Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Letter to J. Doyle

Dear Mr. Doyle:

I read your article in this morning’s Chronicle, “Pedophilia treatment is available but scarce – stigma a big hurdle” (10/4/06) with great interest. Since Mark Foley’s blunder and its devastating consequences have hit the front page, pedophilia has reentered the national consciousness and it is appropriate that you should take it on in your column. But I think you’re caught up in a terribly mistaken take on the topic.

I’ve been combing the news looking for evidence that Mark Foley ever had sex or put the make on pages under the age of sixteen. If such evidence comes to the surface, it will of course weaken my argument here, but the point will be the same. The age of consent in the District of Columbia is sixteen. Foley’s actions, unethical and distasteful as they are, do not constitute pedophilia. By blurring the line between pedophilia, or taking sexual advantage of a child, and sex with sexually mature young people whom the state has recognized as legally responsible for their own sexual behavior, you are driving into the ground the rational thinking that should surround the topic of pedophilia.

We can assume Mark Foley’s reasons for hiding his homosexuality certainly include the fact that it would keep him from a political career in the Republican Party. They probably also involve no small amount of self-loathing. Possibly the shame was induced in part by being molested as a young teenager. But your conclusion that it has made him the pedophile he is being taken for at the moment is all wrong. Mark Foley’s e-mail correspondence, which we seem to believe we have a right to read, is a conversation between two physically sexually mature males, one a 50-year old making a fool of himself, and one a normal horny teenager who likes the titillation of sexual innuendo. Where’s the pedophilia in this!

You take up a topic which you are not particularly well informed about. That’s forgivable, of course. You’re a journalist, not an expert in sexual disorders, and you don’t need to be an expert to tell an important story. But as a journalist, I’d expect you to spot your own limitations. Mentioning a district attorney who talks about the “danger” of “sexually violent predators” in the context of an article on the Foley debacle is not shedding light on the topic; it’s muddying the waters. “Taylor attributed Foley’s behavior to mental illness…Now he’s writing things to the child pages…Major mental disorders are not being diagnosed...” you write. Mr. Doyle, a 16-year old may be immature and vulnerable, but he’s not a child when it comes to sex. You are aware, I take it, that some places have lowered the age of sexual consent to as low as 12. Why have you ignored that fact in this discussion of pedophilia?

Please don’t mistake me for a defender of the Republican Party. My right arm would fall off if I ever pulled the lever for a Republican candidate. But the issue here is not pedophilia. It’s closetedness, it’s sexual immaturity, and ethically shady behavior including insincerity, hypocrisy, abuse of power, cover-up for political gain and possibly more. If you make this about turning a sexually immature man into a mentally ill man, you help scapegoat some poor sap and make this a problem of individual illness when this really ought to be a story about the abuse of power. Seriously, what’s your best guess about what will happen in time — that Foley will come to be treated as mentally ill? Or that he will come out like so many gay politicians (James McGreevey comes to mind) before him, make a pile on a book confessing his sins (David Brock?), tell us how he has grown, and who knows, maybe even follow Arianna Huffington into the Democratic Party! You will have written a story about something that went up in a puff of smoke and missed a story about power abuse, something that needs our constant close attention.

I think this country suffers terribly from its inability to distinguish between marijuana and heroin and its framing of drug dependency as a crime rather than an illness. Your framing of Foley’s bungle as pedophilia rather than abuse of power is a similar category error.

You’re a good journalist. You can do better than this.


Alan J. McCornick

in response to:

Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley's solicitations of a Capitol page points to the difficulty of diagnosing and treating adults who are tempted to act out their sexual fantasies involving children, mental health and law enforcement experts said Tuesday.

And the recent sexual assaults of teenage girls and the slaying of one at a Colorado high school, as well as the killing of five young girls by a gunman in an Amish schoolhouse on Monday, highlight an issue that is equally vexing: how to prevent senseless acts of violence and sexual aggression against minors.

Both types of exploitive behavior toward children can be fueled by sexual orientation, depression, boredom or rage -- or a combination of these elements, experts said.

Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness is a common thread in pedophilia and violence against children. But often, those who need treatment feel stigmatized and don't know where to turn.

"What all these incidents have in common is a focus on minors as the objects of sexual coercion or sexual violence," said Rhonda James, executive director of Community Violence Solutions, which offers sexual-assault prevention, intervention and treatment in Marin and Contra Costa counties.

"These were not impulsive acts. (The gunmen) had to plan this out," she said. "There was probably an erosion of their mental health condition. ... For Foley, he kind of leveraged his power. I'm concerned that no one interrupted his overtures to young pages."

Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned amid news reports of his sexual advances toward a young male page. He is now seeking treatment for alcoholism and could face criminal charges.

Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said there is very little being done to prevent pedophilia and other sex-related crimes from happening in the first place.

"When it comes to pedophilia and other sexual disorders, we're still in the pre-Betty Ford era," he said. "We feel we can send them to prison and nothing else. We treat the alcoholic, even though he can get into a car and kill a family. But we've so demonized the word pedophilia that we don't recognize these individuals as human or deserving of treatment."

Pedophiles, who have a sexual orientation of being drawn toward children, don't necessarily act out their fantasies, and those who do may not have a history of prior criminal acts. Similarly, those who commit acts of extreme violence and sexual aggression against juveniles may not be pedophiles.

There has been little research into the causes of pedophilia.

"Many adults with pedophilia are victims grown older," Berlin said. "Their early exposure has warped their sexual development. Through no fault of his own, the person with pedophilia discovers who he is attracted to. It's not his fault, but he has a responsibility to do something about it."

There are relatively few sexual disorder clinics in the United States.

"You hear all the time where you can go for any other problem, but you virtually never hear where you can go for this kind of act," Berlin said. "Given the stigma we've attached to it, the last thing someone is going to do is ask for help. They may find themselves arrested rather than treated."

Treatment is aimed not at curing sexual disorders but at helping the person stop the unacceptable behavior. Patients are taught to resist giving in to such triggers as depression, to develop a positive support system including family and friends, and to make changes in their lifestyle to avoid situations of temptation.

With pedophilia, there is also medication. The most common drug used is Depo-Lupron, which lowers the patient's testosterone and decreases his sexual activity.

The U.S. Department of Justice has determined that, contrary to public perception, sex offenders generally have a lower rate of recidivism than others who commit serious crimes. But sometimes there are crosscurrents between pedophilia and violence.

Before he opened fire on the Amish schoolgirls, Charles Carl Roberts reportedly told his wife he had molested two young relatives 20 years ago. Police said that Roberts' elaborate gear suggested he might have been planning to sexually assault the girls.

"Not all sexual offenders are equal. Some are radically more dangerous," said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Taylor.

Of the more than 100,000 registered sexual offenders in California, fewer than 600 are classified as sexually violent predators.

"When you have that combination of violence and sexual disorder, or a history of attacks on strangers, that's the worst of the worst," Taylor said. "These people should never see the light of day."

Taylor attributed Foley's behavior to mental illness rather than pedophilia.

"When people of that age suddenly get into trouble, their brains are not working well," he said. "Foley may have certain issues, but he got to a certain age without having priors. Now he's writing things to the child pages at the House? Regardless of the sexual interest, that is irrational behavior or manic behavior, without heed to the consequences."

Taylor attributed the recent school shootings to mental breakdowns rather than sexual motives. Both gunmen took their own lives.

"We have a mental health problem in this country," he said. "Major mental disorders are not being diagnosed, treated or controlled before something terrible happens."

E-mail Jim Doyle at

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