‘Virtuous Pedophiles’ Put Therapists In An Ethical Catch-22

The law often mandates reporting—but some therapists refuse, worrying it does more harm than good

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 23, 2016 at 11:14 AM ET

“Dan,” a 34-year-old from the Pacific Northwest, is sexually attracted to young girls—but he’s determined not to act on it. Despite his attraction, he says he’s never abused a child and would love to see a therapist to keep it that way. “I think I need help,” he says.

Yet, he feels he can’t seek it out, because Dan is afraid of being reported to the police.

“I have seen stuff that is by definition illegal,” he said in an email, avoiding the term “child porn.” “I’m afraid that making that mere admission will expose me to the law.” Dan, who is primarily attracted to middle school-age girls, also worries that any mention of his 12-year-old niece—whom he says, “I love and would never hurt, she is my best friend”—might trigger reporting.

His story highlights a troubling catch-22 for the mental health community—how can therapists help people who are attracted to minors while complying with laws that sometimes obligate them to report those clients to authorities? Many worry that these requirements discourage people like Dan from seeking out help that could reduce their likelihood of offending.

In the United States, mandatory reporting laws are generally intended to protect children who are being abused or in immediate danger of it. But laws vary across the country and, depending on the state and the individual therapist’s interpretation, it can also mean calling the authorities on clients who admit to having viewed child pornography, even accidentally, or long ago abusing a minor who is now an adult. It can require reporting on prepubescent patients who have inappropriately touched a sibling or minors who admit to consensual oral sex with another minor. It might even mean reporting on people who have never touched a kid but actively fantasize about a particular child.

These laws can go so far as to obligate therapists to violate the wishes of adult clients who disclose that they were abused as children but do not want the authorities to be alerted.

Among pedophiles, who are attracted to prepubescent children—as well as hebephiles and ephebophiles, who are attracted to pubescents and postpubescents, respectively—these laws often lead to confusion and terror. In a thread on titled, “Can a therapist report you for pedophilia?” anonymous users discuss the potential perils of seeing a professional, swap horror stories of police interrogations and lost jobs.“I spoke to a therapist and she called the police,” writes a man with the handle Robert_J. Another message board user, Blackquill, warns, “Yeah, my doctor reported me.” Says another, “I would definitely not tell a therapist. They could help you, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.”

This plays out on the message board for Virtuous Pedophiles, a group for people who are attracted to minors but pledge not to commit abuse. In a thread titled, “I can’t do this anymore,” a man writes, “The fear of looking at bad things and the feeling of knowing what I am are things I just can’t seem to live with.” When someone asks if he’s thought about seeing a therapist, he replies, “I have…but I honestly don’t know how I’d go about it. I don’t know what therapists will fuck me over and which ones will help.”

Minor-attracted people (or MAPS as they are sometimes called) aren’t alone in their confusion or concern over these laws. One of the top questions received at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy are from therapists about mandatory reporting, according to a lawyer from the organization. Mental health professionals have a more generalized obligation, what’s known as a “duty to warn,” in the case of imminent threats of harm—say, a client’s serious intent to kill—but some of the state laws around reporting child sexual abuse introduce the need to report a past crime against a minor. That generally isn’t the case when it comes to confessions of, say, a prior murder or rape of an adult.

There is a general consensus among mental health professionals that it is important to report cases of current or imminent child abuse—but many worry that these laws can go far beyond that. In those cases, they say these rules interrupt treatment and discourage people in need of help from seeking it out in the first place. In fact, some therapists quietly refuse to follow these laws—at least fully.

“Frank,” a therapist who asked to remain anonymous for fear of incriminating himself, says he won’t report clients who have viewed child pornography, unless the behavior is current and ongoing, or if a child is in imminent danger. In California, where he practices, the law A.B. 1775 went into effect last year, mandating reporting in cases where a client admits to having ever watched child porn. It also targets people who admit to creating this material—but it’s the bit about viewing that rankles many therapists.

Frank has seen around a half dozen clients who have confessed to watching child porn over the years. When the new law passed, he says he told them, “You can’t tell me directly, ‘I’m looking at child porn.’” Instead, he and his clients agreed upon codewords. “Literally, we’re making up a word for looking at child porn,” he said.

Frank calls what he’s engaging in “civil disobedience.” The alternative, he says is following the law and reporting on clients, which he says, “would destroy the trust irrevocably and they would never come back.”

“Sarah,” another California therapist who spoke on the condition of anonymity, refuses to follow that particular law. “Every therapist I have spoken to about this has said they would not turn their client in and thinks the law gets in the way of the therapeutic relationship,” she said.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist practicing in New Mexico, has treated several people recently whom he would have had to report if he lived in California. “One was a young female college student, who had fantasies of age-play,” he said. “Her boyfriend was a watcher of child porn and used her fantasies to entice her into watching [it] with him. After they broke up, she sought support from me, to understand her fantasies and her reaction to the videos.”

