It’s an act so abhorrent people recoil at its mention. Martin McKenzie-Murray unpicks the stigma, and his own experience, to examine what is actually known about child abusers. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside the mind of a paedophile

In a way he had always known. But it wasn’t until he was married with kids that Nick realised he was a paedophile. One afternoon, while his wife was out of town, Nick went to the park and watched children play basketball. Those children would never know that they had been watched so intently, would never know that the deviant observation of them would dramatically alter a man’s life.

When Nick returned home he was gripped by paranoia. Years of lithe denial had broken down. Here was his reckoning. “At this point, I finally realised it: I was a paedophile. I’d always known, of course, that I was attracted to boys, but somehow I’d avoided labelling myself. After all, I was married, attracted to women, and had never done anything with a kid. The force of the label was like a nuclear bomb going off inside my head. The word is just so ugly, and I felt evil and dirty.”

The phone rang and it terrified him. Nick was almost convinced that authorities were telepathically sharing his realisation. “I answered it, but there was no one there – it was probably just telemarketers, but it fed my paranoia.”

His wife still away, Nick called his boss and told him he was sick and needed some time off – then he spent long days bedevilled by fear and self-loathing. He didn’t sleep for three nights and thought seriously of killing himself.

On the second or third day, Nick fell to his knees in supplication and prayed furiously to the Lord he had never believed in, asking Him to remove his stain. “I am not a religious man, but after I prayed I felt something that I interpreted to be love and acceptance. Was it really God telling me that I was okay, or was it instead a psychological phenomenon brought on by my distress? My rational mind says the latter, but to this day I can re-create the feeling when I need it.”

Nick is an American and came of age in the 1950s. He is also the co-founder of Virtuous Pedophiles, a US support group for paedophiles who have not acted on their desires and acknowledge that it is wrong to ever do so. What Nick realised, after the atom bomb went off, was that the few paedophile groups in America had formed around its members’ belief that their desires were legitimate. Some, like the infamous North American Man/Boy Love Association, lobby for the abolishment of age of consent laws. Nick’s group is different. It permits membership only to those who denounce child abuse, and actively avoid temptation. His name is not Nick.

1 . Definitions of deviance

Popularly, “paedophilia” has come to mean adults sexually desiring – and abusing – children. But “paedophilia” refers only to the desire – not its being acted upon. Dr Danny Sullivan is a Melbourne forensic psychiatrist, and an assistant director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health. Sullivan specialises in sexual offending and paraphilia – extreme sexual behaviour – and has consulted police and provided expert testimony in the past. Sullivan defined paedophilia for me as “a diagnostic label and descriptor for people who have a deviant sexual arousal to children. ‘Deviant’ is a social definition, and the definition of paedophilia that’s used seeks to avoid the grey area of sexual attraction to teenagers because most non-deviant adults will have some sexual attraction to sexually mature teenagers, who even below the age of consent demonstrate secondary sexual characteristics, such as breasts.”

Sullivan is aware of Virtuous Pedophiles, and commends its defining philosophy, but he has doubts about its effectiveness. “It seems noble in its ideals, but it’s risky if it puts people in touch with another who might then normalise or provoke others in the group to act upon those desires. We see that the internet enables people to contact one another who have unusual sexual interests and through that contact they may result in feeling the behaviour is more normal, and that might encourage someone to move from thought to action.”

Before Nick formed the group, he transferred his faith from God to a therapist. He had done some private research – to this day he has never told a friend or family member about his paedophilia – and found a specialist he thought could help. “I can still remember the fear that he would condemn me the first time we spoke. I must have gone on for 30 minutes without stopping. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘You know, having sexual thoughts about children does not make you a bad person. After all, you didn’t choose to be sexually attracted to children, and you can’t stop. But you can, and have, resisted your sexual feelings. And that makes you a good person, and I admire you for it.’ I can never thank him enough for that.”

Nick was still irradiated, but he had survived the initial blast.

