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Observa's story

May 21st, 2003

Observa has sent me a further instalment of his story of his family’s brush with paedophilia. As he observes “it has been a difficult task for me to write about an emotive issue, when I am largely a facts and figures technocrat.” I agree with Observa’s comment in the Monday Message Board that:

“My view is that society needs to discard its sense of taboo on the subject of paedophilia and separate fact from fiction. The outcomes for individuals are too important to be swept under the carpet.”

This is obviously a difficult issue, and the comments about it have lacked the dogmatic certitude that characterizes a lot of blogging (including a fair bit of mine, I admit). I’ve collected the entire thread into a single post, which you can read below.

Observa has sent me a further instalment of his story of his family’s brush with paedophilia. As he observes “it has been a difficult task for me to write about an emotive issue, when I am largely a facts and figures technocrat.” I agree with Observa’s comment in the Monday Message Board that:

“My view is that society needs to discard its sense of taboo on the subject of paedophilia and separate fact from fiction. The outcomes for individuals are too important to be swept under the carpet.”

This is obviously a difficult issue, and the comments about it have lacked the dogmatic certitude that characterizes a lot of blogging (including a fair bit of mine, I admit). I’ve collected the entire thread into a single post, which you can read below.

Observa writes

I realize this is a difficult topic for many. Perhaps I can recount my own brush with paedophilia to elucidate some of the emotions, surrounding this issue.

Fourteen years ago, my own daughter, then a toddler of two, was abducted and interfered with in a large suburban shopping mall. My wife, and another kindy mum acquaintance at the time, were out shopping with five young children in tow. My son was then six and the oldest of the other mum’s trio was perhaps only a year or so older than he. Now you might say this was a recipe for trouble, but it is a familiar sight in any busy shopping mall. Kids soon get hungry and thirsty and they all lunched at the food hall upstairs as part of their big day out.

Five boisterous young’ns at the table and the inevitable happened. A drink was spilled all over my daughter’s cardigan sleeve and she was upset and crying, at being wet and uncomfortable. My wife slipped off her denim halter-neck dress to remove the wet cardigan as well as the long sleeved top underneath. As the special detectives pointed out later, it was most likely that the brief sight of a young toddler in only her pants and socks and shoes, had at that moment, added another more sinister person shadowing this innocent group, on their fun day out at the mall. My wife, being used to small tragedies like the upset drink, had slipped on a spare T-shirt she carried, replaced the largely dry, denim dress and the party continued on their way, all refreshed and chirpy again.

They halted outside a small costume jewellery and trinket shop downstairs, where the display stands were almost as numerous outside as in. The mothers fossicked among the busy stands moving further into the shop, all the while, checking on the children’s whereabouts. Suddenly my wife was aware that her youngest was no longer with the group. With a helium filled balloon tied to her wrist (while the older children clutched theirs), my daughter had probably walked around a large display carousel near the door, to be swept up by a male stranger in his thirties. He then walked left of the doorway out of sight, around the corner, past an ice-cream shop and left into a corridor which contained a number of store room doors, toilets, etc. As I came to realise only too well, he was carrying one of the most precious human beings in my life, walking toward an exit door at the end of the corridor, which led to the car-park outside. A woman serving in the ice-cream shop recalled later to detectives, seeing the common sight of a ‘father’ carrying a fractious child (with a balloon) as he passed by.

Aware of her missing child, my wife immediately began to move about the displays scanning the store for her 2 yr old. ‘Where’s Suzanne?’ she posed to the other mum. ‘She was right here with the others’ was the reply but with increasing alarm my wife was already at the door of the shop, scanning into the, not overly crowded mall, for her ‘lost’ daughter.

The shop was located at the corner of the main meeting place of four broad walkways. Directly across the way were the escalators to the upper level and beyond them the main entry doors to the mall. The toddler could not possibly have made it to the escalators, nor the entry beyond. Nor did it seem she could have made it across the mall to the walkway to the left of the escalators. Aware that she could have turned the corner into the walkway opposite the escalators(indeed the way she was taken) my wife scanned in this direction to no avail. Returning to the other mum, with a quick conference, my wife agreed to check the store next door to the right, while her friend double- checked with the trinket shop staff, that there was no escape for a toddler at the rear of the store. Returning again to the group after a fruitless search and enquiry of the shop next door, there was only one course left. One mum would take the remaining children upstairs with her to administration to raise the alarm, while my wife widened her, by now, frantic search of the mall. A two year old had apparently vanished in the blink of two mums’ eyes!

