Child Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual Abuse – Is the Stranger the Danger?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
J. Michael Sharman
            While Ryan D. Jennings was waiting for a late-night flight from <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />San Diego to Dulles International during the 2005 Christmas holiday season, he met and befriended a 13 year-old girl and her 11 year-old brother who were flying back to D.C. on the same plane as he was.
            If the two children had thought to call their parents and tell them about him, the 24 year-old Jennings would have seemed like a safe enough person for the kids to be around. His local paper back home in Mechanicsville, Virginia was constantly reporting him making the Dean's List at his college. Besides, what could happen onboard an airplane with all the airline attendants and passengers around?
The Federal Courthouse for Dulles Airport is in Alexandria, Virginia. The morning after the flight Jennings was arraigned there on a charge of Abusive Sexual Contact.
When Jennings' jury trial was held on April 13, 2006, news and film crews from all over the world lined the sidewalks and encircled the courthouse. But they weren't there for Jennings – his jury trial just happened to be held at the same time as the Zacarias Moussaoui 9/11 terrorism trial.
The judge who had previously arraigned Jennings, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, was busy hearing the jury phase of Moussaoui's sentencing. Jennings' own jury trial was presided over by Judge T.S. Ellis, III.
The captain of the plane and some passengers who had seen what happened back on that December night flight testified that Jennings sat next to the 13 year-old victim, drank wine sold to him by the plane's attendants, and sexually assaulted the girl as she slept under a baby blanket.
            The jury ruled that Jennings was guilty. His sentencing is set for July 7, 2006. The maximum time he can get on a charge of Abusive Sexual Contact is two years.
            For many of us, Jennings doesn't fit the idea of what a child molester should look like. A lot of us still have in mind the type of molester pictured in the old poster put out by the FBI to warn kids about the "stranger danger". The poster showed a man with his hat pulled down, hiding behind a schoolyard tree, waiting with his offered bag of candy for an unsuspecting little girl to wander toward home all alone.
            That picture just isn't accurate any more, if it ever was. As retired FBI Agent Lanning says, "The myth of the typical child molester as the dirty old man in the wrinkled raincoat has been reevaluated based on what we have learned about the kinds of people who sexually victimize children. The fact is child molesters can look like anyone else and even be someone we know and like."
            Even with that caveat that a molester doesn't look like the sinister figure of the old FBI poster, we still would like to think that we can protect our children from harm if we can just teach them the advice written on that old poster: "For your protection, remember to turn down gifts from strangers, and refuse rides offered by strangers. Say no, yell, and tell."
But far and away, a 13 year-old girl is most likely to be molested by someone she knows. Agent Lanning was right when he said the molester can even be someone we know, only 10% of the girls that age are sexually assaulted by strangers.
We don't have to worry so much about what happens to our kids when they are out in public as we do when there in a place we would usually trust. The most likely place for a 13 year-old girl to be sexually molested is in a home. For girls that age, that's where 70% of their molestations take place.
The arrest and trial of Ryan D. Jennings is newsworthy because while in his case, the stranger actually was the danger, it isn't normally so. For every girl molested by a stranger like Jennings, nine more are sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust. Those are the cases which are tougher to prevent, more difficult to detect, and the pain to the victim they cause is so, so much harder to cure.

  • "Man convicted of molesting girl, 13, on cross-country flight", 04/14/2006, Associated Press
  • Criminal Docket, USA v. Jennings, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia
  • Lanning, Kenneth V., "Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis For Law-Enforcement Officers Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children by Acquaintance Molesters" National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. (4th  Ed., Sept. 2001)

  • "Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics" by Howard N. Snyder, Ph.D. National Center for Juvenile Justice July 2000, NCJ 182990


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