Hiding In Plain Sight

By Shmarya Rosenberg (Failed Messiah blog)
September 19, 2012

In his spoon-fed pop psychology kind of way, the New Yorker's Malcom Gladwell has written an article on pedophiles that centers around the case of Penn State's Jerry Sandusky.

Gladwell minimizes the responsibility of those around Sandusky, cleverly making it seem as if Joe Paterno and others were blameless when the evidence actually shows they could have and should have stopped Sandusky years before his arrest and 2012 conviction.

That doesn't mean Sandusky wasn't clever – he was very clever. And explaining that cleverness and the tricks other pedophiles use to groom children and deceive adults is the strong suit of Gladwell's article, which you should read despite its drawbacks.

The ikkar, the distilled point, of my complaint against Gladwell is that institutions like universities, grade schools, churches and yeshivas should have clear policies in place. Staff should be trained to avoid behaviors that fall into gray areas – showering alone with a child in the gym's showers, for example, or certain types of horseplay or sports, like wrestling, done when other adults are not present (or, in some cases, even if they are). Classrooms should have doors with large windows in them and no shades, teachers' offices, if they have them, should be walled in glass. There should be no yihud, alone time, with a teacher and a student unless it is takes place where lots of passerby can see what is taking place, even if they can't hear it. Doors should never be locked.

Penn State did not have clear rules. And after Sandusky was first reported, neither coach Joe Paterno or the university's administration made any.

And that allowed Sandusky to groom and eventually rape more kids.

Gladwell certainly knows this. But including all the facts ruins the story and like many good story tellers, Gladwell leaves out the details that would otherwise prevent his saccharine conclusion from being so artificially sweet.

But his piece is still worth reading, because of sections like this:

One of the most remarkable and disturbing descriptions of the grooming process comes from a twenty-two-page autobiography (published as a chapter in a book about pedophilia) by a convicted pedophile named Donald Silva. After graduating from medical school, Silva met a family with a nine-year-old named Eric. He first sexually molested Eric on a ski trip that the two of them took together. But that came only a year after he befriended the family, patiently insinuating himself into the good graces of Eric’s parents. At one point, Eric’s mother ordered an end to the “friendship,” because she thought Silva’s friends had been smoking pot in her son’s presence. But Silva had so won over her husband that, he writes, “this beautiful man found it in his heart to forgive me after I assured him that such a thing would not happen again.” Silva describes an unforgettable night that he and Eric spent together after they were “reunited”:

I had recently broken up with Cathy [his girlfriend] when Evelyn, my future wife, arrived for a visit. In that month, Evelyn met Eric’s family, and she and his mother became good friends. Evelyn stayed with me at my parents’ house, and we enjoyed an active sex life. Eric slept over one night, and the three of us shared a bed for a while. He was going to pretend to be asleep while Evelyn and I made love, but Evelyn declined with him there and went to sleep elsewhere.

To recap: A man uses his new girlfriend to befriend the family of the ten-year-old boy he is molesting. He orchestrates a threesome in a bed in his parents’ house. He asks the girl to have sex with him with the ten-year-old lying beside them. She says no. She leaves him alone with his victim—and then he persuades her to marry him.

The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with.…

We may not always know what we're dealing with. But if we have the correct rules of conduct and safety measures in place, we can certainly reduce the amount of pedophilia and help to keep it out of our schools and institutions.

But when community leaders refuse to institute these rules and refuse to take these safety measures, while at the same time ordering victims' families not to report alleged abuse to police or child welfare services, or insisting that only the community's leaders can determine which allegations should be reported and which should not, they create a breeding ground for child rape and sexual abuse.

That is what happened in haredi communities. Gladwell's flawed article helps to explain how some of the rabbis involved were fooled by pedophiles. And for that and that only, it's worth reading.