No Easy Answers

Sexual deviance and child abuse are uncomfortable — even deeply disturbing — topics. We don't like to think about them. And we certainly don't appreciate having them pushed upon us, whether in conversation or in the pages of a magazine.

But what happens when a sexual predator moves into your neighborhood? What happens when a sheriff's notice or, in a display of openness, a handwritten note from a sex offender's father appears in your mailbox? What happens when you are not only forced to confront your fears about sexual abuse and the safety of your children, but you also must explain the topics to those children?

These are the questions Jacqueline Marino raises this month in "The Predator Next Door" (see page 114). She examines a Parma neighborhood in the months after Michael Koch, a sexual predator, comes to live with his father after being released from 6 1/2 years in prison for molesting his stepdaughter. As you might expect, it's a neighborhood in upheaval, deeply concerned for the safety of its children.

But in interviews with Koch, Marino also shows a man who would like to move beyond his past, get a job and reconstruct his life.

The story is difficult to read at times — and not just because the accounts of abuse are somewhat explicit and the deep trauma that Michael Koch caused his stepdaughter is painful to witness. On another level, there's also something unsettling about someüof the actions and anger exhibited by a few of the neighbors. After Koch's father sent a note to residents informing them of his son's arrival, public officials organized a meeting to discuss the issue without inviting the Kochs. Someone even posted a sign at the entrance to the subdivision warning that a sexual predator lived nearby.

According to Marino, since that contentious gathering there's been very little communication between the neighbors and the Kochs or attempts at understanding.

Still, though it seems odd to say, some good things may have arisen from Koch's arrival in the neighborhood. Programs have been organized to keep kids safe and to watch the neighborhood.

But it shouldn't take the arrival of a sex offender for us to take such actions. Even Koch himself admits as much.

"The bottom line is they should have been concerned before I came into this community," he told Marino, "because of the possibility that anyone could come into the neighborhood and do this. Any relative, any uncle."

Indeed, warning our kids against someone just because he carries a sex-offender label has the potential to create a false sense of security. Our don't-talk-to-strangers warnings are too simplistic and often misunderstood by our children. Ask a grade-school child what a stranger looks like and many will describe something akin to a monster.

In fact, most children are abused by someone they know. Studies suggest that between 70 and 90 percent of sexually abused children had some type of relationship with their abuser, according to Parents for Megan's Law.

As the father of three small children, I can't say how I'd react if put in a similar situation as the families in Pinetree Estates. It's certainly natural to want to push aside thoughts of sexual deviance or child abuse, to release them quickly. Denial and anger are certainly ways to do so.

There are no easy answers about how to deal with the increasing number of registered sex offenders living in our communities or how to keep our kids safe from the offenders who have not yet been caught.

But it's important that we begin to confront these issues, to discuss them and to begin educating our children and ourselves. No matter how uncomfortable, it's important that we start now.

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