Interview with Rachel Mitchell (Part 1)

Rachel Mitchell is the Sex Crimes Bureau Chief of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona. She has extensive knowledge of the field of child sexual abuse in general as well as its impact on religious organizations. On November 3, 2011, Ms. Mitchell gave a lengthy telephone interview with FrontLine magazine. Below are extensive excerpts from that interview.

This is Part 1 of two parts. This interview was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of FrontLine. UPDATE: The article has been updated to include additional content left out of the print version.

FrontLine: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Rachel Mitchell: You’re welcome. It is my pleasure.

FL: How long have you been with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office?

RM:Nineteen years.

FL: You are currently the Bureau Chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau. About what percentage of the Bureau’s workload involves sexual offenses against children?

RM:I would say somewhere between sixty and seventy percent.

FL: How did you first get involved in dealing with cases of sex crimes against children?

RM:Actually it was nothing that I intended to go into. I was waiting for bar exam results working as a law clerk in the Office. I was paired up with a senior attorney, actually the former Bureau Chief of Sex Crimes, who was working a case that involved a youth choir director as the offender. It was different than anything that I would have ever imagined it being. It intrigued me, and I continued to do other work with that bureau chief. It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were. When I became an attorney with the office I prosecuted other kinds of cases, but I was drawn back to this area.

FL: What kinds of activities are you involved in to help with prevention?

RM: Individually I work with lots of different churches and denominations by educating them and raising their awareness. I have also taught organizations such as schools and churches on the Arizona mandatory reporting law. That is not necessarily just prevention but response too. We also go out as a bureau to educate parents and kids on safety issues, including online safety issues. In my unit we prosecute computer crimes involving the sexual abuse of children. That includes the use and exchange of child pornography online, but it also includes children that are lured online, meaning that offenders are contacting them online and attempting to get together with them. So we teach Internet safety and being safe on social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook so that information that should not be shared is not shared.

FL: Do you find that churches and other religious institutions are generally receptive to your message?

RM:It is a very individual thing. Some churches are very receptive to the teaching. With some churches you get the sense that people are there because they have to be. Usually, though, when they hear the information that we provide, they do respond positively. Some churches are not interested in it. It is a very individual thing.

FL: Do you think you can explain why some churches or other religious organizations might not be receptive to your message?

RM:I think the first level is that people have the mistaken beliefs that make it difficult for them to grasp that child sexual abuse can happen in a church. One of these is the idea that abuse is typically committed by strangers. Another misconception is that you can identify these people, that there is a look of sorts. That is one problem, not being aware that it could happen.

The second problem is that some churches are very concerned about protecting their reputation, and so they do not want to acknowledge that they could be vulnerable. This is not unique to churches; it is common even in individuals. If we do not want to acknowledge that there is a possibility, then let’s just ignore it. That is just not realistic.

Unfortunately the wake-up call for a lot of organizations, not just churches, is a lawsuit. Typically when people get sued over this is not because there is a problem, but because they find out about the problem and they ignore it.

FL: Apart from the age of their victims and nature of their crimes, are there significant differences between child sexual offenders and other kinds of offenders?

RM:I would say yes. A lot of crimes involve individuals acting out of very basic urges such as greed or even desperation, as in the case of addictions. These types of cases are fairly straightforward; they steal a car or they rob a business. There is no manipulation involved. On the other hand, child sexual offenders are typically very manipulative. Children are picked out because they are vulnerable. Typically there is a great deal of planning that goes into molesting a child. The offender is looking for a child who is first of all vulnerable in that they are not going to tell, or if they tell they are not going to be believed or appropriate actions are not going to be taken. That is a lot more planning and manipulation than the average criminal does.

FL: The terms “child molester” and “pedophile” are often used synonymously. Is this use of terms accurate? What term or terms are standard in law enforcement?

RM:“Child molester” means someone that sexually abuses a child, that is, someone under eighteen years old. A pedophile is someone who has a sexual interest in prepubescent children. So a child molester is not necessarily a pedophile; they could be someone that could be predatory toward teenagers, and they could also have other sexual interests so that from the outside looking in they may appear to be completely normal. They may have a wife or a girlfriend or an apparently normal family life. That does not mean that they cannot molest a child.

One thing that people need to understand is that sexual abuse legally can include things that do not involve hands-on offending of a child. For example it can involve exposing oneself or providing pornography to a child or filming or photographing a child. So it does not actually have to be a sexual act that takes place. In general terms we could say that it is anything of a sexual nature aimed toward a child.

FL: There seems to be a strong and growing consensus that child molestation is a very common and widespread evil. What is your sense as to the prevalence of the problem?

RM:Statistics often cited are that one in four girls and one in five boys have been sexually abused. Statistics can change depending on how you define sexual abuse, but I believe that there has been some pretty good research, retrospectively interviewing people as to whether they were molested and whether they ever told. I think that has given us a pretty good picture that it is very prevalent, justifying in general terms those one-in-four and one-in-five numbers.

FL: Are there common misconceptions about sexual offenses and offenders against children? If so, what are some of the most significant?

RM: First, I would say the largest misconception is that “stranger danger” is the rule rather than the fairly rare exception. About 90–95% of victims know the person who is offending against them.

Second, a very common misconception relates to when and how children tell. People think that children would tell right away and that they would tell everything that happened to them. In reality children often keep this secret for years, sometimes into their adulthood, sometimes forever. And they may or they may not tell everything. They may partially disclose to see how people are going to react to them. “I’ll tell you the least embarrassing thing first, and I’m going to see whether you are going to get mad at me or whether you are going to help me. Then if I get a positive response, I may tell some more.”

Third, there is a perception that this happens in secret, but the reality is that it frequently happens with others present in the same house and often in the same room. There was a study where they interviewed offenders about this specific issue. What they found was that 54.9% had molested with another child present. It is an excellent “grooming” technique because it is telling the child watching, “This other child is being molested and is not telling and no one is helping that child, so when I molest you next you shouldn’t tell, and nobody is going to help you either.” Twenty-three point nine percent molested with another adult present, and that is effective because if the child thinks that the other adult is aware, whether or not the adult is aware of what is going on, then, the child, depending on the parental education the child has received, may think that the behavior is okay or may think that no one is going to help them. Then 14.2% molested with both an adult and another child present. So it is a very common thing.

Fourth, another huge misconception that I see is that child pornography for sexual offenders is not that serious, and that some people do not see that as [a crime with] an actual victim. In reality child pornography, whether a picture or a video, is an image of a child being sexually abused. Also, even the mere possession of child pornography is highly correlated with a person acting out against a child. The Butner study talks about people who were sentenced for child pornography offenses alone, and after their cases were adjudicated and they were being treated the number of hands-on victims was staggering. So it is highly correlated to hands-on offending. It is not a victimless crime. It is not uncommon for offenders to possess commercial pornography and create pornography themselves.

Fifth, it is important to understand that demographically sexual offenders are about the same as the general population when it comes to having a religious preference. In fact they look like us. Demographically they are very similar to the general population. Economically, educationally, racially, religiously, they are demographically the same.

Part 1 of “Interview with Rachel Mitchell” – Part 2 here.

Due to the importance of the issue of child protection, we are publishing in serial format the entire articles on the subject appearing in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of FrontLine. These articles will be made available in downloable format as soon as our serialization is complete.

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