2 . Scientific black hole

For something we fear so much – it is one of our great moral panics – we know very little about paedophilia. It’s been described as a scientific black hole. For instance, we have no answer to the fundamental question: what makes a paedophile? And the profound stigma of the condition presents serious restrictions to our ability to research it. Sullivan tells me there are no specific biomarkers for paedophilia, or tests that can detect its presence. “The natural history of it changes. There are some who demonstrate a lifelong fixation; it’s their primary sexual focus. There are others who are periodically attracted to children, and then they may not be. It’s probably innate in the way homosexuality is, that they don’t choose their sexual preference. Consequently, some paedophiles will be repulsed and seek to avoid it, and others will give way to it because sexuality is a powerful driver of human behaviour.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but child molesters aren’t necessarily paedophiles either – that is, driven by deviant sexuality. Much abuse is the result of other disturbances playing themselves out – squalid pathologies of domination and aggression, for instance. “The term paedophile is often used erroneously to describe child sexual abusers,” Sullivan says. “There are multiple pathways to offending. For instance, they can rely upon emotional dis-regulation – so people who [offend may] struggle to handle negative emotions like anger, fear, shame, rejection. Another powerful predictor is holding powerful antisocial attitudes. In order to achieve sexual gratification through the abuse of a child, you have to be able to suspend ideas of wrongfulness, you must be able to override concerns for the welfare of the child in order to meet your needs. That normally requires the absence of empathic feelings.”

Something else we don’t know is the percentage of paedophiles that offend – that is, gratify their desire. The reason for this uncertainty is obvious: non-offending paedophiles are unlikely to report themselves for research. As a result, the data is skewed towards those who have gone through the justice system. Nick tells me that “the stigma against paedophiles is so great, even for paedophiles who have never had sexual contact with kids, so we don’t exactly volunteer to be studied. The subjects that are studied have all committed crimes, and I wonder whether they’re representative of the rest of us”.

There are some things we do know. We know that paedophiles are overwhelmingly male, that the desire can fluctuate, and that there can be some effectiveness in anti-libidinal medication, although researchers still hotly contest its efficacy. We know that treatment is better than no treatment, and that for psychological treatment to be beneficial, three things often occur: the patient is motivated to change; the therapist develops a rapport with the paedophile; and sometimes “external inducements or coercion to take treatment”, such as revoking parole, is exercised.

There is no profile of the paedophile. We may think of the lecherous old man lurking in bushes, but, says Sullivan, “It’s important to reflect that paedophiles don’t look dodgy, or act in strange ways.” There are patterns to paedophiles’ manipulations, consistent techniques by which they “groom” the trust of the child and those around them. “We see many more situations where the abuser is known to the person, and are able to offend through a position of trust,” Sullivan tells me. “So a parent, or step-parent. A mentor or sports coach. Or often through friendship or association with the family. They can obtain the confidence of the child, encourage them to keep secrets, try to isolate them from other people, and they may offer bribes.”

3 . 'It happened that I liked my uncle. I thought he was cool.'

I can tell you exactly how I was groomed. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect it’s gruesomely transparent. In researching this story, I realised it was textbook. My uncle’s scheme was polished – diabolically excellent – but now I can look back and locate clearly the various steps of his incestuous seduction. The term “grooming” seems laughably obtuse.

My uncle, who was visiting from England, began by feigning interest in my passions, for which my bedroom walls provided useful intelligence. Oasis and Beastie Boys posters were colourfully plastered alongside action shots of English footballers. Alerted to my passions, he began extolling the genius of Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher, and telling me how he once met Roy Keane, then captain of Manchester United, in a pub. He provided me with a fascinating analysis of Keane’s temperament.

Here were the first stages of manipulation: he had caught my attention and legitimised my interests. It was fantastic – no family member had ever had an interest or knowledge about my twin passions of sport and music except, perhaps, to cite them as ruinous distractions to my schoolwork. So it happened that I liked my uncle. I thought he was cool.

His next step was to flatter my intelligence and insight, to celebrate me as a misunderstood young man blessed with a rare perspicacity. I enjoyed that, of course, but now I’m left with this hilarious irony: I did not possess the insight to detect what his intention was in complimenting it.

My uncle also conspired to create situations where we were alone together, such as when he asked me to cut his hair at the back of the house – we had a set of hair clippers and I must have mentioned that I occasionally trimmed mates’ hair. Isolation is important to the paedophile – not only does it lessen the chances of detection, it forms a false but flattering sense of conspiracy with the victim. So when he told me we should walk down to the nearby marina – a complex of shops and pubs on the Indian Ocean – I said I’d invite some friends. I was proud of my uncle – I wanted to show him off. He said it wasn’t a good idea; it was better I come alone.

