Is Redemption Possible for Paedophiles?
07 Apr, 2014
Barbara pulls a thick stack of handwritten notes from a cloth bag, places them on the table and starts talking in a voice that never rises above the softly conversational. On a warm Melbourne morning in a city cafe, she smiles comfortably but glances discreetly around, not wanting to be overheard. There are few topics, she says, that are more volatile than the one she is here to talk about.
She grips a small clump of her hair, saying it was fear that drained the pigment from these strands the day her husband told her his secret. The day she decided to leave. ”It caused instant menopause. I decided I was going to go,” she says, and then stops. ”I love him. It’s bloody hard.”
Even when pressed, she offers little more detail of that day, of that time, of the crime her husband revealed to her. ”The fact is, I knew he was in a bad place and I suppose my head didn’t want to let the suspicions through. But once I knew, I told him what we had to do, and that was to hand himself in.”
Barbara convinced her husband to confess and he went to jail. She chose to stand by him because of her love and her religious faith, she says. If anything else had been wrong with him, if he were schizophrenic, an alcoholic, she knows she would have tried to help him. ”People might hate these men, but God doesn’t,” she says. ”And one of the reasons Jesus got nailed on the cross was for mixing with the wrong kind of people. Back then it was prostitutes and lepers.”
Today, it is paedophiles.
But Barbara believes in redemption. When she was growing up, her father worked in prison reform, helping criminals, mainly men, restart their lives outside prison. Often, he would take them into the family home. ”They would live with us until they got work. They were my friends,” says Barbara. ”We wouldn’t talk about their crimes, most criminals don’t want to talk about that, but we often talked about their lives when their lives were good. Their memories.”
Since her husband’s release several years ago, Barbara has dedicated her own life to his rehabilitation, learning about paedophilia and its treatments and watching him to make sure he never does anything like it again. She read about a Canadian program that aims to prevent child abuse by creating a friendship group around sex offenders. She felt there were similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous and believed it might work for her husband. Besides, no other treatment program was on offer except a Salvation Army course for drug addiction, which he also took on, because his was an addiction of a kind.
She has been unofficially mimicking the program since he was released, with just her and a counsellor as his support group. For years she has also been campaigning, pleading – with police, politicians, church groups – for help to start a group to make the treatment available for all child sex offenders in Australia once they get out of jail.
Barbara says she had not prepared herself for the hatred, sometimes the violence, she would encounter. ”I am trying to make sense of the monster theory, the rock spider thing,” she writes in a diary entry almost a decade old. ”I have discovered a wall of suspicion, and an overwhelming resistance to viewing sexual offending as anything but the worse kind of intentional evil …
”The resistance is so great, that anyone who bears any other kind of message is viewed as naive at best, and plain evil at worst … The experts in this area stay very quiet for they also shrink from the hysterical reactions. Consequently most people do not doubt the monster model, and seem to prefer to believe that either these people are untreatable or that they don’t deserve to be treated.”
This is why a treatment program like Circles of Support and Accountability, she says, one that carries the motto ”No More Victims”, can’t seem to get off the ground here. ”It’s madness,” she says, shaking her head.
In 1994, the first support group or ”circle” was formed around a paedophile named Charlie Taylor. A Mennonite pastor called Harry Nigh from Ontario, Canada, was asked to help Taylor, who had a low IQ, settle into a community upon his release. The people of the town knew he was coming and didn’t want to have him. He had been in and out of jail for offences against young children since his teens.
Nigh set up a church group of about six volunteers to support Taylor, with one person meeting him each day to talk and do things that friends do like have coffees and take walks. And to monitor him. At the end of the week they would all meet for a meal and to find out how Taylor, ”the core member”, was doing. Taylor would talk about his problems.
He died in 2006. In the 12 years between his release and his death, it is believed that he never reoffended. The program began to spread. The method expanded across Canada, where studies demonstrated a 70 per cent reduction in reoffending rates, and also to the UK and the US.
After the death of Taylor in Ottawa, a handful of community and faith groups met in the late 2000s with the aim of starting a COSA pilot in Victoria. The group eventually disbanded without fulfilling their goal.
Criminologist Kelly Richards, of Queensland University of Technology, was a member of the group. Growing up in Western Sydney, Richards can remember becoming interested in sexual violence as a child – she recalls her mother switching off the television so she wouldn’t see a news report on the gang rape and murder of Anita Cobby.