While one increasingly desperate mother searched in and out of shops enquiring after her daughter, another older mother, who worked in a flower shop, went to take a toilet break in the staff toilet, in the service corridor I spoke of before. She walked to the, last but one, door from the exit in this corridor and was inserting her staff pass key in the door when something puzzled her. From behind the last door, which she knew to be a handicapped toilet, she heard a small child crying. She moved to that door and knocked on it calling out, ‘Is everything allright?’ With that, the door opened and she looked straight into the face of man in his thirties, who brushed past her and walked quickly up the corridor, back into the mall. Instinctively this mother knew something was terribly wrong. As she glanced from crying toddler back to the retreating man, the horror of what she had interrupted struck her motionless. She wanted to cry out to stop the man escaping but the words wouldn’t form. Instinctively, this mother turned to calm the distressed child and help her find her ‘mummy’.

A desperate and tearful mother, who had heard the public address description of her lost child, while she searched in vain, was returning via the escalators, to see if there was any news of her daughter at administation. She was overjoyed to meet another mum at the escalators carrying the object of her search. She gushed with relief and thanks as a precious infant was transferred. It seemed her distress had dissolved completely when the other woman said ‘There is something more you should know. I think we should go up to the administration office.’

The next 24-48 hours were to bring some considerable tumult into the lives of a number of people touched by this inexplicable incident, which would take some time to recede, depending on their individual closeness to events.

For the general public, a few brief column centimetres on the front page of the next morning?s metropolitan newspaper would give an anonymous toddler her 5 minutes of fame and no doubt sour the day?s start for many a parent reading it. The radio news bulletins that day, briefly describing the place, time and circumstances, would no doubt have a similar effect, but would be necessary to elicit any information available from the public, to assist police with their investigations. For shop-owners, staff and shoppers at the mall on the day, the news of a paedophile?s activity would be more immediate, as a police forensic team cordoned off a corridor and swept the handicapped toilet for finger-prints and any other evidence that could place a possible defendant at the scene. Detectives would begin to approach shop-owners and staff for any information, no doubt causing a buzz of consternation around the mall. One young woman serving in the ice-cream shop would learn she had seen the paedophile and his victim.

The anonymity of a newspaper article or brief radio bulletin, would mask the reality of an intense crisis period for a small infant?s family. The news of an unexplainable act would ripple out in increasing circles, intensely at first for immediate family members, on through an extended family as well as friends and acquaintances. A father, grandparents, aunts and uncles and close friends. This infant had a widowed grandmother, herself one of eight brothers and sisters, most of them grandparents themselves. How many hours would she spend with her brothers and sisters explaining how her own daughter and child were coping? The morning after the abduction I can remember phoning my younger married sister, yet to start her own family, with the news. ? Have you heard about the 2yr old abducted from the mall yesterday? Well?..? It must have been my tone for the immediate response was- ?Oh my God not Suzanne!? More shock and tears and she would recall being chilled at the time of reading the article, when the thought had crossed her mind that this toddler could be just like her precious niece. I can recall dropping into work briefly the next day to break the news to my tradesmen. These were all bikers who rode speedway and motocross. Indeed one had received the Iron Man award for finishing with broken ribs in The News 24 Hour Trial, when two thirds of the field retired in shocking weather conditions. A fearless bunch, they had no stomach for this news as they shook their heads in stony silence and disbelief at what had befallen one of their favourite little visitors. Yes it seemed like weeks were crammed into those few short days.

Back at the Mall?s administration, my wife would again experience some anxious moments as she learned the circumstances of her youngest being found. With some trepidation she would satisfy herself that there were no signs of sexual penetration or interference. While the police were summoned, she would call her family doctor for advice. As much as he would like to help, she would have to have her child examined shortly thereafter by a Specialist in sexual assault from the Child Protection Unit or some such. This would confirm her own diagnosis. With brief statements, description and particulars taken the police hunt for the perpetrator had begun quickly and in earnest. They would treat this incident as a major crime and would leave no stone unturned in order to apprehend this man. This was in their view, a very extreme example of paedophilia and they wanted this man in custody swiftly. With small children beginning to flag, it was decided the group would return to our home where they could be contacted as necessary.

