Can Pedophiles Be Reformed?

Objective evil exists

A few days ago, Paraguayan police officers busted a global pedophile cartel with links to the prime suspect in the possible murder and abduction of Madeline McCann. ∂ The police discovered more than 5000 IP addresses on a seized hardrive that were exchanging child pornography across the globe. McCann, a UK citizen, was abducted in 2007 while her family was vacationing in Praia da Luz, Portugal. She was 3 when she was taken. In the 14+ years since her disappearance, multiple countries have collectively spent millions of dollars trying to find the child without success. 

If you’d like an in-depth analysis of the McCann case, I’d recommend checking out “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann” on Netflix.

Also in the last couple of weeks, German investigators obtained “promising” new information related to the McCann case, which provides further evidence against the number one suspect, Christian Brueckner. ∀ Brueckner is currently incarcerated in a German prison for raping a 72-year old woman in 2005. He owned a house within a few miles of the resort in Praia da Luz. Authorities uncovered buried hard drives filled with child pornography at his property. ∩

Initially, this struck me as a grim reminder (not that we need one…) that true evil exists. The story made me livid, and it reminded me of Christ’s warnings to those that lure or drag innocent children into sin.

“...it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9:42

Madeline McCann in 2007 (age 3)
Christian Brueckner, 44

Pedophilia is an incredibly tough subject to discuss dispassionately. Few beliefs unite people across the ideological spectrum together more strongly than the claim that child abuse is evil. However, some activists claim that pedophilia is not as black and white as we think.

I am a freedom of speech absolutist and I subscribe to John Stuart Mill’s view that the best path to truth is to allow all competing ideas to be expressed openly rather than attempting to suppress “bad” ideas. I admit that it is difficult for me to not view pedophilia as a monstrous evil. Nevertheless, I am going to try to “steel man” these activists’ arguments and will try to curtail my biases.  

Gerry and Kate McCann holding up a computer-generated aged photo of their kidnapped daughter several years after Madeline's abduction.

What these activists' arguments do not say

In addition to obvious moral arguments for why pedophilia is morally repugnant, there are prehistoric evolutionary reasons for this belief; species that do not prioritize the protection of children will not be able to sustain population growth. This is especially true for humans. Unlike other species (giraffes, horses, whales, etc.), human babies are completely helpless at birth, and they remain extremely vulnerable until adolescence. Because of the immense resource costs of raising a human infant and the long road to autonomy, early humans had to fiercely protect infants to ensure continuity of our species.

My initial response to the suggestion that pedophilia was a nuanced topic was anger at what I perceived to be propaganda by pedophilia apologists – similar to the ideas expressed in 1970s French academic circles. After reviewing some of their statements, I believe the current activists have a different outlook than the French moral relativists. 

The seminal postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault, who was himself accused of pedophilia, famously claimed that children are capable of sexual consent. Θ ‡ ζ In 1977, he and other famous postmodern philosophers (Jacques Derridas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Pierre Althusser, etc.) lobbied the French government to abolish age of consent rules related to sex with individuals under the age of 15. ξ This effort was in response to the prosecution of three men who were accused of having sex with adolescent girls and boys (age range was 13-14).

This animosity towards objective moral standards is characteristic of French postmodern thought. Adherents argue that any form of objectivity (moral, legal, scientific) is unattainable, as an individual’s perspective is intrinsically biased by that individual’s unique contextual characteristics and vantage point.

Anthropologists have subscribed to a similar, but distinct, form of relativism for more than a century; anthropologic study requires cultural relativism, which states that one culture’s practices should not be normatively judged through the lens of a different culture. ∃

According to this view, it is not coherent for an American citizen to judge the practice of female genital mutilation. Similarly, it is also incoherent for a Chinese parent to judge the Western notion of individualism, which can lead to selfishness and disrespect for elders. I recognize that this notion has utility in anthropological context, since it promotes an unbiased view of different cultures, which leads to richer insights than simple moral pontification. Nevertheless, I believe that female genital mutilation, along with many other practices, is a moral travesty, regardless of cultural context.

