Book Excerpt: 'Harmful to Minors'

Perhaps it is no wonder that in a Mayo Clinic study of anxieties reported to pediatricians, three-quarters of parents were afraid their children would be abducted; a third said it was a "frequent worry," more frequent than fretting over sports injuries, car accidents, or drugs. And no wonder Jeffrey Curley's murder, the crest of a wave of highly publicized criminal brutality, revived the crusade for capital punishment in Massachusetts, or that it was in this movement, as a spokesman for state-administered revenge, that his father, a firehouse mechanic named Bob, briefly found voice for his unutterable grief.

The Facts

The problem with all this information about pedophiles is that most of it is not true or is so qualified as to be useless as generalization. First of all, the streets and computer chat rooms are not crawling with child molesters, kidnappers, and murderers. According to police files, 95 percent of allegedly abducted children turn out to be "runaways and throwaways" from home or kids snatched by one of their own parents in divorce custody disputes. Studies commissioned under the Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984 estimate that between 52 and 158 children will be abducted and murdered by nonfamily members each year. Extrapolating from other FBI statistics, those odds come out between 1 in 364,000 and fewer than 1 in 1 million. A child's risk of dying in a car accident is twenty-five to seventy-five times greater.

Fortunately, pedophilic butcheries are even rarer than abduction-murders. For instance, in 1992, the year a paroled New Jersey sex offender raped and killed Megan Kanka, the seven-year-old after whom community-notification statutes were named, nine children under age twelve were the victims of similar crimes, out of over forty-five million in that age group. As for Adam Walsh, invoked by the Boston Herald as the Ur-victim of molestation murder, no defendant was ever indicted in his disappearance. According to detectives in Hollywood, Florida, where the crime occurred, Adam's father spread the rumor that the abductor was a pedophile, most prominently in a much-quoted book about child molesters, although there was neither suspicion nor evidence of sex in the case.

Molestations, abductions, and murders of children by strangers are rare. And, say the FBI and social scientists, such crimes are not on the rise. Some researchers even believe that some forms of molestation, such as exhibitionism, might be declining.

There are, moreover, few so-called pedophiles in the population, though it is hard to say how few. "I write '1, 5, 21, 50' on the board and ask my students, 'Which is the percentage of pedophiles in the country?'" said Paul Okami, in the University of California at Los Angeles psychology department, who has analyzed the data on pedophilia in America. "The answer is all of them." That's because a "pedophile," depending on the legal statute, the perception of the psychologist, or the biases of the journalist, can be anything from a college freshman who has once masturbated with a fantasy of a twelve-year-old in mind to an adult who has had sexual contact with an infant.

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