Offenders among us

Stop hand
Whether we realize it or not, we likely all know sex abuse victims and offenders. Can we be in community with both?
Image: © Sergey Timashov/iStockphoto


"If we close this door, can she hear us?" Steven* asked. (Starred names have been changed.) He, my husband, and I had just finished dinner on our porch, watching the sun set. Our teen daughter was somewhere in the house, probably texting friends in between algebra problems. “This is never easy,” Steven began, his voice full of emotion.

I’d had a clue that Steven had a painful secret. Over the course of almost a decade, we had become good friends through these weekend visits, whenever he and his partner, whom I’d known since we were young, visited our state. He liked fun more than work—great meals, books, card games, a good laugh, dogs and cats, swimming in New England kettle ponds, all the things I liked. During one heated game, he joked, “Now you’re going to see my true nature, and you won’t like me anymore.” I retorted, “I think I already know your true nature.” He let out a long, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

He told us that he had been a sex offender. Twenty years before, his sister learned that he had sexually abused a young cousin and confronted him. “Thank God,” he said. There were other victims, too, all ages six to twelve. He served a sentence and has since dedicated himself to rehabilitation, without reoffending. He and his partner met in a twelve-step program.

I felt as if the floor had dropped beneath me.

Steven had chosen this moment to tell us because for the first time he was staying at our house without his partner. I was planning to go with him the next day to look at a house that someone at my church had told me was for sale. We had been excited that our friends might be moving close by.

Steven told us to ask him anything. Alone in the car with him the next day, driving between empty houses, I began to ask. He told me a group of teen girls had molested him when he was seven. It had felt good, he remembered. Telling had never occurred to him. His family lived in fear of his father’s rages, his mother helpless to do anything. In his teens, Steven began having sex with much younger children. He lived in fear and shame. When his sister accused him, he felt relief that someone had stopped him.

On our friends’ next visit, I clumsily blurted out that I didn’t think they should move to our town. It wasn’t clear whether our friendship would survive.

Safe, or open?

My church, First Unitarian Univ­ersalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, had already confronted the question of whether we could welcome a sex offender into our community.

In the late 1990s, a longtime member, Johnny Selzer, invited a coworker at the wastewater treatment plant where they worked to come to church. He had noticed on coffee breaks that Dan* was a bit of a loner.

Dan went to the minister, the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox, and told her he had served three months in prison for molesting a young girl and was out on five years’ probation. He also told her how his grandfather had sexually abused his mother and all the grandchildren. The look of pain and compassion that came across her face moved him to tears. At that time there were no models of what to do next, but she arranged for two male church members to serve as Dan’s “buddies”—one of them always in the room anytime he was in the building. Dan’s church jobs were changing the wayside pulpit and winding the grandfather clock.

Middleborough is a small town. Within months, other members discovered Dan was a sex offender. Some were livid that church leaders had kept secret what they knew; unwitting families with young children had invited Dan into their homes. Some were impressed by how hard he was working through therapy and twelve-step programs. The minister stood up for Dan’s right to come to church. He attended for about a year and a half altogether.

The church’s next minister, the Rev. Patricia Tummino, later bumped into Dan at the supermarket. He effused his thanks to the church for its support. She invited him to come back and tell the congregation how he was doing. Dan had fallen in love with a woman, he said, the first “healthy relationship I have ever known.”

On a Sunday morning, Dan told the congregation he had never felt he belonged anywhere, certainly not as a convicted abuser, but also not as an abuse victim who had attended another UU church as a child. Since his arrest, he believed he would never find any relationships outside twelve-step programs. He told the congregation that he and his therapist believed the slow but warm acceptance “into the hearts and homes of . . . a group of good people who did not necessarily have an understanding of addiction, but extended friendship and welcome anyway . . . , was a crucial step in my recovery.

“I have many people to thank for the quality of my life,” Dan continued. “A lot of them are sitting in this church.” Moved, the congregation warmly applauded.

