“If Jesus were here, he’d probably be working with pedophiles, because they’re today’s lepers,” says Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, a Mennonite pastor in California. Ruth-Heffelbower works with a program on the forefront of expert thinking about one of society’s most discomfiting questions: After a convicted child molester has been set free from prison, where should he go? And how can society ensure that he never strikes again? In a tour-de-force of reporting, Alastair Gee goes inside a program called Circles of Support and Accountability, which answers these questions in a way that flies against many of our deepest instincts: COSA works to help child molesters integrate back into society—in a kind of re-attachment therapy to the world at large.
Alastair Gee's Pacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—and will be posted online on Monday, March 09. Until then, an excerpt:
Richard, who agreed to talk if we changed his name, was born in Southern California. His parents divorced when he was small. He and his sisters were raised by their mother, a medical technician and devout Christian, and he was shepherded to church twice each Sunday. Richard does not speak resentfully of his upbringing, and recalls bright, unfraught times: baseball and football games with neighborhood kids, and adventures around railroad tracks and the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. He formed a happy bond with a church youth leader, who took him fishing and on a summer road trip. His mother, who still lives in California, remembers him fondly as a responsible, caring child—“a dear little boy.” But he became less social, she remembers, when he got to high school. “He just kind of closed up,” she says. “That’s not a good sign for young kids.”
As a teenager, Richard dated several girls his own age, and was even reprimanded by youth group leaders for being too amorous with one of them. But during those same years he began to molest young children. Richard claims he didn’t realize his acts were harmful or even proscribed. “I don’t remember dwelling on it very much,” he says. “I guess it didn’t really dawn on me until the first time I got in trouble, when I was 21, that it was illegal.”
By his own account, some of which was confirmed by his mother, Richard abused his own niece and nephew, then aged five or six, while he was in his teens or early 20s. He says his sister discovered him in the act with her son, but for some reason did not report him. “I can’t imagine what they’ve gone through,” Richard’s mother says of her grandchildren. “They don’t tell me, and they don’t talk about it. If they had their way, he would just be left in some garbage dump to rot away, I think. I don’t know what they think, actually, except they were damaged by that, of course.”
Richard abused others during that period. As he describes it, he “fondled and orally copulated” a boy aged about 10, whom he knew from his church. The boy’s mother didn’t press charges, he says, possibly because her family knew Richard’s. “I didn’t know what to do,” Richard’s mother recalls. “If I could have just done something to make it easier for them. But I didn’t know what to do.”
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