The best thing most people can say about pedophiles--whether they're found in the Roman Catholic Church or outside it--is that they're just plain sick. But sick implies the possibility of treatment, and treatment suggests the possibility of cure; and that raises one of the most vexing questions surrounding the dark condition of pedophilia: Can it be fixed?
The first problem with treating pedophilia is understanding just what it is. While all pedophiles seek sexual gratification with children, not all people who molest kids are true pedophiles. Often a child abuser acts less from genuine libidinousness than from rage, impulse or a simple desire to dominate another person. In such cases the urge can be satisfied by sexual behavior directed at anyone of any age.
Hard-core pedophilia is a different and more intractable problem, and, according to Tim Smith, a Seattle treatment specialist who works with sex offenders, it may affect fewer than 10% of the child abusers in the U.S. The true pedophile is drawn to children not merely incidentally but exclusively. Most pedophiles target kids in the threshold years before puberty, but some look further down the age spectrum, seeking out even toddlers. Pedophiles who prefer preadolescents often court them with the ardor of a suitor, lavishing attention, praise and gifts on the child they have chosen. Typically they tell themselves that the relationship is a mutually beneficial one--something they believe until the child reaches puberty, and the abuser suddenly loses interest.
Molesters and pedophiles seem to target same-sex and opposite-sex children equally, the gender they choose depending mostly upon availability. And though the media may carry stories of the occasional Mary Kay LeTourneau--the Washington State teacher who famously bore two children by one of her underage students--overwhelmingly, abusers appear to be male. "We've been waiting for the so-called avalanche of women offenders to appear," says Smith. "We're still waiting." Some doctors disagree with Smith, believing the incidence of female abusers may be under-reported, since some boys may see sexual contact at the hands of an older woman not as molestation but as early initiation.
What still puzzles behavior experts is why pedophilia exists at all. Although it's true that many child molesters were molested as children, the numbers are pretty muddy. Therapists who work with abusers report that anywhere from a third to three-quarters of their patients claim to have been victims of molestation--imprecise figures made even more so by the molesters' incentive to shade the truth. "Certain stimuli early in life seem to fuse the ideas of childhood and sexual arousal," says Fran Ferder, a psychologist and Catholic nun who teaches theology and psychology at Seattle University. The early onset of the condition argues against the popular idea that priests who abuse kids are driven to the behavior by the Catholic Church's celibacy rules. Whether the church attracts existing pedophiles--who see it as a way to be close to the children they seek or, alternatively, to bury their troubling sexual longings--is impossible to say.