Do offenders, as in the Rolf Harris case, sentence their own families, and their victims, for life?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Recent high-profile cases of sex crime convictions, as in Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, reveal outwardly puzzling and strange reactions from their own families. Some relatives show solidarity, appearing each day in court, loyally at the side of the accused.
What goes on inside a household when someone at their centre is guilty of child, and other, sex crimes, could explain how these particular criminals lead such an incredible double-life. This might account for these astoundingly long criminal careers, in what is widely regarded as one of the worse crimes of all, because children are the most innocent of victims.
Laurence Miller, a Florida psychologist, has published an investigation in 2013 into the different types of paedophile; ‘Sexual Offenses against children: Patterns and Motives’. His categorisation could suggest families or relatives are sometimes even colluding in some way, or possibly are victims themselves. At the very least, they can appear in severe denial over the perpetrator in their midst.
He points out, in his study published in the academic journal, ‘Aggression and Violent Behaviour’, that the ‘situational’ child molester abuses children as targets of opportunity, particularly if other sexual prospects are unavailable. They therefore tend to also target the elderly, disabled and any other kind of available victim, provided by circumstance.
This is in contrast to the ‘preferential’ child molester, who in the seductive sub-type, grooms young victims with gifts and attention. He rationalises a ‘special relationship’. The ‘fixated’ sub-type, within the ‘preferential’ category, is a bit of a child himself – emotionally immature and socially inept.
The most violent and dangerous type is the ‘sadistic’ paedophile, who enjoys inflicting pain, fear and horror. To heighten the torment, they may even tell the child victim that their parents hate them, and ordered this retribution.
Laurence Miller contends that many child molesters seem to deploy primitive child-like ‘defence mechanisms’ such as dissociation – ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ – or denial – ‘they’re not really hurt, they seemed fine at the time’. Another classic psychological inner defence is ‘projective identification’, in which one’s own unacceptable feelings are projected onto the victim; so it’s the child who was viewed as acting seductively.
It’s possible that some families also deploy such defence mechanisms in order to reconcile themselves to the paedophile in their midst. Some paedophiles either manipulatively encourage this process, or it spreads naturally through a close-knit group, as people under stress often need such defences in order to cope.
These powerful psychological mechanisms may explain why some paedophiles don’t get caught for so long.
Laurence Miller comments that few family members will actively collude with blatant criminal sexual behavior on the part of their husband, brother, father, or son who may now be facing prosecution. However, families will rationalize the perpetrator’s behaviour partly because they have a lot to lose if the perpetrator is convicted (home, finances, family reputation, etc.).
Sometimes, Laurence Miller observes, an interesting “flip” occurs when families, who have been rallying on the side of their loved one for some time, are now faced with mounting evidence against him, and abruptly switch to loathing and rejection, partly against the perpetrator, but also partly out of self-denigration for “letting myself be fooled for all these years.”
Nevertheless, Laurence Miller points out, many family members continue to support long after the nature and scope of the offenses has been made clear. Parents are more likely to remain supportive than spouses or children.
Laurence Miller quotes an example of a news story in 2009 of New York’s then oldest registered sex offender, who had his 100th birthday in a correctional facility, while serving a ten year sentence for sexually assaulting two sisters aged 4 and 7. This perpetrator appeared to have used his grandfatherly charm to entrap young victims for over 60 years.
Garry Walter and Saby Pridmore, psychiatrists from the University of Sydney and University of Tasmania, have published in 2012 a study of suicides across the world in publicly exposed paedophiles, entitled ‘Suicide and the Publicly Exposed Pedophile’.
Their examples, published in ‘The Malaysian Journal of Medical Science’, include former Liberal MP and Secretary of State to the Colonies, a 1st Viscount, who killed himself aged 59 in 1922, following publicity over the raping of a 12 year-old boy. But he had been a sexual predator for years previously.
Another example they report is of a famous US paediatrician who shot himself in 2011 aged 71, one day after a class action sexual abuse and malpractice law suit was filed against him, charging that he had performed unnecessary genital examinations on 40 boys. He was also a number one New York Times Bestselling Book author.
Other illustrations they quote include a 56 year old man who had been Texas District Attorney for more than 20 years, who shot himself as a SWAT team entered his home following an investigation by an anti-paedophile group, which had arranged for actors to pretend to be under-aged children making contact with him.
Twenty incidents of suicide in publicly exposed paedophiles were identified from eight countries, with the average age of offenders being Fifty-Three years. These also include a United States Prosecutor, as well as a UK author and academic emigrant to Canada with a PhD in neuroscience.
Of course we never really know why a person who commits suicide does it. But these cases illustrate how really serious family wrecking criminals, often have built socially very respectable careers, just as the ‘successful’ Rolf Harris.
In four of these cases, Garry Walter and Saby Pridmore explain, the evidence suggests they had been perpetrating sex abuse on children in the order of 30 years, and in another four cases for at least 15 years; some were married with families.
Donald Campbell, a psychoanalyst based in London, recently published a paper entitled ‘Doubt in the psychoanalysis of a paedophile’, where he argues that issues of disbelief, particularly the ability of such perpetrators to create doubt in the minds of those around them, might be a fundamental modus operandi.
Donald Campbell, Past President of the British Psychoanalytical Society, refers to a kind of ‘sadistic’ doubt, in his paper published in the June 2014 issue of ‘The International Journal of Psychoanalysis’, where the sex abuser appears to derive sexual gratification from the sewing of seeds of incredulity all around him.
Perhaps uniquely more than in any other crime, at the heart of sex offences, is doubt. This renders the crime particularly psychologically damaging. Uncertainty is planted in the minds of the victim, and of those close to the victim, and the perpetrator, over exactly what happened.
It may be the ability to make people distrust even themselves, is a uniquely manipulative skill of abusers. Grasping this strategy could halt these immoral careers much earlier, as they seem to be some of the longest in criminal history.
A court conviction, followed by sentencing, normally ends the ambiguity for the public, over what happened, in a sex crime.
But for the families of perpetrators, as well as the victims, the hesitation and uncertainty over who someone like Rolf Harris really is, can be a life sentence.