The Sexual Offender Dilemma
By Don Smarto © 2009
For thirty years, I have closely observed
the restoration of criminal offenders. Christians in particular,
embrace the power of God to change people who were criminals through
the stages of remorse, repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
People of faith believe all sins can be pardoned and (with the
exception of doubting the Holy Spirit's ability to cause that
change) they consider no sin is beyond God's mercy and grace.
Now, this is a theological exposition of Biblical
truth, but I do not always observe this mercy in the hearts of
all people when it comes to sexual offenders. As a society, America
does not practice the old axiom: "Time served pays your debt
to society". As a matter of fact, the punishment phase continues
for sexual offenders after release in the form of banishment,
heightened observation, prejudice, mapping, community alerts,
and Internet postings.
Do not misunderstand. I consider sexual offenses
serious crimes, but no more serious than murder, armed robbery,
or domestic violence. In fact, the term "sexual offense"
encompasses extreme behaviors and legal classifications and not
all merit a lifetime of persecution.
As an example, a 17 year old boy that has consensual
sex with a 16 year old girl ( both students in the same high school)
can be charged with Statutory Rape. We live in a sexually charged
society, surrounded by a marketing and advertising industry that
depends on sexual exploitation. We revel in the Playboy Philosophy;
applaud "lockeroom talk about scoring", and fill motion
pictures, television shows, "dime" novels, pulp magazines,
talk radio, and Internet websites with sex, then condemn youth
for being sexually active. The hypothetical 17 year old boy can
have the "sex offender" label the rest of his life.
Clearly, he is not the person society fears.
Most of us would agree that the pedophile, the
person that molests a minor, is the person we want to keep a careful
eye on. The extreme, is the person that abducts and kills the
child as part of a sexual crime. In that instance, kidnapping
and murder are included. Many murderers are released from prison,
rehabilitated, have stable employment, and even preach in pulpits.
I have known many former murders that have been restored to a
full and active life in a local community and church. But this
is usually not true for sex offenders. We hound them, hunt them,
and often make their lives a form of purgatory, if not worse.
It is as if the sexual offender is the modern
day leper. We exclaim "unclean!" then do everything
to keep them as far away from decent neighborhoods (sometimes
even our churches) as possible. Is there a double standard? I
believe there is.
The Scarlet Letter, the classic novel by Nathaniel
Hawthorne, is about a woman named Hester who is shunned by the
community because of her sin of adultery. She is forced to wear
a scarlet colored letter "A" as a badge of shame. It
is hardly surprising that the story takes place in Puritan Boston.
The Puritans were known for their stern morality, rigidity, and
legalism. The Pharisees shared similar attributes.
Jesus often criticized the Pharisees for their
legalism and hypocrisy especially when the woman caught in adultery
was thrown at his feet ( John 7:53 - 8:11 ). It is likely the
religious leaders held her until Jesus arrived at the temple to
both test him and trap him. She is thrown into the middle of the
crowd for public humiliation. The Pharisees seem to have a zeal
for righteousness but they do not really care about the woman.
They want her put to death without a trial or confession. In this
story, Jesus' comment "throw the first stone" is meant
to help them recognize their own sinfulness and ultimately their
hypocrisy. Only Jesus is without sin and can throw a stone at
the woman but instead he pardons her sin.
The public shamming of Hester in The Scarlet Letter
often reminds me of the communities that post color photographs
of "sexual offenders" on the Internet for all to see,
even years after the offense, time served, and the completion
of their period of parole and probation. Some towns print photos,
names, and addresses in the local newspaper and others have called
for legislation to put signs on "sexual offenders" home
lawns, not just the front but all four sides telling their neighbors
they are "sinners", "ex-offenders", "dangerous",
and "sexual predators". Towns that have required such
signs have resulted in people throwing rotten fruit at such homes
and obscene graffiti written on outside walls. Some Florida legislators
endorse pink colored license plates for sexual offenders.
As a civilized culture, what does this accomplish?
It feeds self-righteousness, to be certain. And even more, it
demonstrates hypocrisy. How many "pillars of the community"
have their own dirty little secrets? 55% of those staying in hotels
view adult films. Research by George Barna (2008) indicates 29%
of "Born Again believers find pornography viewing acceptable".
Focus for a moment on public officials that create,
pass, and enforce laws. Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York
was involved in a $5,500 per hour prostitution ring which brought
his downfall. As a prosecutor, Spitzer showed no mercy for vice
offenders. Senator Mark Foley solicited minors and Senator Larry
Craig was arrested in a Minnesota airport restroom.
Sadly, religious leaders have had sex scandals;
famous television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker of the
PTL Club, John Paulk of Focus on the Family, and President of
The National Association of Evangelicals Ted Haggard. Haggard
in particular preached "harsh judgment of sex offenders."
My point is not ridicule, but the double standard of persecuting
"the average guy or gal" for sex offenses and the denials
and excuses of leaders and powerful people.
Several final points about double standards; 70%
of adults admit to viewing pornography each month. 50% of men
attending a Promise Keeps Event (1996) admit to frequent viewing
of pornography. One half of all evangelical pastors admit to viewing
pornography within the past year (Christianity Today Survey, 2000).
