One way pedophiles become known is if they are investigated by law enforcement. Some of those cases make the news, accompanied by uniformly creepy-looking mug shots. The stories are carried far and wide, and those are the pedophiles who shape the public's impression: criminals.
Other stories may not make the news, but if the police raid a person's home, the raid and its motivation are likely to spread to neighbors.
One issue that comes up fairly frequently with families or partners is the discovery of images that strongly suggest a sexual attraction to children. Sometimes they are illegal images, other times they are legal. Since even the illegal ones have not come to the attention of law enforcement, it remains a private affair. I haven't heard of any cases of parents actively disowning a child or kicking him out of the house for an attraction to children -- though occasionally the possession of illegal images causes difficulties. There are occasional news stories of parents who call the police on their children for CP possession, though my impression (and hope) is that these are news stories because they are rare.
Occasionally a woman will write to Virtuous Pedophiles, distressed at discovering that her man is a pedophile. These women seem genuinely uncertain what to do and are seeking advice. I speculate that many women will quickly leave a partner when such a revelation arises.
In addition to the cases above where a pedophile is found out, there are pedophiles who voluntarily reveal their secret.
Sometimes they choose to tell family. Family ties are not broken lightly, and my impression is that most pedophiles retain some relationship with their family after a revelation, even if it is strained.
To me some of the most interesting cases are friends, since there are few consequences to walking away from a friendship. There is a wide range of reactions to coming out to friends. In a few cases, a friend will take it as their duty to inform everyone in the pedophile's life they can find, warning of the danger this man poses based solely on his attraction. In a few cases I've heard of where a pedophile's job involves working with children, the friend will insist that they give up that job as a condition for keeping the secret. In other cases all contact will end abruptly, or grow cold enough that it is no longer a friendship. I don't know how often the secret is kept in these cases or whether it is shared more widely but short of a public announcement. Sometimes the issue is never raised again -- it seems the friend assumes that the pedophile was mistaken or joking or the friend just doesn't want to think about it. In other cases there are awkward moments and a reserve comes into the friendship. Then there are the cases pedophiles hope for -- the friend faces the revelation and accepts the pedophile's attraction. In all the cases I've heard of, the friend wants assurances the pedophile is not going to abuse any children, but once that is settled, the friendship continues.
These cases can make a pedophile feel a lot better. Gone are the questions about why the pedophile (if he is exclusive) doesn't have an adult girlfriend or boyfriend, and why he doesn't date. He can talk about how hard it is to live with his secret. He might be able to confide that he thought that young girl who just walked by was really attractive.
We pedophiles discuss this range of experiences online. Some ask advice about whether they should reveal their secret to anyone or not. One recommendation is to think carefully about getting drunk with friends and be aware of the temptation to reveal the secret when inhibitions are lowered. Some seem resigned to keeping a secret. Others desperately want someone to confide in, but realize the risks. And others just tell someone -- and if they report what happened, we add their experience to others we have heard of to shape our imperfect knowledge on the subject.
These observations are based only on my experience of pedophiles conversing online. Possible biases in this sample cannot be discounted.
Since a fair number of pedophiles do confide their secret, a fair number of ordinary people in the world know a pedophile. Even if they terminated the friendship, they still know their former friend as a complicated person with strengths and weaknesses. They no longer want to be his friend but may still believe that he is not going to actually abuse a child. Others who were more accepting know they know a decent pedophile. But what is the overall effect? These people know of hundreds of criminal pedophiles from the news, and what a coincidence that they happen to know one of the rare decent pedophiles! If (as I believe) decent pedophiles predominate, there is no way to discover this as long as knowledge of any given decent pedophile is limited to one or a very few people.
I would be very interested in an anonymous survey of the population asking how many know personally of someone who is attracted to children and what they think about whether he is law-abiding. The results of such a survey could reveal in aggregate form what cannot today be shared through normal social discourse.
I wonder if there was a similar time when most people knew a gay man or lesbian but didn't know that anyone else did. Did there come a time when people could share this news with their closest friends, then more casual acquaintances, and finally come to realize that the world was full of gay men and lesbians who were (imagine that!) lovable, decent people who were quite ordinary in other respects.
I can hope for a comparable process for pedophiles. It will always be complicated by that extra question that gays and lesbians should not have to face -- are we confident this pedophile is not going to abuse children?