Sex abuse by adults is about power, not gratification

By Veronica Gonzalez

June 20, 2009 /

Earlier this month, a 27-year-old woman who used to teach at Williston Middle School was charged with having sex with a 15-year-old student who attended that school.

Last week, a 61-year-old karate instructor, owner of an after-school program, was charged with inappropriately touching three underage female students sitting on his lap.

The charges involve sexual crimes against four underage children who are being considered potential victims in these cases. All of them are under 16.

While both cases are pending in the judicial system in New Hanover County, they raise the question: How common is child sex abuse at the hands of a person in a position of authority?

Child experts say it’s not that common, but it does happen – especially if an adult gains a child’s trust.

In most cases, children know their abusers, said Dr. Jugta Kahai, a Southport pediatrician and the only child medical evaluator in Brunswick County who examines child victims of abuse. She said that when the person is in a position of authority, children “tend to feel guilty or scared about disclosing.”

In the case involving the former middle school teacher, Jessica Wishnask, who faces charges of indecent liberties with a child, statutory rape and disseminating harmful materials to minors, a police officer spotted her on May 23 parked in a car near Grace Street and North Fifth Avenue having intimate contact with a Williston student, authorities said.

In the case of karate instructor John Maisenhelder, three separate complaints to law enforcement prompted detectives to equip a cooperating witness with a hidden camera to record possible illegal activity between him and students in his after-school program. The secretly-taped videos depicted three different young girls sitting on Maisenhelder’s lap, according to court documents. In one instance, he stuck his fingers in one of the victims’ mouths and touched her breast area inside her shirt and inner thigh, court documents state. Maisenhelder was indicted on three counts of indecent liberties with a child. Neither Wishnask nor Maisenhelder have previous records.

For a victim of abuse, the effects can be devastating, and the traumatic impact on a child can be compounded when adults don’t take allegations seriously, child experts say. Children who are sexually abused can become withdrawn, depressed, aggressive or they can display sexual behavior that is inappropriate for their age, experts say. They can also start regressing and displaying behavior such as bed wetting or masturbating in public, Kahai said.

“Sex abuse is like a boomerang, and if you don’t address it, it’ll come back and haunt you,” said April Pickett, executive director of the Carousel Center, who said that’s how a child victim characterized abuse. The Carousel Center is a non-profit organization that provides services to victims of child abuse and is involved in prosecuting child sex abusers.

Characteristics of abusers

The profile of an abuser is complex. Some may have been abused as a child, but that’s not always the case.

Elena Pezzuto, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice who focuses on relationship counseling and has worked with child victims, said people who are abusers don’t sexually abuse someone for sexual gratification. Rather, they do it for power.

“People who behave this way have internal mechanisms that are confused,” Pezutto said. “They have their own inner dialogue and inner conflict.” She added even if a person has never been previously arrested for child sex abuse, a stressor such as a health, marital or financial problem could trigger the behavior, she said. She added an abuser could have been functioning as a normal adult and the behavior could have been under wraps for a long time.

How it happens

It is not uncommon for children to be abused by those they trust, and that person can include someone in a parental role or a teacher, said Wanda Marino, assistant director of New Hanover County’s Department of Social Services. An abuser knows how to take advantage of the situation because “children are easy to build that trust with,” she said. Furthermore, child predators will often build their worlds around children so they can have easy access to them.

“They know how to manipulate children,” Marino said. “They make themselves accessible to them without us knowing. ... They’ve chosen their profession around children so they can meet their own needs.”

Pickett said that a child sex abuser will begin with baby steps to see how far they can go with the child.

“They might bump into a kid who says definitely not, then they move onto the next kid who is not as persistent at saying no,” she said. “Or they’re just scared. I think it’s hard for normal people to really understand it.”

Most people in positions of authority and trust look out for a child’s best interest, but others don’t, said Susan Corriher, care management director at Southeastern Center Local Management Entity that manages the network of service providers in the area. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, she has worked with child victims of sexual abuse as well as perpetrators.

“It’s a myth that you can tell who’s going to be a child molester by the way they look,” Corriher said. “You can’t tell. In order for them to be successful, they have to be somebody who people on the surface trust. If you had an icky feeling, you wouldn’t leave your child.”

Children who are vulnerable to abuse can be those with low self-esteem or those who otherwise aren’t getting any attention. Adults who are in coaching positions have physical contact with children so the children can become desensitized to being touched. Because of that, a child can become confused when that line is crossed and they are touched inappropriately, Corriher said.

Denying abuse

In Maisenhelder’s case, church supporters and those from his after-school program, family and friends showed up en masse this week for a bond hearing at the courthouse, leaving no seat or space empty in the courtroom.

Afterwards, several supporters said Maisenhelder had never touched their children inappropriately and that they could never imagine him acting in such a way. Supporters said that in Maisenhelder’s job, there is inevitable physical contact with children because they’re learning martial arts. Additionally, his attorney, Woody White, points out that what was recorded on videotape does not depict criminal activity, and law enforcement officers exaggerated the content of the tapes.

But those who have dealt with victims of abuse say it’s not uncommon for people to dismiss the allegations – especially if someone has never been convicted in the past of any wrongdoing.

Moreover, adults can actually be a hindrance in trying to determine whether a child has been abused. Whether it’s parents or the community at large, by denying that the abuse took place, “it perpetuates they were responsible in some way, and their self-esteem suffers,” Dr. Kahai said. “The first thing you can do is to tell a child, ‘It’s not your fault.’ ”

“On the flip side, you can’t necessarily decide someone is guilty till they’ve gone through an investigation,” she said. “Less than 2 percent of children will lie about being abused. A large portion of where the lies comes from are the adults.”

Marino said it’s natural for people to have a hard time accepting that someone in a specific job or with a certain personality could harm a child.

“People find it hard to believe a child – even when they have information about someone they don’t want to believe could be doing this,” she said. “The dynamics of the adult gets in the way of these kids disclosing. If you work in it everyday, you realize that people do this.”

Veronica Gonzalez: 343-2008


Let Go...Let Peace Come In Foundation

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Gretchen Paules and I am the Administrative Director for a newly formed nonprofit called the Let Go...Let Peace Come In Foundation. Our mission at LGLPCI is to help heal and support adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse worldwide. We are actively seeking adult survivors who would be willing to post their childhood photo & caption, their story, or their creative expressions to our website By uniting survivors from around the globe we hope to provide a stronger and more powerful voice to those survivors who have not yet found the courage to speak out or have been cast aside with disbelief. Please consider posting to our website. If you have any questions please feel free to e-mail me directly at this e-mail address. Together we can; together we should; together we NEED to stand up and be counted.

Warmest Regards,
Gretchen Paules
Administrative Director
Let Go...Let Peace Come In Foundation
111 Presidential Blvd., Suite 212
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

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