By Don Harrison

There's no reason to believe that sexual abuse, pedophilic or otherwise, is increasing. It's only that we're more willing to talk about it.

The Penn State scandal seems to have unleashed a tsunami of revelations. "Funny uncles" are being outed everywhere, sometimes for atrocities committed long ago. The accusations against former Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin, for example, go back 40 years.

The shame and guilt felt by victims kept child molestation secret more often in the past. Taking it to the police would have made it known to everyone, which nobody wanted. If abusers were confronted, it was usually by family members, yielding tearful promises that the perpetrator would never to do it again.

What was little understood years ago was the nature of the compulsion - that abusers were often unable to resist future temptation, especially if they were around kids (which they often were, partly because many pedophiles choose jobs that keep them near their targets).

In the Catholic Church, priests who confessed and said the required prayers were forgiven (forgiveness being, after all, the business the church is in). His superiors might transfer him to another parish without realizing that, penitent though the abuser may have been, they were only providing him with a new source of victims.

Extreme reactions can make matters worse. Family members who proclaim a child's life to be ruined risk making a self-fulfilling prophecy, diminishing the chances that the victim will eventually transcend the horror. Public overreaction is also a problem: People with pedophilic tendencies tend to choose careers that involve children, but that doesn't mean everyone who wants to work with kids is a potential offender. Teachers are having enough problems these days without facing unwarranted suspicion.

Sexual abuse is a real threat to children, and it deserves our attention. And sexual contact with children is a crime, so sweeping it under the rug is a crime, too.

However, while rage against offenders, based on genuine disgust, is understandable, arrests and imprisonment are ultimately not the solution. Punishment - and the threat of it - will not protect children from abuse. If there's anything that will, it's scientific and medical research: We must learn what causes such compulsions and what can be done about them.

Under the best of circumstances, this may be impossible. But there is no hope at all as long as abuse is shrouded in shame and guilt. It must be brought into the open and dealt with accordingly.