When Dan’s relationship broke up a year later, he moved into Selzer’s in-law apartment and asked for permission to return to church. That’s when things blew up.

To this day, a remarkable number of the Middleborough church’s 100 or so members work in the helping professions. Perhaps a dozen have worked professionally with sexual assault victims or offenders. As any church certainly does, it also has congregants who have been victims of sexual abuse.

Ann Stuart, a psychotherapist, had since joined the Parish Committee. “The board seemed really naïve about what they were dealing with,” she told me. “My specialty was people who knew how to manipulate and con. Talking from the pulpit about how ashamed he was, how he was changing his life—that sounded manipulative in itself.” When Stuart was 17, she was raped by five men. “If I didn’t know what was going on, and I went to church, and heard somebody get up there announcing he had raped somebody, and he’s seen the light, I would have had a PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] reaction.”

Dan decided not to attend again. But his presence put in motion a wrenching process. Tummino assembled a group to talk about what had happened and what to do going forward. Emotions ran so high that at first the group couldn’t decide on a name. Tummino said that even the eventual choice, “Safety Committee,” seemed wrong to some parents of young children, who felt church leaders had betrayed their trust by welcoming a sex offender.

Recalling it now, committee members I spoke to all supported the need for both safety and compassion. But people generally fell into two camps, arguing for the importance of one or the other.

“Some people said, ‘We’re not letting them within 40 miles of the place,’” longtime member Pam Davis recalled. “I said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ I know what it’s like to be marginalized. Not everyone knows I am a recovering alcoholic—celebrating twenty-four years shortly—but that doesn’t mean something won’t happen. The same thing is true with most perpetrators of sex abuse who are trying to recover. Also, I’m a lesbian, and there are still people who feel we are morally corrupt. I understand how it feels being painted with a broad brush.”

Janet Walkden, a social worker and therapist who had treated sex offenders and whose daughter had been abused by a teenaged relative, led the ad hoc committee. Looking back, she said, it’s hard to describe just how intense those meetings were. Some people wanted to label Dan—with a visible symbol—or forbid him to use the bathroom or come to coffee hour. “The primary thing that ignited people was they had such a strong need that the church should be a safe place,” she recalled, “that you should be able to come to church and not worry about things like this.”

Walkden continued: “It took us a long time to say, ‘No, the reality is there is no safe place. You can’t guarantee anything. Given that reality, what can we do to make things safer?’ At first there were so few of us coming at it from that direction.”

The hard committee work was both a spiritual and career turning point for Katherine*, then a young mother, who had been physically abused as a child and had recently taken in a relative’s at-risk children: “At first I just responded emotionally. I was scared for our children,” she said. “I wanted the church to protect me, my kids, my neighbors’ kids.” Now a lay minister and counselor for sexual assault victims, Katherine credits Walkden for helping the entire church evolve to a new place. “I came to realize that the church could not protect me against any particular danger, but the thing that was going to keep us safe and healthy was that we were a community that was going to talk about and address these things. That makes it so much less likely that somebody can go off in the shadows and do something people feel uncomfortable with.”

Over the next three years, seventeen people out of my 100-member church hammered out draft after draft of a safety policy. They talked to churches that had discovered that someone everyone knew and trusted had abused children in the church. They listened to panels of abusers, survivors, and experts. In 2000 the church adopted a pioneering policy about what to do if a known sex offender asked to attend. The church decided it could welcome a sex offender, depending on the circumstances, and then the minister and safety team would review each case and make a written agreement, using a checklist of precautions and permitted activities.

There are now more resources to help congregations respond safely and compassionately to victims and to offenders (see “Safe Churches Need Policies and Vigilance”), but the issue is always emotionally raw and spiritually challenging.

We all know victims and abusers

When my own friend told me about his offenses, it challenged my beliefs at their core. Unitarian Universal­ism’s First Principle calls us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Did I truly believe that, even about someone who had sexually abused children?

Before I could answer for myself, I needed to sort out my assumptions, emotions, and a lot of misinformation. What I learned surprised me.