Michel Foucault

Defenders of “Monsters” or Protectors of Future Victims?

As mentioned, some advocates argue that my initial response of disgust and rage towards pedophiles can be counterproductive. In a recent BBC op-ed, a self-identified 60-year-old former pedophile argues that maternal childhood sexual abuse was responsible for his sexual deviance. β He describes how therapy helped him overcome his disorder and lead a normal life with a wife and family. His story moved me; there is no doubt that his childhood trauma was harrowing. Unlike moral relativists, he explicitly states that he would never have abused a child, despite his physiological urges. Thus, he acknowledges that sexual activity with minors IS objectively morally wrong because there is inescapable harm involved in that activity. He is not a moral relativist like Foucault. In his case, his conscience (and his recognition of the harm inherent to the act of child molestation) trumped his perverted desires.

The gentleman’s story is not a defense of pedophilia; it is an anecdote that suggests pedophilia can be treated successfully. Obviously, an anecdote proves nothing and, because the author does not provide a name, it is impossible to check the veracity of his story. However, if this anecdote can be replicated on a population-wide scale, then the number of future molestations can be reduced by correcting the disorder that motivates them. I am skeptical that all instances of pedophilia can be cured with therapy (granted, I have ZERO expertise in this area), and I’m very skeptical that all instances of pedophilia are caused by sexual abuse, but the possibility of redemption is cause for celebration. There is a reason why prisons are called departments of “corrections” – the prison system is supposed to reform criminals, which rarely happens. Even the reform of a small number of pedophiles is positive news. In the article, the author mentions his work with StopSO, an organization that seeks to prevent sexual abuse through proactive therapeutic treatment. He worries that attitudes like mine towards pedophiles decreases the likelihood that pedophiles with a conscience will seek treatment. This seems like a reasonable concern.

Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, echoes the same concern. Ξ To my delight, she makes an economic argument for preventative treatment, which is the same valid case made for all forms of preventative treatment: preventative treatment saves money for the taxpayers. In healthcare, preventing chronic health conditions from occurring costs far less than treating them in an acute inpatient setting. In the case of pedophilia, if the condition is treatable, the cost of preventative treatment is much less than cost of legal expenditures, law enforcement operating fees, and other public costs that arise from the criminal justice system. This dollar amount obviously does not include the suffering of victims’ and the loss of human potential.

Letourneau mentions that the most effective rehab programs prioritize pedophiles with the highest risk of molestation. Therefore, high-risk pedophiles must be willing to risk outing themselves in order to receive treatment. She mentions the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at the Charité, a German treatment center that specializes in treating both non-offending male pedophiles and offending male pedophiles. The vast majority of pedophiles are male. Leaders of the treatment center attribute the organization’s success to Germany’s stringent patient confidentiality laws. Unlike America, where care providers are compelled by law to report potential criminals to law enforcement, behavioral patients in Germany enjoy total confidentiality with mental health providers. This provides more incentive to seek treatment, as the risk of being outed is substantially reduced.

The German Institute that Letourneau notes runs a program called Project Dunkelfeld. ∅ Some non-German pedophiles have moved to the country to be near the organization out of desperation; they sought treatment in their home countries only to experience apathy, rejection (doors slammed in their faces), or outright hostility (threats of being reported to the authorities). Dunkelfeld’s work can be seen in the documentary, “The Paedophile Next Door,” which can be viewed here. Pedophilic patients are told that they cannot be “cured.” Rather, they are given tools to cope with pedophilic urges:

“The treatment includes helping participants to understand the child’s perspective, learning to cope in potentially difficult situations such as birthday parties, and developing ways to overcome bad habits such as viewing pornographic images or having sexual fantasies, which can increase the likelihood of a paedophile offending.” ∅

Many critics understandably say that this type of therapy elevates pedophiles as victims instead of prioritizing therapy for actual victims of pedophilic molestation. This criticism is particularly relevant when policy makers discuss the possibility of allocating taxpayer dollars towards pedophilia therapies. Advocates of pedophilic therapy, such as Letourneau and the Charité Institute, argue that the best way to protect child victims is to give pedophiles tools to prevent molestations from occurring in the first place. 

