Counseling a Sex Offender




“Let him who is without sin
cast the first stone.”
Jesus (John 8:7)


You are counseling a sex offender at the ACI. How will you proceed? What do you hope to accomplish?

Like many pedophiles, “Ronald” is sexually violated as a child. His detailed accounts indicate his descriptions of a violent and predatory father are credible. Ronald endures a world without boundaries. His body belongs to his father. Without warning, he is frequently flogged or sexually violated. How does a man so brutally beaten as a boy begin to conceive of a loving adult relationship?

As a young adult, Ronald is attracted to a young teenage girl. From Ronald’s perverted perspective, he is a kind boyfriend. He continues to “date” teenage girls. Two decades later, Ronald violates his teenage daughter.

Contrasting his father’s sadistic abuse, Ronald initially claims his daughter is a willing participant in what he describes as caring and gentle sex. Of course, minors are psychologically and legally incapable of sexual consent.

While some groups promote incest as a caring parental sexual initiation, this bizarre viewpoint is indefensible: victims report these sexual acts are traumatic and lead to persistently troubled relationships. If pedophiles were truly caring, they would reject such self-serving propaganda and cease rationalizing their destructive behaviors.

For two years, however, Ronald takes your counseling seriously. He candidly recounts his offenses. He listens to your admonitions regarding the imperative of strong boundaries. He hears your challenges and ultimately rejects his excuses.

At length, Ronald pleads guilty. How should offenders like Ronald be punished? Should life sentences be the norm? Or, as with other offenses, should we consider mitigating circumstances?

With Ronald’s daughter in the courtroom, you testify there is no excuse for abuse. Ronald must be held accountable for his crimes. Still, you describe Ronald’s background and the significant progress he has made in counseling. Unlike Ronald, however, the judge does not listen to you. His disdain indicates he considers Ronald an animal. Ronald is summarily dismissed with the maximum sentence of 50 years.

Later, Ronald complains his sentence is unjust. His admission of guilt and apology to his daughter in open court receive no consideration. Then he tells you of another “diddler,” Roger, who crows about his numerous conquests of children. Despite Roger’s unrestrained evil, his sentence is fifteen years. Ronald’s 50-year sentence also exceeds that of some murderers. Ronald is right: his sentence is unjust.

As a volunteer chaplain, I counseled Ronald in the mid 1990s. I now have some observations and questions. First, consider the wisdom of warehousing the elderly. One attorney’s view deserves consideration: any prison term over 30 years is “window dressing.” After all, are crimes of passion deterred by a life sentence or even the death penalty? The inference of rational decision-making is silly: “Oh, I might only lose 30 years of my life. Yes, the cost/benefit ratio of this crime makes it a good risk.”

Second, we must reject our tendency to dehumanize offenders. Would we do any better if we had Ronald’s childhood of unrelenting physical and sexual violations? Before we answer, we must consider what it means to be physically and sexually violated as a child. How might we develop trust and learn appropriate boundaries? Do we always resist powerful impulses and addictive behaviors? Do we rationalize our misconduct?

Third, we pay judges to be psychologically mature and reflective, not to indulge their emotional desire for vengeance. Indeed, the lack of impulse control of Ronald’s judge is eerily reminiscent of Ronald’s lack of impulse control when violating his victims.

Fourth, we must consider mitigating circumstances. Yes, sexual violations of children are far more devastating than most offenses. Nevertheless, if we receive undeserved clemency when confessing our sins, perhaps we ought to advocate a measure of mercy for sex offenders who demonstrate remorse. Are we without sin? Can we cast the first stone at sexual violators? Instead of condemning all offenders with self-righteous outrage, perhaps genuine justice for some offenders can only be achieved when balanced with mercy.

©2005 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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