As she began her PhD on restorative justice, she became frustrated by what she describes as the ”pitchfork mentality” when discussing the rehabilitation of child sex offenders in Australia. ”There is always this harsh, stringent approach from the public and it is primitive in a way, and this is an awful word to use, but the driving of (NSW paedophile) Dennis Ferguson out of town, over and over again, while completely understandable, was also, as I learnt more, so counterproductive.”
Often, she says, child sex offenders are released from prison with little planning, few skills or resources, lack of housing, small chance of employment and few social contacts. Child sex offenders, in particular, have often burnt their bridges with family, who are sometimes their victims.
She remembers reading about COSA programs for the first time and being startled by their results. One Ottawa study in 2007 found that sex offenders involved in COSA had an 83 per cent reduction in sexual reoffending compared with offenders who weren’t in the program. Another review in the UK, where circles have existed under the radar for more than a decade, found that none of its 71 past clients had made another contact offence over a four-year period. A control group of 71 criminals with a similar offending history had committed 10 new offences in the same period.
In 2009 she received funding to travel to Canada, the UK and the US to observe meetings firsthand. What Richards saw was an approach familiar from a thousand TV police shows: good cop, bad cop. Most of the circles she observed appeared to consist of a softer, supportive volunteer and more direct ones, ”the bad guys of the group”, who felt more comfortable challenging the sex offender. Offenders would be asked about the challenges of their week, from work problems to their sexual fantasies. ”Apart from that, they will have a cup of tea and a general chat,” she says.
During some meetings, she was shocked by how forthright some of the volunteers were. ”I had my doubts at first. As many volunteers come from faith backgrounds, I had suspected that they may be naive. But I was surprised that for the most part, volunteers were neither naive nor timid. One semi-retired Catholic woman had no problems confronting her ‘core member’ about his sexual fantasies and masturbatory habits.”
Barbara believes there are people in the Australian community who would be willing to be volunteers, perhaps retired legal professionals and social workers. She says her decision to stay with her husband meant, to almost everyone she knew, that she too was sinister, or at best misguided. She lost her job in teaching, her house (to victim’s crime compensation), her friends.
She and her husband were forced to move states when their address was discovered by the media. As she recalls that night and her last move, she begins to cry.
”If a young man in school, growing up, started to realise that he had a problem, that he was attracted to young people, then we have made such a thing of it in society that he really couldn’t put his hand up and say ‘I need help’ … if they have got this problem, what are they to do about it?”
Barbara says some offenders struggle with mental health issues and some are naive when it comes to relationships. She believes many offenders need help to learn how to relate to people appropriately.
Barbara says that like her husband, who was abused by a woman outside his family when he was a child, research points to abuse breeding abuse. ”I think this had a huge effect on him, he had no counselling …”
A 2012 study by the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science in Melbourne found victims of child sexual abuse were almost five times more likely than the general population to be charged with any offence than their non-abused counterparts. The strongest associations found were for sexual and violent offences. One in 10 boys who are sexually abused after puberty go on to become convicted sex offenders, it found.
Barbara has had no formal training in how to best support sex offenders yet she now believes she knows this part of her husband’s psyche as intimately as any person other than he could. She knows what sort of television advertisement might trigger his arousal. Once an ad with young children dressed as adults doing their banking came on, and she made him talk about it.
Part of the treatment she uses, based on COSA principles, involves talking exhaustively and preparing for all possible encounters with children. The couple went through thousands of scenarios where he might unintentionally encounter a child. And there have been unexpected encounters.
”He was asked by a lady and a whole heap of kids to drive them home one day, and one of the problems these men have … is that they are not very assertive. But he has learnt to be more assertive. So he rang me, and I took them home. He has had to learn little techniques.”
In an office at RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice, former attorney-general Rob Hulls pulls out a thick folder he keeps full of documents relating to COSAs. His time in politics has left him with a belief that treatment programs for offenders should be better. He remembers having visited a transitional facility called Corella Place, near Ararat Prison, built to house sex offenders who are placed on extended supervision orders after they have served their sentence. In Hulls’ mind, the residents were still captive.