Is Effective pedophile therapy too good to be true?

As a former psychiatric patient who has benefited tremendously from counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy, I am always supportive of exploring advances in therapeutic techniques (especially those that are not purely pharmacological). Nevertheless, there are not robust data available on pedophile recidivism rates, the percentage of pedophiles that are non-offenders versus offenders, and the percentage of pedophilia cases that are a result of childhood trauma versus those that are “born pedophiles.” It is difficult to calculate ROI for a program whose efficacy cannot be measured with precision. 

There’s another harrowing element to consider here. Pedophilia is not the sole driver of child molestation. ∩ Experts state that many child molesters are not pedophiles. Non-pedophilic child abusers, of which the prime suspect, Christian Brueckner, in the McCann murder case appears to be an example, molest children because they are easy prey, not because they’re children. Their age is not the appeal; it is their lack of defense. As mentioned, Brueckner is currently incarcerated for the rape of a septuagenarian woman. His vice is abusive power, an umbrella category that includes pedophilic molestation and murder. Thus, even if all pedophiles were cured, there would still be child predators.

What do you think? Can pedophilia be combatted with therapy? Should we mimic Germany’s total confidentiality guarantee to encourage pedophiles to seek treatment? Or does protecting pedophiles’ confidentially unjustly endanger vulnerable children? I have family members and friends that were molested as children. They shudder at the thought of treating pedophilia like depression or other conventional mental illnesses. I completely understand their trepidation and I share some of their knee-jerk reactions. However, there was a time when people like me (who suffered from anxiety and depression) were locked in asylums and viewed as pariahs, weaklings, or simply mad. These are difficult questions to answer.

∂ Turner-Cohen, Alex. (2021). “Paraguay cops dismantle global paedophile ring with links to Madeleine McCann.” 7 News Australia. https://7news.com.au/news/missing-person/paraguay-cops-dismantle-global-paedophile-ring-with-links-to-madeleine-mccann-c-2889192 

∀ Hockaday, James. (2021). “Madeleine McCann detectives ‘given dramatic new evidence against prime suspect’”. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2021/05/13/madeleine-mccann-detectives-given-dramatic-new-evidence-against-prime-suspect-14572863/

∩ 60 Minutes Australia. (2020). “Shocking new evidence: Madeleine McCann’s suspected killer revealed.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pvqu9Wd388c

Θ Foucault, Michel., Hocquenghem, Guy., Danet, Jean. (1978). “The Danger of Child Sexuality.” https://www.uib.no/sites/w3.uib.no/files/attachments/foucaultdangerchildsexuality_0.pdf

‡ Doezema, Marie. (2018). “France, Where Age of Consent Is Up for Debate.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/frances-existential-crisis-over-sexual-harassment-laws/550700/

ζ Campbell, Matthew. (2021). “French philosopher Michel Foucault ‘abused boys in Tunisia’.” The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/french-philosopher-michel-foucault-abused-boys-in-tunisia-6t5sj7jvw

ξ (1979). “Lettre ouverte à la Commission de révision du code pénal pour la révision de certains textes régissant les rapports entre adultes et mineurs.” Archives Françoise Dolto. http://www.dolto.fr/fd-code-penal-crp.html

∃ Baghramian, Maria., Carter, J. Adam. (2020). “Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/#CulRel

β Anonymous. (2020). “Paedophiles need help, not condemnation – I should know.” BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/3216b48d-3195-4f67-8149-54586689ae3c

Ξ Letourneau, Elizabeth. (2014). “We Need to Make It Easier for Pedophiles To Seek Help.” TIME. https://time.com/3486493/preventing-child-sex-abuse-stephen-collins/

∅ Connolly, Kate. (2015). “How Germany treats paedophiles before they offend.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/16/how-germany-treats-paedophiles-before-they-offend

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