First, I was astonished to learn how widespread and devastating child sexual abuse is. A 2014 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 25 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys in the United States experience sexual abuse or assault by age 17. Survivors have higher rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, self-harm, suicide, mental illness, homelessness, and a host of other ills.

Studies have asked how many people have ever sexually touched a child and come up with estimates ranging from 5 to 20 percent of all males, depending on how the question is asked. (Women are many times less likely to abuse children.) Even the lowest estimate means almost all of us live near, work alongside, go to church with, and interact regularly with child abusers. Statistically, even a small congregation likely has both abusers and victims. The biggest risk to our children comes not from strangers, and not from registered sex offenders like Steven and Dan who ask to be part of communities. The biggest risk is people we likely already know, who carefully guard the secret of their sexual attraction to children.

The second body of research that confounded my assumptions had to do with who sexually abuses children and why.

The largest group—an estimated third to half—consists of adolescents and children themselves. They may be sexually curious or wielding power over younger children. Most do not continue to abuse as adults.

Other sex offenders have a psychosis or personality disorder. They are not attracted to their victims and typically abuse family members.

A third group are pedophiles, people who see children romantically, as sexual partners. They know their victims and believe they care about them. James Cantor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto has found that in the brains of people with pedophilia, the stimulus that normally triggers nurturing toward children instead evokes a sexual response. Cantor and other researchers in the field now believe that pedophilia is in large part physiological. Some scientists even go so far as to say it is an orientation, set at birth. An estimated 1 to 5 percent of men are sexually attracted to children.

Think about that number. Say it’s 3 percent. That’s 1 in every 33 males, more than 4 million in the United States. Many of them—probably a majority, researchers say—never act on their sexual urges, tortured by them yet largely afraid to seek help or confide in anyone. Researchers are now exploring how to treat this diagnosis, mainly through behavior control and hormone therapy.

The third line of research that walloped my assumptions was studies of the patterns of chronic adult molesters, who represent a small number of child abusers, less than 5 percent. What happens when an abuser doesn’t get caught or get help?

The typical chronic molester is not the sketchy stranger I’d long imagined—trench coat, window­less van, squalid apartment. More than 90 percent of child sex abuse victims know their abuser, usually quite well. Clinical psychologist Carla van Dam describes the chronic abuser as charming, fun, often acting like a big kid himself, who locates himself in places like schools, churches, and sports teams, where he can be with children. In a process called “grooming,” he may spend years gaining the trust of a community before choosing the most vulnerable targets. They are not random. He looks for children who are not watched closely and for parents distracted by their own problems. He may befriend whole families, lending a listening ear or a helping hand. Then he will desensitize his target, starting with horseplay, tickling, lap sitting, and increasing physical touch, little by little. If anyone objects, it was just a misunderstanding. He aban­dons that target. If no one objects, the touch will escalate. The child may not have words for what is happening. It’s a pattern that even trained law enforcement and social service providers can find hard to detect.

What’s chilling about this research is that much of this behavior—the side the chronic molester shows to the public—looks exactly like what I as a parent have actively sought in my church and community: sociable, caring adults willing to act as mentors and models. Wanting that for our children, we parents can easily not see what we don’t want to see.

Ostracism or careful integration

Church is the one place that invites sinners in—or, to put it as we Unitarian Universalists do, the one place that affirms every person’s worth and dignity. Because they are open, churches are naturally vulnerable to sex offenders. They are also the kind of communities that are needed to support and provide structure for offenders to lead safe lives.

“It doesn’t surprise me that UUs would be at the forefront of this issue,” said Joan Tabachnick, a leading consultant in child sexual abuse prevention for the past twenty-five years, “because you need to be able to have conversations about healthy sexuality first. If you can find a place of joy in this issue, working with faith communities is where I find the most hope. That is where we’ll see change in this country.”

