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Abuse Experts See E-Mails as Red Flag

They say congressional leaders should have acted on Foley's `over- friendly' contacts with pages, which suggest predatory behavior.

October 05, 2006|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In explaining how he responded to early warnings of possible sexual misconduct by Rep. Mark Foley, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has suggested that the "over-friendly" e-mails Foley sent to a former page were not explicit enough to alert him to the seriousness of the problem.

But the e-mails were classic examples of the tactics predatory adults use to approach young people and called for close and immediate examination, psychiatrists and other clinical experts on sexual misconduct said Wednesday.

"They do in fact raise a red flag," said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, an expert on psychiatry, law and ethics at Columbia University.

The experts said that congressional leaders' response to the problem -- talking to Foley and telling him to stop -- seldom work in such cases.

"Just saying 'don't do that' isn't really enough," said Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, a Baltimore psychiatrist and former president of the American Psychiatric Assn. "You can't just turn your back on it -- you have to open up that can of worms. There may be something there or there may not be, but you have to open it up."

Instead of investigating, senior officials of the House confronted Foley in private and demanded that he break off communication with the teenage boy, a former page from Louisiana.

Sexually explicit instant messages surfaced only recently.

Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned his seat Friday. He said he had entered a treatment program for alcoholism and other behavior problems.

Through his lawyer, Foley acknowledged Tuesday that he was gay, but he denied ever having had sexual contact with a minor. He also said through the attorney that he had been molested by a clergyman while a teenager.

In the e-mails from 2005 that were first brought to the GOP leadership's attention, Foley asked the former page what he would like for his birthday and requested a picture of him. Appelbaum said such questions could be interpreted as "grooming," a behavior pattern in which an adult sexually interested in a minor first tries to establish a relationship.

"They represent the kind of preliminary grooming that sexual predators often engage in before approaching a victim more directly for a sexual relationship, and hence should have been a warning," Appelbaum said.

"Taken as a whole, [the e-mails] show an adult man of prominent position evidencing a peculiarly personal interest in a boy about whom he knows very little. Taken together, they suggest someone who is trying to establish a personal relationship that ought to at least raise some questions," he said.

After the Foley scandal broke, Hastert, an Illinois Republican, asked the Justice Department to investigate the explicit instant messages for possible violations of federal laws, while defending the decision by his office to deal with the e-mails privately.

The failure to investigate sooner raises questions about House leaders' commitment to protect teenagers in the congressional page program from unwanted advances by lawmakers or adult staffers, said Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis and an expert on sexual misconduct cases involving professionals and public institutions.

"It's a very, very bad model for everybody to think that you have to raise a big fuss to get attention and that simply reporting something isn't good enough," Schoener said.

Hastert has been criticized for his handling of the case, with some conservatives calling for him to step aside as House speaker, while others defend him, pointing out that the teenager's family wanted the matter to be dealt with privately.

But several clinicians said that private admonitions seldom work to break behavior patterns that lead to sexual misconduct.

Some of the explicit instant messages between Foley and one or more pages date back to 2003 -- two years earlier than the e-mail exchange with the Louisiana teenager.

"Conceivably, had an investigation been done, the earlier and clearly inappropriate messages could have been discovered," Appelbaum said of the handling of the 2005 discovery.

The explicit earlier messages are now under investigation by the FBI.

Several experts said that alcoholism, being abused and being gay would not explain Foley's alleged sexual advances.

"His self-admitted homosexuality is not the issue. The issue is what looks like a harassment situation," said Gerald Davison, chairman of the psychology department at USC. "The issue of Foley's sexual orientation is entirely and totally irrelevant."

Likewise, he said, if Foley was abused as a child, it would not necessarily predispose him to become a predator himself.

"Most people who are abused do not become abusers," Davison said.

"One has to be very careful about excusing people for their behavior as adults because of things that happened to them as children."

ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@ latimes.com

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