Had he reported her, he says, “It would have done absolutely nothing to prevent future use, nothing to affect child porn, and would have destroyed her life.”

Ben Caldwell, chair of the Legislative and Advocacy Committee for the California division of AAMFT, says A.B. 1775 “was too loosely crafted.” That’s hardly the only issue, he says. The California division has been trying for years without success to amend state penal codes that currently require reporting in cases of consensual sexual activity between minors, even digital penetration.

But, more broadly, Caldwell notes the fundamental tension between reporting and client confidentiality. “Mandated reporting requirements in law exist to protect vulnerable populations from harm, and while certainly imperfect in many ways, they do fulfill that purpose every day,” he said. “Of course, we have no way of knowing how much child abuse or other troubling behavior is not reported to us because of these requirements.”

These laws can sometimes impact survivors of childhood abuse. Jonathan Horowitz, a therapist in San Francisco who specializes in anxiety issues, has had to report a handful of clients. In one case, he reported on a woman who a dozen sessions in revealed that her father had sexually abused her as a child. Caldwell says his reading of state law is that reporting isn’t required in such cases, but when Horowitz called Child Protective Services he was told he had to bring it to authorities. So he did and notified the client. “The client was pretty upset about it and felt it had been a breach of trust,” he said. “We didn’t work together for too much longer.”

“It was the kind of situation where I really wish I was able to use my discretion,” he said. “There was no reason to believe there was a kid in danger currently.”

This isn’t all that unusual. Most states’ laws explicitly limit reporting to cases of child abuse where the victim is still under age 18, but some are unclear, according to the American Psychological Association. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in sexual disorders, says that he’s had to warn adult patients who were abused as children that if they tell him any concrete information, he will have to report. “I know of instances where there have been reports over the objections of victims [who are now adults] and it’s totally disrupted the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the person who’s been victimized,” he said.

“I think there’s some argument to be made that in some cases mandatory reporting is deterring people from getting help that would make the community safer rather than acting as a solution to the problem,” he said.

Mandatory disclosures on clients who admit to committing abuse themselves can also be problematic according to some therapists, although these cases are less likely to garner public sympathy. Consider Dan, with his desire for help managing attraction to little girls—does he pose a threat to his niece? What some, like Michael Alvarez, argue is that mental health professionals should be able to make that determination.

“A clinician is trained, hopefully, to be able to interpret these things in multiple ways,” said Alvarez, a California-based therapist who has spoken out against his state’s law. “Where does discretion occur? Where does experience and training come in?”

But, as always, when people feel they have nowhere else to go, they turn to the Internet for help. Sometimes these minor-attracted virtual communities, which are filled with similarly struggling people without psychological training, are explicitly described as an alternative to therapy. As one Psych Forums user, Clouded_Mentality, writes, “I beg you all, anyone thinking about seeing a therapist, keep to this forum. We’re not experts but we have experience and you can be completely open here without having to worry about the [authorities].”

These laws have also created a space for unlicensed, pro-bono online counselors. Gary, a retired 64-year-old living in Oregon, went to school to become a therapist but was kicked out of his program when he revealed his own pedophilia. Now he spends his days interacting on the message board for Virtuous Pedophiles and taking calls from people in need of help. Several times a week, he talks to someone too afraid to see an actual therapist for fear of being reported to authorities.

But Gary, who readily volunteers that he was “falsely accused” years ago of sexual abuse by a foster daughter, has taken a stance against reporting—even in cases where minors are in immediate danger. (Criminal charges were never brought against him.) Besides, says Gary, he doesn’t gather personal information about his callers, so there is nothing to report.

Last year, he got a call from a man who said he was sexually abusing his 6-year-old daughter. The man had just won sole custody from the girl’s drug-addicted mother. When the girl would get out of the shower, the man said, they would engage in what Gary described as “mutual masturbation.”

Gary says that through their phone calls—which happened three times a week at first—the man “recognized the shower issue” and decided to have his daughter bathe in the morning so she was off at school before “temptation” struck. “That worked,” he said, explaining that the man claims he is no longer molesting the girl.

“I can actually stop the abuse long before it would ever be reported,” argued Gary, who also runs the nonprofit Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention with his wife. “If I didn’t do anything, if I wasn’t involved, how long would that have gone on?”

You are unlikely to find a licensed therapist in favor of maintaining confidentiality in a case like this one, so there will always undoubtedly be a demand online for people like Gary to provide a compassionate ear to anonymous child abusers who want to change. The question is whether the law strikes a good enough balance between protecting kids and keeping the door open for those in need of help—from the minor-attracted uncle who has vowed not to touch his niece to the teenage boy who has looked at child porn to the sex abuse survivor who doesn’t want her case reported.