Most offenders in treatment can learn to live safely, said Tabachnick, who worked with my church and the UUA. Reducing the risk of reoffending requires a family or community that both holds an offender accountable with precautions and provides the stability of housing, a job, and adult personal relationships. Policies that emphasize treatment over isolation would help sex offenders stay safe, too, but that’s a hard sell to communities that are hurt, angry, and fearful.

Our first instinct, rightly, for both our larger society and our congregations, is to protect child­ren. Since the mid-2000s state legislatures have passed hundreds of sex offender laws that increase incarceration and restrict the rights of ex-convicts, keeping them away from schools and other places children gather. These laws, however, have had many unintended consequences, which may have inadvertently made us less safe, Tabachnick argues.

Mandatory reporting laws, which require therapists, ministers, and social service and childcare providers to report any suspicion that a child might have been abused led to a spike in reports of abuse after states began passing them in the 1980s. But they have also created a disincentive for people to seek treatment. In this charged legal climate, abusers are portrayed as such monsters that it can be hard for people to see warning signs in people they know and love, especially those who are children themselves.

The laws have created pariahs who are not welcome back into their communities, or any community, after serving their prison sentences. For six years, Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island housed forty sex offenders on probation or parole in two trailers with one fridge, one microwave, and one shower between them. Across the country, offenders have been found clustered in campgrounds, under highway overpasses, and other isolated spots. Since the sex offender registry went national in 2012, vigilantes have tracked down addresses of ex-convicts and brutally beaten them, murdered them, and burned down houses in Alabama, California, Florida, Maine, Missouri, New York, and Washington State.

The goal of safety does not have to be at odds with compassion and justice. As long as we let our abhorrence and anger blind us to what the problem of child sexual abuse really looks like, and how pervasive it is, we may be the biggest obstacles in both keeping ourselves and our children safe—and in grappling with UU theology at one of its hardest places.

The First Principle’s challenge

As I struggled over my friendship with Steven, one voice that guided me was that of Janet Walkden, who led the Safety Committee at my church and also treated sex offenders for the state social services department. On her first intake, when the man came in, she stood up, introduced herself, and shook his hand. Her colleagues were aghast: “You shook his hand? Why did you do that?” she told me. Walkden had to stop and think. “I really feel I did that because I was Unitarian Universalist. I was acknowledging his worth and dignity as a human being. That went on to influence how I did my treatment. Men told me after I shook their hands, ‘Oh, maybe I’m going to get help this time.’ Sometimes I would get pulled into thinking, ‘You’re a dirt bag. You just need to be in prison.’ And I would reflect back on that, and search for the part of them that had value, and challenge them to rise to my view of them. I really attribute that to my belief in our Principles.”

Our First Principle may not just be the most challenging. It may be an impossible challenge to believe in the worth of people who have done heinous things. The First Principle may serve better as a commandment for our own moral behavior—to keep us from becoming monsters ourselves when we see evil in others—than as a covenant we can fully embrace. It asks us to hold things that do not want to be held in the same place: Love and fear. Compassion and rage. An open door that welcomes all, and a sanctuary that is safe for those who come inside. Empathy for men struggling with a reprehensible sexuality, and heartbreak for the millions of children traumatized by sexual abuse.

Steven began his bombshell revelation, “This is never easy.” It was not going to be easy for me, either. Steven, his partner, my husband, and I have had some tense conversations. We have written letters trying to be clearer than we could be verbally. We have taken long walks in the woods, talking out the upset and miscommunication.

We don’t have words or models for how to talk about this issue or what to do. Anyone in my community to whom I introduced Steven could easily look him up in the registry, then confront me: “Did you know this? Why didn’t you tell us?” I had already used contacts within my community to set up our real estate trip. The burden of knowing felt heavy.

I continue to feel shock that someone I know and like could have committed this horror. I am more watchful now. But I also admire the integrity that I believe Steven has tried to live out in the two decades since he abused. I admire his commitment to not reoffending, living by self-imposed safeguards, with little support. He didn’t have to tell us.

Steven and I are continuing our friendship. I still like him very much.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (pages 22-27). Illustration (above): © Sergey Timashov/iStockphoto.

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