Down at the harbour we browsed a record shop, where he talked knowingly on the latest music – prompted, I suspect, by my own CD collection – and he bought me the latest Beastie Boys album, Hello Nasty. I protested and felt guilty but secretly I was thrilled – I could rarely afford albums myself and I wasn’t used to gifts. My uncle was ticking all the boxes of the groomer’s checklist: gifts, flattery, trust, isolation and the mimicry of my passions. The next item on the list – booze – was coming.

The first, milder incident happened late at night. I had gone to bed after an evening spent with my family – and uncle – at the house of a relative. Memory is a flimsy and corruptible thing, but I remember with startling clarity that night at dinner. The hosts had Foxtel, which was perfect because it was the opening round of the English Premier League. I remember the feature match was Southampton versus Liverpool, that the Saints were playing at home, and that Liverpool wore their new, garishly yellow away strip.

And I remember, later, my uncle creeping into my room. I remember being confused, remember him lying heavy on top of me. I remember the alcohol on his breath, and the abrasiveness of his whiskers on my face. I remember him kissing me – urgently, repeatedly – and I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening again, can it?”

Many years earlier, when I was about 10, an older boy – a teenage neighbour – pulled my pants down on the property of a vacant house. He was insistent, and I was afraid, but he assured me that it was all perfectly normal. I think he told me to never tell anybody, because then we could never be friends again. He demanded that I “play” with him, and that he “play” with me. There is still a part of me that believes it was innocent experimentation on his part, that he was too young to be labelled an abuser. Regardless, the whole episode was nauseatingly bewildering – filthy and unforgiveable in my mind. Afterwards I trembled with shame.

As my uncle lay on top of me, I silently made excuses for him. It seemed so stunningly unlikely that this kind of thing could happen that I gave him the benefit of the doubt. His behaviour seemed bizarre, but perhaps it was legitimate? Still, I squirmed and twisted from him. I tried to do it politely – incredibly, I was terrified of offending him. I laugh about this now. I think I suggested courteously that he go back to bed, and the next day I didn’t tell anyone. That was a mistake.

Days later he asked me down to the harbour again, this time for a drink at the pub. Again, I wanted to invite friends – again, he said it wasn’t a good idea. I was nervous about going because I was under-age – 16 – but he laughed off my anxiety and assured me it would be fine. “People do this all the time in England,” my uncle assured me. Today I know that assurance is a recurring motif of a paedophile’s manipulation.

I got into the pub okay, and he ordered pints. We sat down with them, but not for long. Someone – possibly a neighbour of mine – had alerted the bar manager to my being under-age. We were asked to leave. I was embarrassed and annoyed at my uncle for taking me there. I really just wanted to go home, but my uncle wouldn’t allow it. He bought a six-pack of VB for us to drink on the shore and he pointed out the stars. There’s no doubt he was trying to loosen my inhibitions through liquor, but I think he also needed to grease his depravity the same way. After a beer, maybe two – accompanied by his sickly beatification of me – he suggested we go back home. That suited me. Things were definitely feeling strange.

And now, a staccato account: he said we should finish the beer in my room; said we should put on some music. He said we should turn off the light, that the digital display of my CD player would provide sufficient ambience. I remember the thin blue glow. He said it was cold, suggested we get warm in bed. Today I can’t tell you why I did as he said, other than to suspect some thick serum of trust, confusion and an ineradicable fear of offending him. And then… paralysis.

The next morning I ran a bath and I sat in it for a long time. It was there that I decided not to tell my parents. It would be too painful for them. This wasn’t a big deal; I could handle it. As it was, they found out anyway.

That night I went to a party, drank, played spin-the-bottle and kissed a girl in a park. Then I slept at a friend’s place. The day after that I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to see my uncle, to visit ground zero. I wandered the harbour instead. It was hard to go home and, once I did, I couldn’t go back to my room – I slept on the floor in front of the telly for a few nights. Eventually I returned to my bedroom, but could not sleep in the bed. Again, I took to the floor, probably for a few weeks. But I was slowly reclaiming my spaces. At least the ones outside my head.

4 . Conspiracy of normalcy

I personally don’t like the term “survivor” and never use it. But I respect its bluntness and muscularity, the comfort it can provide to the abused. The word’s strength is in its lack of ambiguity, the implied resilience and dignity of the person it designates. How people conceive of or classify the abuse is theirs alone. But the word’s not for me. It’s too stark, self-conscious and definitive. I’m lucky – I rarely think about what happened. It’s not the central fact of my life – there is no central fact of my life, there’s only life itself.

