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There’s a common stereotype of the child molester. He is bedraggled and unseemly. He is the sort you’d spot a mile away, a shadowy specter who drives a nondescript van, wears a mustache and sports tinted glasses.

Few tropes are as inaccurate as this.

Not all child molesters look creepy — in fact, the most active almost never do. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who surrounded himself with children, was beloved. The BBC’s Jimmy Savile, who anchored popular talk shows and befriended royalty, volunteered innumerable hours at a local hospital. Both men were serial pedophiles, and when the truth came out, few could reconcile their disarming facade with the shocking truth.

On Tuesday, a disturbing tape emerged involving another celebrity, Stephen Collins, who starred as the Rev. Eric Camden, a great dad, in the popular television show “7th Heaven.” He also had a role in the movie “Ted 2.”

According to TMZ, which obtained it, the recording featured Collins, in a therapy session during which he admitted to having molested at least three children. “There was one moment of touching where her hand, I put her hand on my penis,” he confessed while discussing an 11-year-old girl. He said he exposed himself “a couple of times” to her.

The session, which Collins’s estranged wife Faye Grant surreptitiously recorded, was part of a bitter and lengthy divorce between the pair. “Stephen and I were married 27 years,” she said in court filing later obtained by TMZ. “We were separated on February 2, 2012. On January 19, 2012, I learned for the first time that Stephen had been living a secret life. … Stephen’s therapist subsequently disclosed to me that Stephen has narcissistic personality disorder with sociopathic tendencies.”

Grant described how 67-year-old Collins, who appeared in films from “All the President’s Men” to “Blood Diamond,” exploited his acting connections. “I believe Stephen used his celebrity status to engender the trust of the families of the children he molested. I further believe that there have been other victims, but he has thus far only confessed to those three girls. … Obviously, I am sickened by Stephen’s actions.” TMZ also reported that the New York Police Department is investigating several alleged incidents involving Collins.

Collins, whose “7th heaven” was pulled by Up Network on Tuesday, has not been charged with a crime. And as Collins’s lawyer, Mark Vincent Kaplan, told TMZ, the source is an angry spouse.

“Over the course of my representation of Stephen in the divorce case, Faye has repeatedly threatened to give this audiotape to the media unless Stephen agreed to pay her millions of dollars more than that to which she was legally entitled,” Kaplan said. “When these demands were rebuffed, Faye attempted — without success — to peddle the tape in numerous ways to numerous different people. It appears that she has finally found an audience for this tape — not surprisingly, on the eve of the trial in the divorce case where, again, she is seeking millions of dollars more than that to which she is legally entitled.” He added: “Though we would like to address the tape itself, the circumstances dictate that we must regrettably refrain from doing so at this time.”

But if it emerges that Grant is correct — that Collins manipulated his status to ingratiate himself with parents to gain closer proximity to children — it would fit the classic behavior of a prolific child predator as portrayed by academics and journalists. Grant claimed in court filings she never had any idea of her husband’s alleged predilections, reflecting how careful adroit pedophiles can be. Everything is plotted. Little is left to chance.

“When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if only they did their jobs,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell of Sandusky in the New Yorker. “But that might be wishful thinking. A pedophile … is someone adept not just at preying on children, but at confusing, deceiving and charming the adults responsible for those children.”

Los Angeles police are investigating actor Stephen Collins for sexual misconduct with underage girls. (Reuters)

Psychologist Carla van Dam analyzed how pedophiles can get away with abuse — and hide in plain sight — for decades. In “Identifying Child Molesters: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse by Recognizing the Patterns of the Offenders,” she described the meticulousness of pedophiles, who use their status to win over parents while culling prospective victims, grooming them and, finally, assaulting them.

Describing an “identifiable pattern” of communal endearment, van Dam noted “95 percent of child molesters typically are known, loved and trusted individuals who are already firmly entrenched in their communities. It is this insider status that molesters go to such trouble to establish and maintain because that is what allows them to be regarded as trustworthy and ‘above reproach.'”

One of her case studies involved a popular elementary gym teacher she called “Mr. Clay.” The kids loved him because he was athletic and outgoing. The parents loved him because of his preternatural attentiveness to students: He never seemed to miss a sporting event. “Mr. Clay’s the kind of person who seemed to want to know each kid as a person, not just a student six hours a day,” one mother said. “He wanted to go and see them in their different sports. He showed up at the baseball games just to watch my son play baseball. We were really impressed.”

Then the rumors started. Some kids told their parents that Mr. Clay had touched them inappropriately, and allegations were brought to the school superintendent, who balked at punitive measures. “If allegations do not clearly indicate sexual abuse, a gray area exists,” van Dam reported he said. Other teachers likewise defended Mr. Clay: “Did you know that some rotten parents trumped up these charges against this poor man?”

The often charming or self-effacing demeanor of a pedophile, academics say, can muddy otherwise substantive allegations or evidence. “Predators are Pied Pipers, promising, mesmerizing and convincing, sometimes charming in the process, sometimes just powerfully insistent,” stated a 2004 article in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. “They will take care of us — or our children.”

Collins’s wife, who wrote in a court filing that she received further confirmation of her husband’s “secret life” in December 2012, says she is no longer fooled. The husband of one of Collins’s alleged victims, then age 26, wrote her two letters. “He berated me for my cowardice in not turning Stephen in to the police,” she recalled. “He then called me on the phone and threatened to bring a civil lawsuit against me for Stephen’s assaults. Again, I do not know how many more victims there may be.”

Coincidentally, presumably,  “7th Heaven” cast member Sarah Goldberg, who played the daughter-in-law of Rev. Eric Camden (Stephen Collins) died on Sept. 27.