My wife had decided with police permission to call at my work with Suzanne to explain their ordeal. From there we would all return home to wait for further police contact. In deciding on this course my wife was following her own intuition that the news would be easier to digest, with an apparently unconcerned toddler present. This intuition would prove to be outstandingly correct. Curiously enough, those who heard the tale with an effervescent, bubbly and irrepressible toddler present, would appear to handle the news much better, than would those, for whom she could not be present at the time. The latter group often commented, that they felt much better about the incident, once they had seen her for themselves. In this regard, they seemed to be more perturbed with a mental picture of what impact they as adults perceived it would have, rather than what a toddler had perceived or experienced. Perhaps adults have to slay some of their own mental dragons and I may touch on this again later.

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  1. May 22nd, 2003 at 00:13 | #1

    this is a very interesting thread. thanks to observa for sharing and john for preserving.

    the last paragraph is very thought provoking and i await observas further posts.

    it seems he is pointing towards the fact that we imagine the worst, and that in doing so we may often make psychological effects worse, for ourselves and perhaps the child later on. thankfully in this instance it appears the worst was indeed avoided.

    (im just thinking aloud here on an important and obviously emotive topic, but await observas further posts)

  2. Observa
    May 22nd, 2003 at 00:45 | #2

    Thanks John. I have realised while writing about my brush with paedophilia that I, like most, am fairly ignorant about the subject. With this in mind I did a Google search using- (Paedophilia + Australia + statistics) -which produced some 1400 results. I found an interesting precis of paedophiles modus operandi, from a law enforcement perspective under http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/rpp/12/ch3.pdf which I can highly recommend as a starting point. It did separate a fair bit of fact from fiction for me. Notice that my daughter’s experience was extremely atypical of paedophile behaviour(there seemed to be little opportunity for ‘grooming’ here). I can now understand better the intense police action as a result. It was somewhat comforting to read that paedophiles seldom physically harm their victims. The thought that this man could have continued on through the exit with my daughter, is not one I care to dwell upon. Also in browsing a small no. of these links, I was quickly struck by the lack of any hard data on paedophilia. The problem of under-reporting and hence the need for guesstimating, quickly abound in the literature. I haven’t had much time to follow some of these links, but perhaps the readership would like to post some with comments that they have found interesting or thought provoking.

  3. May 22nd, 2003 at 09:27 | #3

    I’m reminded of a conversation my wife Jenny and I had with one of Australia’s leading forensic psychiatrists Dr Rod Milton, after he gave evidence in the trial of the man who murdered Jenny’s mum in front of my (then) 7 year old daughter. We had expressed concern about what the experience might mean for Rebecca’s future development. Dr Milton suggested that there were very strong grounds for optimism. A negative experience involving criminal acts by a stranger, even quite horrific actions, usually won’t have long-term drastic adverse consequences for a young child as long as the parents react appropriately: remain loving and supportive and don’t over-react (the latter being the hard bit in the circumstances). On the other hand, where the criminal act is committed by a trusted person close to them, the effects are MUCH more serious and long-lasting, because the child experiences this as a betrayal that shakes their entire world in a drastic way and impairs their ability to form trusting, loving relationships from that point on.

    Thus, while Observa’s story was certainly worth sharing and makes some useful points, it says little or nothing about the sorts of child sexual abuse currently in the news involving priests and others in positions of trust. They are in a completely different and much more serious category. Those incidents often had drastic adverse long-term consequences for the children involved, not because their parents over-reacted, but because of the gross breach of trust by the priest and its powerful effect on the child’s forming psyche. In fact in most cases the parents didn’t react at all at the time, because no-one found out about the abuse until years later.

