Clinical psychologists Michael Bourke, PhD, and Andres Hernandez, PsyD, have been making waves in the psychology and law enforcement communities with the recent release of a paper suggesting that men charged with Internet child pornography offenses and those who commit hands-on child sex offenses are, in many cases, one and the same.

"There is this assumption—in the treatment context, in courtrooms, in investigative circles and in the assessment literature—that these are dichotomous groups," says Bourke, Chief Psychologist of the U.S. Marshals Service, who conducted the research with Hernandez between 2002 to 2005 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C. "However, in the course of treatment, these men would disclose to us that their use of the Internet was not the limit of their sexual acting out—it was in fact an adjunctive behavior."

The study, published in the April Journal of Family Violence (Vol. 24, No. 3), analyzed data on 155 men convicted of possessing, receiving or distributing Internet-based child pornography, who took part in an 18-month treatment program. As part of their intensive therapy, the men filled out assessment measures including a "victims list," where they revealed the number, though typically not the identity, of children they had sexually molested in the past.

At the time of sentencing, 74 percent of the men had no documented hands-on victimization. But by the end of treatment, 85 percent had admitted they had sexually molested a child at least once, with an average of 13.5 victims per offender, the study finds. The numbers are more than twice that of other studies, a discrepancy the authors attribute to the fact that this is the first study to examine offenders who have disclosed secret abuse over time, while other studies mainly look at criminal convictions or at admissions made by people outside treatment settings.

"Our treatment team worked for an average of 18 months with each offender, and the environment was one of genuine therapeutic trust" that encouraged the men to tell the truth about themselves, Bourke says.

Before its publication, the paper had been a source of controversy within the Bureau of Prisons. Although BOP had internally vetted the paper and it was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Family Violence, the BOP asked for publication to be halted in 2007, when a public affairs official at BOP discovered that Bourke and Hernandez hadn't modified their paper to include suggested edits made by a BOP lawyer, says Bourke. Those edits minimized the scientific nature of the work by removing professional language and inserting inappropriate replacements that downplayed the significance of the research, including a statement saying that the results could not be generalized to other child pornography offenders, Bourke notes. (The suppression of the study was covered in a July 19, 2007, front-page article in the The New York Times.)

The team held its ground, however, and refused to change the wording.

"We felt it would have been scientifically incorrect to say the findings are not generalizable—we simply don't know the degree to which the results are generalizable to other child pornography offenders," Hernandez explains. "Our study was exploratory, and our aim was to highlight the apparent co-morbidity of two seemingly distinct forms of criminality." Once Bourke took his job at the Marshals Service, he contacted the journal and it proceeded with publication.

Reactions to the study

The paper has been met with both caution and enthusiasm here and abroad.

Fred Berlin, MD, PhD, director of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, says he thinks the team should have more strongly emphasized the preliminary nature of the findings, and noted the lower rates of crossover found in other studies.

"These studies have tremendous implications, both in terms of community safety and in terms of individual liberties," he says. "So we have to be very careful that our conclusions are valid before we get too firmly tied to them." Issues he would like to see addressed in more depth include the possibility that the prisoners over-reported because they were trying to please the therapists or to otherwise seem cooperative, he says.

But Graham Hill, head of Great Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—an independent arm of the Serious and Organized Crime Agency, Britain's equivalent of the FBI—says the findings verify what his agency has seen and suspected for years.

"In our view, the therapeutic relationship is the strength of the survey, because these men are more likely to be truthful with therapists they trust than if they're just filling out a questionnaire," says Hill. So impressed was his agency by the findings that in May it conferred an award on Bourke and Hernandez for outstanding contributions to child protection. The center is now using the findings as a training tool for law enforcement officers, Hill adds.

Meanwhile, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jennifer Eakin says the research and the team's in-depth clinical observations have helped to inform investigative practices at the bureau. In particular, the team's finding that men tend to vastly underreport actual child molestation and offend close to home has steered the FBI to conduct more thorough investigations that aren't just based on child sources and other material they find on the men's computers.

"The research was kind of a revelation for us, and made us much better and wiser at refining our investigations," Eakin says.

Changing the system?

To Bourke, the findings speak to some realities about these crimes and to current flaws in the system.

Because children tend to keep silent about sex crimes, it's easy for men to lie about or to avoid disclosing them, he says.

Meanwhile, clinicians, lawyers and others enable this secrecy by accepting these men's innocence at face value, giving expert testimony to that end, and offering arguments like the "'pop up' defense," where offenders maintain they are innocently browsing the Web when links to child pornography spring up out of nowhere.

When he confronted these men in treatment, however, Bourke heard a different story. The men confessed that they never received unsolicited child pornography—that in fact they had actively Googled search terms related to child exploitation, for instance.

"I've never seen a case that convinces me that the Internet causes an individual to become sexually interested in children, and there are no compelling studies to suggest that, either," says Bourke. "You don't wake up at age 40 suddenly afflicted with a bad case of pedophilia."

Bourke and Hernandez hope others will try to replicate the study, and Bourke is planning to do more research in his role at the Marshals Service. In any case, the study advances the debate on an important and still-shadowy topic, says Britain's Hill.

"The only way we'll move this area of crime forward is by promoting people to talk about it openly," he says.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.