37% of pastors admit to a "pornography addiction"
(Christianity Today, 2001). And finally, the National Association
of Matrimonial Lawyers state that "2 out of 3 divorces involve
the use of Internet pornography" (2007). We should not be
shocked by such sin in view of the sexualization of our culture.
Now, you may respond "viewing of pornography
is not illegal". While this is true, there are 100,000 websites
with illegal material (child pornography) and until a person is
caught and convicted, we do not know who the next "sex offender"
is. I am going to make an educated guess that many upstanding
citizens have their share of "secrets", "sins",
and "sexual addictions". My point; why do so many "throw
stones" at sex offenders? I believe the Biblical story in
John7:53 - 8:11 gives us clues and insight.
Time and again, I have observed ministries creating
a half-way house for ex-offenders with structure and accountability
receive strong neighborhood protest and resistance if only one
sex offender is a resident. I understand their fears; the harm
of a child and reduced property values. But let me ask the question:
are you not safer with a sex offender in a structured program
than the ones on your block you do not know about? What about
the offender who moves from another state, has an alias, or has
yet to be caught?
Let me return to my theme about the "types"
of sexual offenders. When I was a probation officer (both the
juvenile and adult divisions) I had many sex offenders on my caseload.
The vast majority were "nuisance" behaviors. This included
the "peeping Tom" (someone who secretly watched someone
undress), obscene telephone callers, and the "flasher"
(a person who exposes their genitals to an unwilling observer)
which we commonly call the "dirty old man in a raincoat".
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most nuisance sexual
behaviors are committed by males in their late teens and early
twenties. All who are arrested and convicted will be listed with
child molesters as "sex offenders". Is the broad brush
of one label fair? I think not.
You may be thinking, "They deserve to be
arrested for such crimes". But once again, a double standard
exists. In New Orleans, there are hundreds of "flashers"
on Bourbon Street at Mardi gras. They get a pass. At Spring Break
on the beaches of Miami the "girls gone wild" group
of college students expose themselves. They get a pass and a wink.
At colleges across America (including conservative evangelical
Wheaton College) students "streak" and have nude male
runs. They get a pass and a nod. Youthful indiscretion? The effects
of alcohol? No one would think of arresting youth for "mooning",
a behavior that goes back many years. I am not suggesting a return
to Puritanical standards. My point is that in some areas of our
culture we are tolerant.
Most sex offenders need counseling and therapy.
We known many have suffered head trauma in childhood, and psychological
and emotional abuse. They have impulse control disorders and obsessive
compulsions. But are they beyond hope? Absolutely not!
Many will argue that a sexual offender's recidivism
or failure rate is very high, often 90%. That is true, but so
is the recidivism of alcoholics, drug abusers, and cigarette smokers.
We believe and have witnessed heroin and cocaine addict's recovery
through treatment and the power of God. Is this divine power not
available to sex offenders?
The NBC television program "To Catch a Predator"
turns sexual addiction into entertainment. The "predator"
is lured via an Internet actor into solicitation of a perceived
minor by Internet chat and then the cameras catch them showing
up at the "minor's" house. I do not doubt their stupidity
but then most sinful addictions are "stupid" at some
level. In some states, officers with weapons drawn tackle the
suspect and cuff him as if he is an armed robber. It is all dramatic
for the sake of ratings. But it only fuels the prejudice of the
viewer. What about a show where a bank teller leaves cash unattended
or a sporty unlocked car with the keys in the ignition? The "predator"
program clearly ridicules the offender who at this point is only
guilty of solicitation. Granted they may have averted "sex
with a minor", but why is this offense worse than domestic
abuse, attempted murder, or drinking and driving? I believe television
shows like this prey on people with compulsive mental disorders,
low IQs, and even mental illness.
Where does compassion enter in? There is still
much unknown about the neurochemistry of the brain. Many people
with unhealthy sexual compulsions fear discovery, live with guilt
and anxiety, and usually only enter therapy by court order. What
they need is accountability but also a support system. The AA
"buddies" serves such a purpose and it works.
If the goal of reentry and parole is to assist
an ex-offender become a functioning citizen and worker, why do
we greet them with suspicion, make transition to a half-way house
often impossible, and even "map" their location in the
community? Why don't we "map'" former burglars or robbers?
I understand prohibiting a convicted sex offender from having
a job as a day care worker or school bus driver, like not having
a recovering alcoholic work as a bartender. In one city, sex offenders
cannot live within five miles of a school zone. Of course, zones
overlap so clearly no sex offender could reside anywhere in that
city. And that was the intention of that ordinance. Former murderers
are employed as construction workers, shelf stockers, truck drivers,
and volunteer as Sunday school teachers. That is because we believe
people can change.
If we do not believe the sexual offender can change,
then it makes sense to find a new Devil's Island, perhaps an asteroid
where we can exile them to. And I believe many in society would
favor that alternative. It is the logical conclusion to a trend
I have seen grow worse in three decades. Many treat sex offenders
as non-curable, non-responsive to treatment, and unchangeable.
Above all, this is a denial of Biblical truth and God's power
to change people.
I do not expect secular people to understand this
truth. I do expect Christians to show compassion and give sex
offenders a second chance. Are there solutions? Yes, there are
things we can do. Here are examples: