little boy  

Deconstructing the Myths Advanced by the Film "CApturing the Friedmans"

"Capturing the Friedmans" is Andrew Jarecki's powerful and artistically executed film about the events that led to the arrest and conviction of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse for child sexual abuse in Great Neck, Long Island in 1987. Arnold Friedman was a popular high school science teacher who offered computer classes for school-aged boys in the basement of the home he shared with his wife and three sons. The Friedman's lives changed dramatically when the U.S. Postal Service began investigating Arnold after he ordered child pornography from Europe. The investigation eventually resulted in Arnold and his then 18-year-old son, Jesse, pleading guilty to molesting a number of the children who attended the Friedman's computer classes.

Jarecki's documentary creatively interweaves recent interviews with old home movies shot by the eldest Friedman boy as the events were unfolding. The result is a complex story where truth appears ever elusive and the Friedmans appear to be victims of an hysterical overreaction by the police. In the end, the film steers audiences toward doubting the credibility of alleged victims and questioning the guilt of two confessed pedophiles. This is accomplished through omitting reference to some of the most damning evidence and by reinforcing popular myths about child sexual abuse. Societal acceptance of these myths and misconceptions assists sex offenders by silencing victims and encouraging public denial of their painful crimes.

The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence is committed to supporting justice, protecting children, and promoting responsible research and information on child abuse. We believe that society benefits when the public has access to accurate information and have prepared this analysis in an effort to promote public education about this important issue.


Myth 1:  Children who are being abused would immediately tell their parents

The fact that none of the boys attending Arnold Friedman's computer classes disclosed abuse until after the police discovered child pornography in the Friedman house was cited by the film as a reason to doubt the boys' testimony. Research, however, shows that failing to disclose is common as children who have been sexually assaulted often have considerable difficulty in revealing or discussing their abuse.

For example, a recent large scale national survey screened over 4,000 women for a history of completed rape in childhood. The investigators found that less than 12% of such rapes were ever reported to the police (Hanson et al., 1999). Another nationally representative survey of over 3,000 women revealed that of those raped during childhood, 47% did not disclose to anyone for over 5 years post-rape. In fact, 28% of the victims reported that they had never told anyone about their child rape prior to the research interview. Younger age at the time of rape, a family relationship with the perpetrator, and experiencing a series of rapes were all associated with delayed disclosure (Smith et al., 2000). Research findings show that boys are even less likely to report sexual abuse than girls. A review of 5 community-based studies showed that rates of non-disclosure among women run from 33% to 92%; among men from 42% to 85% ( Lyons , 2002).

It appears that fears of retribution and abandonment, and feelings of complicity, embarrassment, guilt, and shame all conspire to silence children and inhibit their disclosures of abuse (Pipe & Goodman, 1991; Sauzier, 1989). For instance, sex offenders typically work to make the victim feel as though he or she caused the offender to act inappropriately, and to make the child feel that they are the guilty party. As a result, children often have great difficulty sorting out who is responsible for the abuse and frequently blame themselves for what happened. This tactic is particularly effective with boys. In fact, research with abused males has found that the more severe the abuse, the more likely the boy is to blame himself and the less likely he will disclose the abuse (Hunter et al., 1992). Reluctance of boys to disclose abuse may also be traced to the social stigma attached to victimization, along with fears that they will be disbelieved or labeled homosexual (Watkins & Bentovim, 1992).

In the Friedman case, the victims described the grooming process that Arnold Friedman used to gain their compliance. Initially, according to the boy's reports, they were encouraged to play a pornographic video game and instructed to keep this activity secret from their parents. Feeling guilty and complicit in this initial secret, the child later found it increasingly difficult to disclose what was happening to their parents as Arnold 's sexual activities slowly escalated. Moreover, as the abuse increased, so did the level of coercion. Some of the children reported that Arnold Friedman had threatened to hurt them and their families (Bessent, 1989). The effectiveness of these types of manipulations in silencing victims has been repeatedly documented in reports of those victimized by teachers, priests, and family members.

Bessent, A. E. (May 28, 1989). The Secret Life of Arnold Friedman, Newsday ( Long Island , NY ) (on-line:,0,1599081.story )

Hanson, R. F., Resnick H. S., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Best, C. (1999). Factors related to the reporting of childhood rape. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23 , 559-69.

Hunter, J. A., Goodwin, D. W., & Wilson, R. J. (1992). Attributions of blame in child sexual abuse victims: An analysis of age and gender influences. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1, 75-89.

Lyon, T.D. (2002). Scientific Support for Expert Testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation. In J.R. Conte (Ed.), Critical issues in child sexual abuse (pp. 107-138). Newbury Park , CA : Sage.

Pipe, M. E., & Goodman, G. S. (1991). Elements of secrecy: Implications for children's testimony. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 9 , 33-41.

Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse. Psychiatric Clinics of North America , 12 , 455-69.

Smith, D. W., Letourneau, E. J., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., & Best, C. L. (2000). Delay in disclosure of childhood rape: Results from a national survey. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24 , 273-87.

Watkins, B. & Bentovim, A. (1992).  The sexual abuse of male children and adolescents: A review of current research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33 , 197-248.

Myth 2:  Children who are being abused will show physical evidence of abuse

A lack of physical evidence of sexual assault was raised in the film as a reason to doubt the charges against Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse. However, in the Friedman case, the evidence against Arnold and Jesse -- in the form of multiple eye-witnesses, pornography, and confessions, including that of another perpetrator, was so overwhelming the prosecutor chose to spare the children the trauma of a genital examination. Although he was not mentioned in the film, Ross Goldstein, the then 19-year-old friend of Jesse, was arrested along with the Friedmans. Mr. Goldstein admitted to the crimes, identified the victims from photos, corroborated much of the testimony of the children, and was prepared to testify against both Arnold and Jesse Friedman (See Bessent, 1989; Howe, 2003; Vitello, 2003).

Moreover, research shows that abnormal genital findings are rare even in cases where the perpetrator admits the abuse. Some acts, like fondling and oral sex, leave no physical traces. Even injuries from penetration heal very quickly in young children and thus abnormal genital findings are not common unless children are examined within 48 hours after the abuse. For example, one large scale study found that only 4% of the 2384 children referred for medical evaluation of sexual abuse had abnormal examinations at the time of evaluation. Even with a history of severe abuse such as vaginal or anal penetration, the rate of abnormal medical findings was only 5.5% (Heger, Ticson, Velasquez, & Bernier, 2002).

Bessent, A. E. (May 28, 1989). The Secret Life of Arnold Friedman, Newsday (Long Island, NY),0,1599081.story

Heger, A., Ticson, L., Velasquez, O., & Bernier, R. (2002). Children referred for possible sexual abuse: medical findings in 2384 children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26 , 645-59.

Howe, D. (June 16, 2003). Arresting Images â€" Documentary Asks: Hysteria or Truth? Washington Post

Vitello, P. (July 27, 2003). Commentary: Interesting, not accurate. Newsday (LI, NY)

Myth 3:  Child molesters molest indiscriminately

Not everyone who attended the computer class run by Arnold reported having been abused. Some have interpreted this to mean that the children who did report abuse were therefore lying. In truth, sex offenders tend to carefully pick and set up their victims. Thus while sex offenders may feel driven to molest children, they rarely do so indiscriminately. Interviews with sex offenders show that the offenders often gain children's trust by using bribes, gifts and games; and by desensitizing them through touch, talk about sex, and persuasion (Elliott, Browne & Kilcoyne, 1995). As a result, rather than being a sudden, initially traumatic occurrence, most sex between children and adults involves a gradual "grooming" process in which the perpetrator skillfully manipulates the child into participating (Berliner & Conte, 1992). To ensure the child's continuing compliance, sex offenders report using bribes, threats, and force (Elliott et al., 1995).

Below, a young pedophile describes the careful planning that went into finding his next victim.

When a person like myself wants to obtain access to a child, you don't just go up and get the child and sexually molest the child. There's a process of obtaining the child's friendship and, in my case, also obtaining the family's friendship and their trust.  When you get their trust, that's when the child becomes vulnerable and you can molest the child. (Salter, 2003, p. 42)

Berliner, L., & Conte, J. R. (1995). The effects of disclosure and intervention on sexually abused children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 371-84.

Elliott, M., Browne, K., & Kilcoyne, J. (1995). Child sexual abuse prevention: What offenders tell us. Child Abuse & Neglect. 19, 579-94.

Salter, A. C. (2003). Predators: Pedophiles, rapists and other sex offenders: Who they are, how they operate, and how we can protect ourselves and our children . New York : Basic Books.

Myth 4:  If asked about abuse, children tend to exaggerate and are prone to making false accusations

Contrary to the popular misconception that children are prone to exaggerate sexual abuse, research shows that children often minimize and deny, rather than embellish what has happened to them. In one study, researchers examined 28 cases in which prepubescent children had tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease by forensically accepted procedures. To be included in the study, the children had to have presented for a physical problem with no prior disclosure or suspicion of sexual abuse and were required to have adequate expressive language capabilities. Each of the 28 children was interviewed by a social worker trained in abuse disclosure techniques and use of anatomically correct dolls. Only 12 of the 28 (43%) of the abused children interviewed gave any verbal confirmation of sexual contact (Lawson, & Chaffin, 1992).

Another study involved a perpetrator who pled guilty after videotapes documenting his abuse of ten children were found by authorities. Because of these detailed visual recordings, researchers knew exactly what had happened to these children and were able to compare the videos to what the children told investigators when they were interviewed. Despite this abundance of hard physical evidence, the researchers found a significant tendency among the children to deny or minimize their experiences. Some children simply did not want to disclose their experiences, some had difficulties remembering them, and one child lacked adequate concepts to understand and describe them. Some of the interviews even included leading questions, yet none of the children embellished their accounts or accused the perpetrator of acts that he hadn't actually committed (Sjoberg & Lindblad, 2002).

Lawson, L., & Chaffin, M. (1992). False negatives in sexual abuse disclosure interviews. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7, 532-42.

Sjoberg, R. L., & Lindblad, F. (2002). Limited disclosure of sexual abuse in children whose experiences were documented by videotape. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 312-4.

Myth 5:  Normal-appearing, well educated, middle-class people don't molest children

One of the public's most dangerous assumptions is the belief that a person who both appears and acts normal could not be a child molester. Sex offenders are well aware of our propensity for making assumptions about private behavior from one's public presentation. In fact, as recent reports of abuse by priests have shown, child molesters rely on our misassumptions to deliberately and carefully set up a double life.

According to Dr. Anna Salter, Ph.D., a foremost expert in sex offenders, "a double life is prevalent among all types of sex offenders . . . . The front that offenders typically offer to the outside world is usually a `good person,' someone who the community believes has a good character and would never do such a thing" (Salter, 2003, p. 34).

Dr. Salter notes two common tactics that sex offenders use to hide their activities. First, they frequently seek positions which give them access to children and then adopt a pattern of socially responsible behavior in public. This causes parents and others to drop their guard and allow them easy access to children. Their second weapon is the ability to charm, to be likeable and to radiate sincerity and truthfulness. This too is crucial to their goal of gaining access to children. In fact, Dr. Salter has found that the life a child molester leads in public may be exemplary, almost surreal in its righteousness. In her book, Dr. Salter presents the following description written by a child molester who had used his position as a church choir director to gain access to boys.

I want to describe a child molester I know very well.  This man was raised by devout Christian parents.  As a child he rarely missed church.   Even after he became an adult he was faithful as a church member.  He was a straight A student in high school and college.  He has been married and has a child of his own.  He coached Little League baseball.  He was a Choir Director at his church.   He never used any illegal drugs.  He never had a drink of alcohol.   He was considered a clean-cut, All-American boy.  Everyone seemed to like him.  He was a volunteer in numerous civic community functions.  He had a well-paying career job.  He was considered "well-to-do" in society.   But from the age of 13-years-old he sexually molested little boys.   He never victimized a stranger.  All of his victims were friends.  . . I know this child molester very well because he is me!!!!

Soon after writing this, the author of this confession was released on parole.  Upon release, he quickly infiltrated a church where he molested children until he was again caught and returned to prison (Salter, 2003, pp. 36-37)."

Salter, A. C. (2003). Predators: Pedophiles, rapists and other sex offenders: Who they are, how they operate, and how we can protect ourselves and our children . New York: Basic Books.

Myth 6:  Hundreds of innocent men and women have been falsely accused and sent to prison for molesting children

"Capturing the Friedmans" raises the question whether America is in the midst of a hysterical overreaction to the perceived threat from pedophiles. Laden with references to "mass hysteria", the film is currently being used as a fundraising tool for the release of convicted sex offenders (see Jesse Friedman's website ). However, an examination of the facts behind these claims reveals that although some early abuse cases may have been mishandled, there is no evidence that innocent people were routinely targeted by law enforcement for unfair prosecution.

For many years child sexual abuse was ignored, both by the law and by society as a whole. In the 1980s, when the scope of the problem began to be acknowledged, the police began to arrest adults accused of child abuse. A backlash quickly formed and police and prosecutors were soon accused of conducting "witchhunts." Although some early cases were handled badly -- mainly because the police had little experience in dealing with child witnesses -- there is little evidence to back the assertion that there was widespread targeting of innocent people. Moreover, the cases from the 1980s where guilt is most in question, involved very young children. The victims in the Friedman case were all school-aged children with good verbal skills. Research has found children in this age group to make reliable witnesses (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).

Overall, research from the 1980s shows that while child sex abuse was shockingly common, few cases were reported to the police. To determine the true incidence of child sexual abuse, in 1985 the editors at the Los Angeles Times commissioned a random national survey. Researchers talked by telephone to 2,627 men and women from every state in the nation. Twenty-two percent of those questioned (27% of the women and 16% of the men) reported that they had been sexually abused as children. Many of the abuses uncovered by the survey were of the most serious kind, with over half of abuse victims reporting that intercourse was involved in their molestation. Abusers included relatives (23%), friends and acquaintances (42%), and strangers (27%). A third of the victims said they had never told anyone about their experiences until this survey, usually because they felt afraid or ashamed. Of those who did tell, 70% said no effective action was taken. While over 96% of the victims felt that permanent harm had been done to them by the sexual abuse, only 3% of the cases were ever reported to the police (Timnick, 1985).

Further research showed that of the few cases reported to authorities, relatively few accused offenders were ever investigated or charged. For instance, the first National Incidence Study (Finkelhor, 1983) found that criminal action was taken in only 24% of substantiated cases of child sexual abuse -- a finding replicated by Sauzier (1989). After reviewing numerous studies, Bolen (2001) noted that in the end, offenders may be convicted in only 1-2% of cases of suspected abuse known to professionals. And even then, most convicted child molesters spend less than one year in jail.

Based on the high prevalence of sexual crimes against children on our society, it strains credulity to assume that the small number of cases that were actually prosecuted during the 1980s constituted a "witchhunt", or that somehow mostly innocent people were targeted for prosecution. In fact, statistics suggest quite the opposite; child abusers are rarely identified or prosecuted.

Arnold Friedman only came under investigation after he was arrested for ordering child porn. In addition, Arnold admitted to being a pedophile. In a letter to his lawyer, Arnold Friedman "is heard rationalizing the difference between a wounding predatory pedophile (which he wasn't, he claimed) and a caring and considerate pedophile (which he considered himself to be)" (Well, 2003).

Bolen. R. M. (2001).  Child sexual abuse: Its scope and our failure. New York: Kluwer Academic.

Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403-39.

Finkelhor, D. (1983). Removing the child -- prosecuting the offender in cases of child sexual abuse: Evidence from the national reporting system for child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 7, 195-205.

Sauzier, M. (1989). Disclosure of child sexual abuse: For better or for worse. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 455-69.

Timnick, L. (August 15, 1985). The Times poll: Twenty-two percent in survey were child abuse victims. Los Angeles Times , p. 1.

Well, J. (2003). Hollywood Elsewhere: Return of Jarecki. Movie Poop Scoop.

Myth 7:  By using repeated interviews, therapists or police can easily implant false memories and cause false accusations among children of any age

The movie suggests that the Friedman's accusers, under police questioning, may have invented molestation stories to please an authority figure. It further suggests that inappropriate, suggestive therapies may also have shaped the allegations against the Friedmans.

