by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Over 100 children. An idyllic beach town, population 16,000. Often the violations occurred with adults mere feet away. The man rigged protective sheets and pin lights and tiny cameras so parents wouldn’t catch on. Abuse occurred in the basement where he kept the toys he handed out to his victims. He allegedly abused children repeatedly over the course of nearly ten years. The person who finally brought down one of our country’s most prolific pedophiles? A two year old girl whose parents believed her when she said the man had hurt her.
He was her pediatrician – and thousands of other children’s. His patient list included 3,100 children. Nearly 500 counts of criminal conduct have been lodged against him, including words no parent ever wants to utter: rape, sexual exploitation of a child, unlawful sexual contact, continuous sexual abuse of a child, assault, and reckless endangering. The doctor reportedly videotaped many of the assaults. These are the crimes the police and parents know about. There could be hundreds more. Bail has been set at $2.9 million.
Such are the shocking, disturbing, no-sleep-for-mom-tonight details about Dr. Earl Bradley, a Delaware pediatrician indicted in one of our country’s worst serial child abuse scandals . His alleged crimes occurred in the central Delaware town of Milford and the small coastal town of Lewes, Delaware – a popular vacation destination only 120 miles from Washington, DC and Baltimore. Patients, parents, employees and other doctors complained about Bradley over the years. But his role as a trusted community pediatrician protected him, along with the lack of credibility, sexual sophistication and verbal skills of his young patients, allowing Bradley to target children long after serious suspicions arose.
I know you don’t want to hear these sordid details. No parent does. However, there are lessons here for all parents – some of which I discussed with moms (one of whom is a pediatrician herself) on Michel Martin’s Tell Me More NPR segment, “Pediatrician Accused Of Child Molestation Puts Parents On Alert ."
First, talk to your child. Abuse thrives only in silence, so you defuse its destructive power by talking openly about it before it occurs. Explain – in age appropriate terms – what sex is. Try, no matter how clumsily, to explain that some adults want to have sexual contact with children. Emphasize that because adult-child sex is wrong, your kids should tell you if anyone every touches them in private places. Regardless of whether they agreed --some perpetrators persuade kids they want the sexual contact. Regardless of whether it felt nice (genital touching usually does, no matter your age).
Listen to your child. Listen to their body. Think before you force them to kiss and hug adults they don’t know, even if the adults are relatives. Let them pick their own clothes. Let them decide whether it is cold enough to wear a coat. Teach them to protect their bodies and trust their instincts – a form of listening to themselves. Take seriously any complaint – now matter your relationship with the defendant. Dr. Earl Bradley might still be abusing toddlers if that two-year-old’s mother had dismissed the claim that the respected doctor “hurt” her.
Trust your instincts and your child’s – but trust no one who wants to be alone with your child. Crazy and fraught with practical difficulties, I know. However, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that most childhood sexual abuse  is perpetrated by trusted family members and friends. That means it could be your brother, your favorite uncle, the Sunday School teacher, a piano teacher, a babysitter, your husband -- YOU. The trick is being paranoid in your thinking – no one is above suspicion – without infecting your child with paranoia. Children are not equipped emotionally to handle hypotheticals without being scarred for life – and unduly frightening a child is another form of abuse. I guess this boils down to: be a little bit paranoid about everyone who has time alone with your child, but don’t let your child know how dark and suspicious your thoughts are until they are old enough to handle a little darkness themselves.
Lastly, accept the paradox that while we must be vigilant about protecting our children, sometimes we fail. After learning of Dr. Bradley’s alleged crimes, I thought of the small dark vision and hearing test space at my pediatrician’s group practice. Small and dark so the results are reliable. So small and dark that parents are not allowed. Without a care, I’ve let my three kids journey into that room dozens of times over the years. My point being: child sex abuse can happen to any family, no matter the precautions taken.
Pedophiles can be devious, dedicated criminals intent upon deceiving parents and victimizing children too young to defend themselves, perhaps too young to realize anything nefarious has occurred. Sometimes doctors DO hurt patients in the legitimate pursuit of protecting them from devastating viruses, plagues and untreated broken bones and swollen appendixes and Strep throats. How would a two year old girl know the difference between a throat culture, an exam for a yeast infection, and sexual violation? What parent imagines a doctor abusing a child during the three minutes at toy chest selecting a trinket so common to children’s doctors and dentist offices these days?
Dr. Earl Bradley has achieved his worst nightmare: educating parents about the depravity of abusers. Now we can better protect our children from people like him. For me, this means I’m going into the hearing and vision closet no matter how much my beloved, trusted pediatrician protests.