I know the struggle, and that treatment in the right way, melded with my total resolve to improve. I had a part of my personality that was compulsive, but I hadn’t put the pieces together to see what that was. Therapy gave me a plan to control my life and have an understanding of who I was.”

Do years of incarceration and therapy entitle a sex abuser to regain a full and complete life? Advocates of victims’ rights have called for punishment from lifetime imprisonment to, for men, chemical castration. They wonder if a freed abuser will abuse again. Those who support the rights of sex offenders point to the slim recidivism (repeat offense) rates. Percentages range from 5 percent to 15 percent, according to local experts.

Perhaps more than any other incident, the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka on July 29, 1994, in Hamilton Township, New Jersey—at the hands of Jesse Timmendequas, a neighbor who had two previous convictions for sexual assault—galvanized thousands to encourage the federal government to help states in developing a comprehensive system for tracking sex offenders and alerting communities.

Megan’s Law, passed in 1996, required law enforcement authorities to publicize information about registered sex offenders, including the offender’s name, picture, address, incarceration date, and nature of his or her crime. Under the law, persons convicted of sex crimes against children must notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment after release from custody, including prison or a psychiatric facility. The notification requirement may be imposed for a fixed period of time—usually at least 10 years, sometimes more.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 created a national sex offender registry. It instructs all states to apply identical criteria for posting offender data on the Internet. The law mandates that the most serious offenders update their whereabouts every three months for life.

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Critics of such legislation say the system is too harsh, that a one-time sex offender should not be grouped with someone who has committed several sex crimes.

“There are too many people listed on the registry. It’s diluted, so it’s doing nothing more than giving people a false sense of security,” Leon says. “It creates complications in the community. Employers don’t want to hire a sex offender because it means that their name will be in the registry. It has a negative effect on the family of the abuser because their name is there. We’re so focused on the sex offender, we’re not focusing on solving the problem of sexual violence. If knowledge is power, then let’s make it good knowledge.”

Leon, author of the upcoming book “Sex Fiends, Perverts & Pedophiles: A Social History of Sex Crimes Since 1930,” suggests that when sex offenders leave prison and re-enter society, they be given more access, through corrections officials, to treatment.

She also wants to see an increased sensitivity toward the public information provided on sex offenders and, in the long term, an increase in social service programs that would provide both education for children and advocacy for victims.

“I am not against punishment. I understand the need to punish,” Leon says. “I think there are instances where it is very valid. But after the punishment ends, after probation and jail time, what do we do then?”

At the time he told his story, the man with the oversized glasses at Plummer had just three weeks of incarceration left on his sentence. He had arranged to move into a transitional house for a month or so, but feared that, after leaving, he would be homeless, due mainly to the public’s perception of sex offenders and the reluctance of any prospective employer to hire him. “I would love to go live and work on a farm somewhere, just tending to the fields and keeping to myself,” he says.

The woman from Hockessin says that when she first decided to meet with someone at SOAR, Inc.—and later, accept treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the University of Pennsylvania—it was like ripping open a long-forgotten wound that had been made tolerable by decades of silence.

“And now, I am rising,” she says. “I want to believe in the quality of life, that there is good in people, and that people can change. If I make the abuse about my abuser, then it becomes his world again, but I will no do that. This is all about reclaiming myself. This is my journey, to work from within.”

She is happiest beside the ocean. She goes there when she can, to Rehoboth Beach, where she and her husband have a second home. There, the sound of waves surging against the shore makes her feel blessedly small, nearly invisible.

“The waves make me feel that there’s something greater than me,” she says, “greater than anyone or anything.” 

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