  4. May 22nd, 2003 at 11:30 | #4

    “they seemed to be more perturbed with a mental picture of what impact they as adults perceived it would have, rather than what a toddler had perceived or experienced…adults have to slay some of their own mental dragons ”

    This is off-message but it is germane to a much less dramatic incident in my own personal experience which shed light on the character of courage.
    Recruit course for the pre-PC army can’t compare with the terror of a lost child, but I do remember the padre giving us a pep talk to the nervous diggers prior to the ordeal.
    He asked us if we could recall the second sentence the Angel uttered to Mary on the Annunciation. Being dopey diggers, none of us could recall.
    After a long bout of head-scratching, brow-furrowing and false-starts the padre finally relented and told us they were: “Fear not, Mary”.
    The moral of the story was, your imagination will usually be worse than the reality. So don’t be afraid to push on, no matter how bad it looks at first blush.
    My recent panic attack during the Iraq war, brought on by an worst-case-scenario fed “inability to slay mental dragons”, vividly illustrates that point.
    Apart from death itself, the crises of life do not usually turn out as bad as they seem,
    So, as mothers and sergeant majors are prone to say, “get on with it and stop whingeing”.

  5. Observa
    May 23rd, 2003 at 02:34 | #5

    Ken raises an interesting point about paedophilia. On the one hand society could simply view it as belonging to a set of causes for adult dysfunction which includes mental and physical abuse of children, as well as emotional and physical neglect.

    He points out that while a malevolent criminal act(and probably severe accident and sickness could be included here also) can have similar dysfunctional consequences, a loving and caring environment can largely ameliorate this. I would agree. This is clearly not the case in the former causal group above(although I guess paedophiles might like to argue another case here).

    On the other hand he then seems to assert that paedophilia, particularly ‘involving priests and others in positions of trust’, is the odd man out(pardon the expression). Why? Because ‘they are in a completely different and much more serious category’. But are they? Where is the evidence for this? Is not all abuse/neglect of children a betrayal of trust in adults?

    Now the perception of paedophilia as more abhorrent than the others, may simply be one of absolute betrayal for society. ie the notion of the paedophile pretending to care for and ‘groom’a vulnerable child for his(and they largely are)own gratification. When the child matures and realises this, then presumably dysfunction is heightened above all others. Is this societal perception true however? The article I alluded to above summarises the notion that reported paedophilia seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Question- Do we only get to hear from the dysfunctional adult byproducts of paedophilia, who really faced the other causal effects, rather than those who did not? Also to what extent does society’s abhorrence of paedophilia exacebate the problem for the individual? Have we as a society with this dragon, contributed to the problem of guilt, shame and betrayal for victims of paedophilia, in much the same way as we did for homosexuals in the past?

  6. May 23rd, 2003 at 09:37 | #6

    Observa,

    I mustn’t have made myself clear enough. I agree that any betrayal by a trusted/loved significant adult figure engenders significant psychic damage for a child. That includes phsical and emotional as well as sexual abuse, and “trusted” figures include priests and teachers as well as parents and grandparents. The extent of psychic damage will depend on the nature of the abuse, the closeness of the trusting relationship prior to the abuse, and the age and resilience of the child.

    By contrast, what Dr Milton was suggesting was that abuse by a stranger, even where the conduct is much more extreme, will not usually result in such drastic, long-lasting psychic consequences for the child. It’s the betrayal of trust that leads to the damage more than the conduct itself.

  7. May 23rd, 2003 at 13:35 | #7

    Thanks to Observa for sharing that event and to John for providing the forum for it.

    I would tend to agree with Ken’s somewhat generalised comment above – I’m not out to deride it by calling it generalised, I know what he is trying to illustrate. Both Mrs Bargarz and I experienced unwelcome attentions when we were in our very early teens and it’s certainly true in our experience.

    In my case, it was during a family holiday overseas; I was away from the family exploring (which I love to do) and was wandering a crowded marketplace. A very personable and friendly man befriended me near a stall and we started shooting the breeze. After a while, he’d almost convinced me that I should meet his friends (“Big party, lots of nice girls” he promised). By the time he’d led me into a stairwell I was getting suss. Lucky I did cos after a while, he lost patience trying to convince me to go further inside and started to get physical.

    After a period of shock, fright and total paralysis, I eventually got away before too much had happened by burning him with my cigarette (ironically one recently offered by my “new friend”) and ran like hell. I was very lucky that day and I learnt some valuable lessons on trust, situational awareness and personal safety.