Strangely, I was not angry with my abuser – then or now. I have not wished him dead or injured. I was uncomfortable when, in ensuing years, he continued to send us Christmas cards stuffed with cash, and I was aggrieved when I was asked to write a short note of thanks in reply. It was a rancid conspiracy of normalcy and I refused to participate. My extended family had become a small reflection of the Catholic Church’s closed institutions, the ones grown spiritually mouldy with secrecy and moral cowardice.

I lied about not being angry. There was something that stung me. In the messy and confusing aftermath, some blamed me for what happened – specifically, I was asked if I had encouraged it. That hurt and, after a stunned pause, I bitterly expressed my incredulity.

This wasn’t the most disturbing consequence. Not long afterwards, a family member mused thoughtlessly in my company that abuse engenders abuse. I instantly felt sick. The comment shredded me, and I carried it for some time. I thought, naively, that I was doomed to be an abuser myself – conscripted by fate to play out what happened to me. I was cursed.

As a young man I moved to South Korea to teach English to young children. One day, while supervising the kids in the playground, I began brutally thinking about my curse. I broke out in a sweat. Was the curse real? Should I be here? Was I doomed to offend, to play out some cyclical indecency? I wasn’t and I’m not, but that loose comment years earlier took a while to leave my system.

5 . Paradox of treatment

Sullivan told me the research doubted that abuse predicted abuse. “There was research conducted at Melbourne that used a database linkage study of children who were sexually abused – they were reported to police, forensically examined – and then followed up and linked to coronial and police records. It shows that for boys abused over the age of 12 the likelihood of progressing to a future [general, non-sexual] offending career is very significantly increased. That doesn’t mean necessarily there’s a causal relationship, but that perhaps that’s a population who have demonstrated some markers of vulnerability. It certainly doesn’t predict a person will go on to abuse. So I think it’s otherwise an urban mythology, and at times something that’s invoked by those who sexually abuse children. Whether it’s true, or something to invoke sympathy, cannot be determined necessarily.”

Nick had also been abused as a child – by his summer camp leader – and for a while he suspected it was a cause of his paedophilia. He began fantasising about boys his own age not long after. But now he says, “Scientists I’ve spoken to do not believe that this ‘abused to abuser’ hypothesis withstands scrutiny.”

In 1985, the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann released a nine-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Holocaust. Shoah used no archival footage and had no narrative – other than the one formed by the poignant sum of the interviews with survivors. Lanzmann’s intent was simply to bear witness – the crime of the Holocaust was cosmic in scale, it defied rationalisation. But Lanzmann went further: he believed that trying to explain Hitler was vulgar and morally irresponsible – that the attempt to understand would conclude with empathy. He called it “the obscenity of the very project of understanding”.

Paedophilia provokes similar feelings. We are terrified that the act of explanation will lead inexorably to understanding, then to sympathy. We are terrified that we will erode the notion of personal responsibility, of choice, of wilful criminality. Nick and Dr Danny Sullivan have, in their own ways, stressed the importance of personal strength and choice. Paedophilia cannot simply be categorised as an illness – there is a choice to act upon it. But our moral panic has also prevented many from being treated. There exists in Australia a perverse catch-22. “Victoria is fortunate that the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, and some private practitioners, will offer treatment to people prior to their having offended, but in many places the only effective treatment programs are available only to offenders,” Sullivan says. “Paradoxically, this means people at risk of offending can’t find anything effective until they’ve offended.”

Nick agrees. He ends our correspondence with a plea for understanding. “Imagine that a child of yours was unfortunate enough to be sexually attracted to children. He’s never had sexual contact with a child, but he is attracted to them. What would you want for him? What would you do? Would you want him to face his paedophilia alone, to hate himself, to be hated by others, maybe become suicidal? Or would you instead hope that he received sympathy and support, access to professionals
who could help in his efforts to avoid abusing a child?”

I don’t know what any of this means. I can’t cleverly synthesise what you’ve just read. I sense that others feel I should be angry or shattered, but I’m not. I sense how others assume this must be important to me, but it largely isn’t. I am neither an apologist nor a crusader. I am not embarrassed or ashamed. But I cannot reconcile the duelling qualities of paedophilia – biology and morality; innateness and personal responsibility. Nor do I need to. If I walk away with a maxim, it is this: moral putrefaction is the result of doing nothing.

Bravehearts – 1800 272 831 – offers counselling and support services.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Inside the mind of a paedophile".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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