The assertion of suggestive therapy practices is contradicted by a statement by the two main clinicians who worked with the victims in the Friedman case. Dr. Sandra Kaplan and Dr. David Pelcovitz of NorthShore University Hospital in Long Island, both of whom are well-known experts in the field of psychological trauma, provided group therapy for the Friedmans' victims. Drs. Kaplan and Pelcovitz emphasize that hypnosis was never used in the treatment of these children and that no therapy was offered until after all forensic evidence was gathered by the police (Pelcovitz, personal communication with Dr. Joyanna Silberg, January 11, 2004).

Although research has consistently shown that children rarely confabulate about having been abused and that false allegations are rare (Everson & Boat, 1989; Jones & McGraw, 1987; Oates, et al., 2000), the potential for false allegations continues to be an area of great concern in sex abuse cases. Recent research suggests that these concerns have been greatly exaggerated ( Lyons , 2001).  Research shows that older children (such as the school-aged boys in Mr. Friedman's computer class) are much more resistant to suggestive questions than younger children (such as the preschoolers who are the focus of most suggestibility research) (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). In addition, there is a substantial body of laboratory research which finds that children are quite reluctant to discuss embarrassing events (Lyon, 1999; 2002).

Overall, laboratory research using suggestive questioning has consistently shown that negative events, especially events involving a child's genitals, are relatively difficult to implant in children's statements. In fact, research shows that children are more likely to fail to report negative experiences that actually did happen to them, than falsely remember ones that did not .

For example, Saywitz, Goodman, Nicholas, and Moan (1991) studied the memory of 72 five and seven-year-old girls for a standardized medical checkup. Half of the children received a vaginal and anal examination as part of the checkup; while the other half of the children received a scoliosis examination instead. The children's memories were later solicited through free recall, anatomically detailed doll demonstration, and direct and misleading questions. A major finding of this study is that the vast majority of vaginal and anal touch went unreported in free recall and doll demonstration, and was only disclosed when children were asked direct, doll-aided questions. The children who received a scoliosis exam never falsely reported genital touch in free recall or doll demonstration; and false reports were rare in response to direct questions.

It is also important to point out that many of the children in the Friedman case exhibited post-traumatic symptoms. For example, it is has been reported that some of the boys developed symptoms such as fearfulness, wetting their bed, and having difficulty sleeping. Some even took baseball bats to bed with them because they were so afraid of retaliation after having disclosed (Bessent, 1989). To date no laboratory or clinical research supports the notion that multiple school age children can falsely remember elaborate details of sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted teacher, corroborate each other's stories in independent interviews, and develop post traumatic symptoms -- based solely on police interviews or suggestive therapy.

Bessent, A. E. (May 28, 1989). The Secret Life of Arnold Friedman, Newsday ( Long Island , NY ),0,1599081.story

Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). The suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403-39.

Everson, M.D., & Boat, B. W. (1989). False allegations of sexual abuse by children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 28: 230-5.

Jones, D. P. H., & McGraw, J. M. (1987). Reliable and fictitious accounts of sexual abuse to children. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 27-45.

Lyon, T.D. (1999). The new wave of suggestibility research: A critique. Cornell Law Review, 84, 1004-1087.

Lyon, T.D. (2001). Let's not exaggerate the suggestibility of children. Court Review, 28(3), 12-14.

Lyon, T.D. (2002). Scientific Support for Expert Testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation. In J.R. Conte (Ed.), Critical issues in child sexual abuse (pp. 107-138). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Oates, R. K., Jones, D. P., Denson, D., Sirotnak, A., Gary, N., & Krugman, R. D. (2000). Erroneous concerns about child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24, 149-57.

Pezdek, K., & C. Roe. (1997). The suggestibility of children's memory for being touched: Planting, erasing, and changing memories. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 95-106.

Saywitz, K. J., Goodman, G. S., Nicholas, E., & Moan, S. F. (1991). Children's memories of a physical examination involving genital touch: Implications for reports of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 59, 682-91.

We hope this information is helpful in debunking these common and dangerous myths. For more information on the story behind the film see:

Annotated Bibliography on Capturing the Friedmans

January, 2004