    I got over it but I never told my family. What helped me was to remember something my mum used to say when I was very young and had asked her why she worked several jobs (she was single mum then and worked many shifts); “No-one said life had to be fair,” she told me.
    And it’s not. It’s what we make of it and we all face potholes on the way. I was able to accept my brief and uncomfortable experience as a $hitty thing and leave it at that. If it never happened again, it would be a cheap lesson on life… trust is a right that is earned, not a privilege.

    Mrs Bargarz’s situation was quite different. I have no right to tell her tale other than to say that she was not alone, her experiences were a lot worse, happened several times and was at the hands of a trusted authority figure – in this case a school tutor. Very serious. Her recovery took years and in some respects, will never be fully complete. But she has not let it hold her back in achieving her goals and succeeding in her profession. She has her whole life ahead of her after all.

    We have several friends who had these sorts of experiences to varying degrees. One’s was horrifying and was committed by their father over several years while the mother knew and remained silent. Unforgivable. Their family was eventually torn apart by it.

    Not to denigrate anyone’s experience but the best thing is to move on. Intellectualising over what is a very emotional event is only useful to a degree. At some stage the practicalities of life take over… You can’t change the past. You can’t even stop the embarrassment and the shame. But you have to realise it isn’t your fault and you can take charge of your life and move on. You simply have no choice.

    It’s no exaggeration to say that many people are affected by such vileness. And the vast majority of those people pick themselves up and get on with their lives because they can’t do anything but. The resilience and courage expressed of some people I have met is incredible but I can’t even begin to imagine the levels of horror that a parent of a lost child would experience. I hope I never will.

    A chance encounter with evil is terrible but the sustained betrayal by a trusted authority figure is not only bewildering and terrifying, it is made worse by the self-doubt and isolation it brings to its victims.

  8. May 23rd, 2003 at 13:53 | #8

    actually as observa is alluding to, perhaps its not the betrayl of trust but societies emphasis on how abhorrent paedophilia is (observas dragon) that causes damage.

    the link to homosexuality is a reasonable analogy. if, in the eyes of society, theres nothing wrong with homosexuality, how could anyone have any psychological affects of having or continuing to have homosexual encounters.

    there are two questions here:

    1) does our (justifiable?) outrage at paedophilia actually reduce the incidences of paedophilia?

    2) does our outrage increase the suffering of those who have already been the subject of abuse?

    the answer to the first could very well be no. hypothetically, the answer to 2 might be yes, so a rational course of action would be to reduce our outrage, as this would lead to no extra incidences of abuse, but merely less psychological damage when it does occur.

    im sure this may sound horrible, but imagine (again for the sake of argument) a case where being abused was the same as getting lost from your parents as a child, which has happened to all of us (i spent a couple of fun hours on bondi beach sans parents when i was about 2). parents would still not want their children to be lost, but afterwards, if the child is found safe and sound, no big deal is made, except to avoid it happening again.

    if this was the same with abuse, perhaps things would be better off? im not saying it should be a light matter, but observa raises some interesting points in this direction.

  9. Observa
    May 23rd, 2003 at 14:21 | #9

    Ken,
    Your comments and clarifications are ones I would personally align with and Dr Milton’s insight was appreciated. I have learned that my daughter’s case was very atypical. Also given her age, there was no impact on her personally. It was the adults around her, that had to deal with their demons, while she remained oblivious to their concerns.

    This is clearly not the case for more typical adolescent victims of paedophilia, with memory of events. This is where I was probing the idea you yourself (and probably Dr Milton) encapsulate in your last sentence- ‘It’s the betrayal of trust that leads to the damage more than the conduct itself.’ If this is true then at what stage does the victim feel betrayed(and hence the damage done) and can their sense of betrayal be heightened by our demons.

    Is the corollary of this, that an adolescent faced with a rotten home life is better able to cope, because his realisation of his circumstances is a more gradual process. In this regard I am reminded of a high school teacher mate of mine, who chooses to teach in schools where this latter group are more prevalent. His philosophy is- ‘Forget the educational outcome concerns of middle class schools mate! I’m here to be a mature adult rock in the lives of these kids as they break their frustrations all over me. If I can offer them a decent adult role model and a few useful insights along the way, it’s the best outcome I can hope for’.

    Clearly then, these adolescents do have the gradual opportunity to understand their different circumstances. How do the betrayed victims of paedophilia learn? Does Dr Milton have any insights into this or have any studies been done?

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