Before sexually molesting young victims, many predatory priests psychologically seduced the parents - winning their trust in order to gain access to their children.
Lawyers, psychologists and victims say the initial target sometimes was a low-income single mother, struggling with problems and delighted to find a surrogate father for her son.
In many cases, however, the victim had prosperous, happily married parents whose vulnerability was simply their unwavering devotion to the Roman Catholic Church. The priest might become a frequent dinner guest, or a golf partner of the father.
"It's exactly the same pattern as your typical con artist,'' said Robert Sherman, a Boston lawyer who has handled priest abuse complaints. "In order to be effective, they needed people to drop their guard.''
Deep faith in the church has been a common denominator among the targeted families, said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Kids from devout families are less apt to tell anyone about the abuse,'' he said. "Even if the kid does tell, the parents are less apt to believe him or call a lawyer to challenge the church.''
John Geoghan, the former Massachusetts priest whose serial molesting was a catalyst of the current sex-abuse scandal, often targeted boys from low-income homes whose fathers were absent or not supportive.
"He picked on dysfunctional families,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer representing dozens of Geoghan's alleged victims.
"These were poor, disadvantaged children, with overwhelmed mothers,'' Garabedian said. "There were fathers who were alcoholics, or working out of town five or six days a week. Geoghan was a real charmer with women. He'd tell the mother, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of the child.' ''
Maryetta Dussourd was among the mothers befriended by Geoghan in the 1970s. She was struggling to care for her children and her niece's children while her husband was working long hours.
Geoghan became a regular dinner guest at the family's Boston apartment and offered to be a mentor to her sons.
"It kind of eats at me now, that he came to call all the time,'' Dussourd said. "He told me he felt so comfortable with us - that there were only two families he'd ever felt that way about.''
Only after Geoghan left the area did Dussourd learn of his dark side. She sued the church in 1997, alleging Geoghan had molested three of her sons and her niece's four sons. The church settled out of court.
Dussourd, now 57 and divorced, said her sons have moved away and refuse to speak to her because they oppose her decision to talk publicly about the abuse.
"I know they were the victims, but they don't realize the parents were the victims, also,'' she said. "It's never-ending pain, like a scab that falls off and doesn't heal.''
Although Geoghan targeted hard-pressed families, Dave Lewcon said he was abused while a teenager in a stable, middle-class family in Uxbridge, Mass.
"My parents were great parents,'' said Lewcon, 48. "It just never occurred to them to question the church. My mom was happy that I was hanging out with the priest instead of hanging out with kids downtown and getting in trouble.''
Lewcon obtained a financial settlement from Catholic officials after alleging he was abused in the early 1970s by the Rev. Thomas Teczar. Lewcon said his father, a contractor, had overseen the renovation of the rectory where Teczar lived.
"If you want to abuse kids, all you need is a great personality and you can win the loyalty of the parents,'' Lewcon said. "I've never heard about a perpetrator who was stupid. They always had an angle; they read their victim well.''
A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has worked with plaintiffs in sex abuse cases, said targeted families come from every socioeconomic level.
"Sometimes the entry is gained through the mother, almost courting her. I've seen cases where a mother and daughter were abused by the same priest,'' Sipe said. "There have been wealthy men who play golf with the priest; often the child has a hard time coming forward because the priest is such a good friend of the father.''
Among the parents who feel betrayed is Ray Higgins, a retired manufacturing executive from Santa Barbara, Calif. Higgins, 69, befriended several priests from St. Anthony's Seminary, where his son attended a choir school. The boy was sexually abused at the seminary, his father said.
"The closer a family is to the church, to the priest, those are the families that put their children at the highest risk,'' Higgins said. "That's the way it was with us. I'd go to the seminary on Saturdays to help with a restoration project. We had the priests in our home, socialized with them.''