”I thought: is this the only option we have with sex offenders? To incarcerate them forever? Create a legal myth, in effect, that they are living in the community, when in fact they weren’t. The only people that they seemed to be interacting with, when I was there, was themselves. Almost like a lepers’ commune.”
When he was made head of the centre he was funded by the federal government to research better justice outcomes in sexual assault cases, with a focus on giving victims better outcomes. It was around this time that he also started to investigate the idea of using trained community volunteers as part of treatment programs. ”It is actually ensuring that members of the community assist in taking responsibility for that person’s behaviour and their rehabilitation.”
Hulls says the debate that informs the way Australians think and talk about sex offenders needs to be reframed. ”People take the view that if you are proposing things that are diverting perpetrators away from the criminal justice system you are soft on crime, or you are anti-victims,” he says. ”Unless you are proposing things that only focus on victims’ needs, you are a dirty rotten scoundrel who is on the wrong side of the debate. We have to reframe the debate and not pit one side against the other.”
The idea of a sex offender being a monster who can never be rehabilitated, Hulls says, appeals to many people who believe in electronic monitoring, naming and shaming, and vilifying offenders for the rest of their lives. But he says the issue is more complicated than that and that simply stigmatising and alienating offenders will not make us safer. ”We should all be about the same goal – no more victims. Reintegrating offenders and surrounding them with a COSA is likely to help in their rehabilitation, and therefore goes further towards this goal, which should be a joint goal of both victim and offender advocates.”
It is unreasonable to ask victims to turn their focus to offender rehabilitation when most survivors are keen to concentrate on their own healing, says Clare Leaney, of the victims’ advocacy group, In Good Faith Foundation. In the three years she has worked trying to bring healing and justice to victims of clergy and religious abuse, she believes the most common view among victims is that there is no reliable form of treatment for sex offenders.
”Of course, from a victim’s perspective, a lot of people we work with don’t feel that it is possible for their offender to be rehabilitated, that is the predominant feeling,” Leaney says. Even so, she thinks the idea of an offender taking accountability for their crimes, as is part of COSA treatment, would appeal to victims. ”We try to focus on a restorative justice process for the victims, and that does involve the offender, in some cases the institution, being accountable.”
Forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen believes many sex offenders are able to control their sexual actions. His career, started by an interest in psychiatry after reading Freud’s case histories at age 14, included being the director of the state’s service for treating mentally ill criminal offenders. He has seen many child sex offenders and thinks the best treatment programs involve ”managing people”.
”For many of the people we see, their molestation arose from opportunistic, unthinking brutality,” he says. They were drunk, they were frustrated, they had access to a vulnerable child. Often it isn’t their first sexual preference, it is just that for one reason or another, that’s how they acted.
”For that group, you have to increase awareness of the damage they’re doing. Increase empathy for victims. Offer skills to direct their sexuality towards adults. Often managing their substance abuse and their difficulties relating to people assists.”
Like Barbara, Mullen believes in medication to reduce sex drive for men whose primary sexual desire is towards children. Part of the problem in being able to effectively treat child molesters, Mullen says, is that the public believe that treatment is a criminal justice issue. He believes the register of sex offenders is ”not much use” in preventing child sex abuse and instead believes in such approaches as high school sex education classes. ”We forget that one of the largest group of molesters are adolescent boys, and we should be educating these adolescent boys about the damage it does, and importantly the damage it will do to them.”
The public, he says, also needs to better understand the issue, beginning with the knowledge that the risk of recidivism among child molesters is lower than they might think. Mullen says fewer than 20 per cent of first-time offenders who have sexually abused a child will do it again. COSAs, he says, would work best with people who have been through the courts twice or more – because he thinks these are the people far more likely to reoffend.
Barbara says she has hope – both for the program and for herself. ”There is so much more we could be doing to prevent this, that we are not doing, because we are too busy hating the men.”
In the meantime, there is love. The faces of the 100 family and friends who stood beside them as they exchanged vows at an impromptu wedding almost two decades ago have faded. Now it is just the two of them, sharing a love entangled with eternal vigilance. ”I try to think of a life without him, but it just doesn’t work,” she wrote in her diary once. ”I love that feeling when he drives into the drive and I feel complete again.” She and her husband are building a home in the country. She wants to stay and watch the fig tree she planted grow. Every day, she says, he tells her he is sorry.
*Barbara is not her real name.