Word got out this weekend that a fairly prominent member of my profession is a pedophile. Fortunately I don’t know the guy. But this is hardly the first time this happened. A fairly prominent tech journalist turned out to be a pedophile a couple years ago too. Unfortunately this happens, and unfortunately I came into some experience in this area early in life.

I know from experience, you don’t always know until afterward. If it were easy to know, these people wouldn’t get away with it for so long.

The pedophiles in my life

My introduction to the concept of a pedophile came in the fifth grade. And unfortunately there was more than one of them. Each of them fit certain stereotypes, but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

The scoutmaster

I lived in a small town, and he was a respected member of the community. He was a Boy Scout Scoutmaster. He was a member of several civic organizations, and a vice president at a manufacturing company headquartered in the town. The textbook definition of a pillar of the community.

I didn’t like the guy. I couldn’t pinpoint it. When I told my parents I wanted to quit Boy Scouts, the only specific reason I could give was that he wasn’t consistent in enforcing rules. There were some of the older boys who could get away with anything.

I had examples, and one of my friends had examples. But none of it pointed to an open and shut case of pedophilia. It just made it clear the guy wasn’t a role model, because he didn’t believe the same set of rules should apply to everybody. I had good role models growing up, but this guy wasn’t one of them. And the scoutmaster should be a good role model.

Word got out a few months after I quit that he was a pedophile. Our theory was that the older boys who could get away with anything were protecting him, or they were the ones he was abusing, or maybe both. He spent a couple of decades in prison and died in 2006 at age 58. He had been living in a neighborhood everyone would have considered beneath him prior to his conviction.

The pastor

The same year my church hired an assistant pastor. We talked a fair bit. I attended a school run by that church and theology was one of my better subjects. I wasn’t as good at it as he wanted me to be, but who among us is a great Bible scholar in junior high? We went our separate ways in the late 80s, but he went on to become a rather powerful figure in my former church district. When I was on the board of directors of my former church, I ran across him again. There were two major factions in my former church body, and he and I were on opposite sides of it. The people I aligned with were afraid of him. He had a reputation for being ruthless.

And then he got busted in 2010. He ended up spending less than a decade in prison, and as best I can tell he’s out now. But he’s not a pastor anymore. He seems to be making a living and he’s doing something that doesn’t put him in contact with minors and theoretically limits how much damage he can do, so I guess that’s good.

Why didn’t we know?

There’s a dangerous phrase in the English language: I should have known. We never know everything about someone, especially someone we don’t know well. Think about a common icebreaker in social settings. We’ll go around the table and take turns telling everyone something about ourselves that none of them know. I don’t care who you are, you can always come up with something.

One secret about me is that I used to sell used books. I used to hide it because it gave me a competitive advantage. I don’t have any reason to hide that fact about me anymore. So I don’t.

So why didn’t I know the scoutmaster, the pastor, or the infosec professional was a pedophile? The same reason some people don’t know I was a bookseller.

So what should you do?

Second-guessing ourselves is never the right thing to do. I don’t hold my old church responsible for hiring a pedophile. I’m sure it was exactly as much of a shock to them as it was to me.

The right thing to do is to believe victims. I was not a victim of either of the two predators in my early life. But I do know people who were abused when they were kids. And in one instance, there are still people in denial about it decades later. That’s called enabling.

If someone comes to you and tells you about abuse, believe them and help them. It’s a compliment that they trusted you. They deserve your belief and your trust in return.

If someone you know turns out to be a pedophile, condemn the behavior and move on with life. Don’t second guess yourself. When word got out about that infosec professional and people were saying, “I was nice to him!” that’s okay. If you were nice to the pedophile, that’s a reflection on you, not on the pedophile. You’re supposed to be nice to people until you know they’re monsters.

If my legacy turns out to be that I was nice to people until they didn’t deserve it, I’d say I did a good job in life.

But what if the pedophile is a relative?

If the pedophile is an acquaintance or a coworker, you probably can expel them from your life and you probably should. If it’s a family member, obviously that’s harder to do. But they have a debt to pay to society and you don’t have to let your loyalty to them get in the way of that. And while you may not be able to cut them out of your life, you can ensure you never leave children alone with them again, so it doesn’t happen again.