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Pedophile profile belies urban legends

Debra Rubin, in: Washington Jewish Week, November 9, 2005

People leading otherwise healthy, productive lives can succumb to pedophilia, according to a psychiatrist who specializes in treating such disorders.

Pedophiles don't fit any stereotypes, says Dr. Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School and head of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, both in Baltimore.

In terms of character, they're often "very decent people," he says, yet they have a drive that pushes them in a way that destroys the good things that they have accomplished while damaging young lives.

And, contrary to popular belief, pedophilia is a mental illness that can be treated, says Berlin.

He points to a study he did of more than 400 men with pedophilia. Five years following treatment, he says, only 8 percent of them had lapsed, a recidivism rate that Berlin claims is much lower than for other crimes.

In some ways, pedophilia needs a Betty Ford, Berlin argues. The former first lady spoke openly about her alcoholism, boosting public awareness of that addiction as a treatable disease, rather than a weakness.

With pedophilia, the taboo and stigma are so great that people are extremely reluctant to seek treatment, says Berlin. Such individuals, he notes, commonly conduct secret lives, separate from their public personas.

The good news is that "the overwhelming majority of people who go into treatment do well," he notes.

Another pyschiatrist, Dr. Arthur Small of New York, cautions that treatment only succeeds if an individual with the disorder is very motivated.

Treatment may take the form of group therapy, which allows pedophiles to confront their denials and rationalizations, Berlin says.

In some cases, a sexual appetite suppressant may be necessary. While fewer than 40 percent require such pharmacological treatment, Berlin cautions that "It's not just the people themselves who are at risk and we would always err on the side of community safety."

With its ease of access and illusion of anonymity, the Internet has made it easy for some people to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

"It almost seems like a game" to pedophiles, Berlin says.

The psychiatrist admits that little is still known about what causes such sexual disorders. Pedophilia, he emphasizes, is not a voluntary decision.

"Nobody would ever decide to have those kind of attractions," he says.

Small, meanwhile, points out that a high percentage of pedophiles have been victims of physical abuse themselves.

Berlin laments that while society is quick to want such individuals imprisoned, it is lax in providing proper treatment.

"We need a criminal justice component and a public health component," he says.

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