The boys' parents are now left to wonder why they found nothing suspicious in Pearson's deep involvement with their kids. "Is this a normal situation?" White asks. "A 40-year-old guy who's living with his mom, helping coach little boys, who doesn't have a kid on that team? Is that normal?"
Of course, not all such coaches should be seen as pedophiles. Nor are single men the only pedophiles. On June 18, in an Illinois courtroom filled with the parents and relatives of victims, a Cook County judge sentenced Michael Hughes, 33, to 27 years in prison after Hughes pleaded guilty to molesting eight boys, ages 12 to 14, most of them members of his youth football team in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood. Hughes sexually abused most of the boys downstairs during sleepovers at his Hanover Park house, while his wife and two young daughters were in bed upstairs.
"The biggest mistake people can make is to think that it just doesn't happen here, that we're safe," says FBI special agent Roger Young, an expert on crimes against children, who worked on the Pearson case. "The size of the town doesn't matter-sexual exploitation of children occurs everywhere."
Watson and Hughes fit the broad profile of the child molester most often found in youth sports. Though Hughes was married, most such molesters are not. The majority are white males who have average to high IQs and extremely good verbal and interpersonal skills. The majority also claim they were molested as children (though only a small percentage of victims become molesters). While in youth sports leagues the crime most often involves men molesting boys, experts don't view molestation as a homosexual phenomenon; in other settings, such as the home, men molest girls far more often than boys. Nor is pedophilia curable. Like alcoholics, however, molesters can be treated (generally with drugs that diminish their libido), and like all addicts, they are cautioned to stay away from that to which they are addicted—in this case, children.
Kenneth Lanning, an FBI supervisory agent who has written extensively about child molesters, divides them into two groups. The so-called situational child molester isn't a true pedophile because he doesn't prefer having sex with children; rather, he turns to them for any number of reasons—out of boredom or curiosity, in response to a precipitating stress or simply because he is sexually or morally indiscriminate. It's the so-called preferential child molester who's the genuine pedophile, who prefers to have sex with children and seeks them out as partners.
In this second group, there's the "introverted" type, who lacks the interpersonal skills necessary to court a child, so he forcibly molests very young children, or makes obscene phone calls, or exposes himself to kids, or wanders through cyberspace chat rooms talking to children and fellow pedophiles. There's also a "seductor" type, and this is the kind of pedophile most likely to seek work as a coach of children—the likable, chatty, often witty guy who finds in sports an accessible pool of children to prey on. He uses his position as a coach to win over the kids' parents and, through patience and stealth, breaks down the children's inhibitions until he's able to seduce and molest them. Most such pedophiles have an age preference, but what really sets them apart from situational and introverted offenders is the often staggering number of boys they seduce. These sex offenders "will molest more children than any other type," says Young, "anywhere from 12 in a lifetime up to 500 or 600." (Studies have found that the average preferential molester victimizes about 120 children before he is caught.)
Seductors aren't violent; they don't force their victims to have sex. Stemming from ancient Greek, the word pedophile literally means "lover of children," and in fact the seductor sees himself as a kind of Don Juan of deviance. He's the pied piper of molesters. Children often adore him. Parents see him as just the male role model their boys need and invite him to Thanksgiving dinner. All the while, of course, the pedophile is picking out his targets—the boy he senses needs attention, the boy who reminds him of himself when he was young. He believes he truly does love the boys in a way that raises him above other abusers. Lanning says that these seducers see themselves as a breed of pedophile apart. "They get along so well with kids," Lanning says. "They like to talk like this: 'Society confuses us,' they say. 'They mix us up with those guys who abduct and use force and brutalize children. We are child lovers! I've had sex with a hundred children, but I've always asked.' "
While society has no trouble envisioning the violent molester and the child who is forced to submit to a sexual predator, many people are baffled by how adult seducers are able to get young athletes to go along with them voluntarily. "These men seduce children, in this case boys, in exactly the same way that men and women have been seducing each other since the dawn of mankind," Lanning says. In other words, they flirt with them, laugh at their jokes and shower them with attention, with gifts, with affection. "They size up their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their needs," Lanning says. "They will target the kids who are more vulnerable, the kids who are not having their needs met elsewhere. Kids from broken homes or whose fathers travel a lot. A lot of these guys will specialize as coaches on inner-city teams or as coaches of troubled youth."
These extended courtships, which are calculated to break down the child's inhibitions, might take weeks or even months, but the determined pedophile coach knows exactly what he's doing and how to take advantage of his position of authority and trust. Lanning believes there's no easier target for seduction than an adolescent boy. The youngster is not only at a stage of sexual exploration, an innocent in search of his sexual identity, but he's also often in rebellion against his parents, bent on taking risks. And all of this comes at a time when his hormones are in full gallop.
"The only difference between seducing an adolescent boy and seducing a woman is that it's about a thousand times easier to seduce the boy," says Lanning. "Why? The ease of sexual arousal. What does it take to give a 14-year-old boy an erection? A ride on a school bus and two potholes. You are talking about a boy who can be aroused by almost anything." Add to this already volatile mix the use of alcohol, marijuana and video pornography, all used by some molesters to further erode inhibitions, and the seduction can occur with surprising ease.