Dunkelfeld project aims to allow people who feel they may offend access to professional mental health treatment and attempts to modify their behaviour
The first time Max Weber made his way to Berlin to take part in a therapy session, he was so nervous he vomited on the train. “I went straight home again and phoned the clinic to tell them I wouldn’t make it,” he said. “I was so shocked by what I was doing I was shaking all over.”
The second time was slightly easier. His hands were clammy and his heart was beating fast, but he took a deep breath as he stepped inside the ivy-clad red-brick building of the Charité hospital and climbed the stairs to meet the group. When he saw them, he got his next shock.
“There were thin, fat, tall and short men, aged between 20 and 60. I found out there was a banker, a church warden, a doctor, a student, an unemployed bloke, an actor – people from all walks of life.”
What Weber, then an engineering student in his mid-20s, had in common with the others was that they were all diagnosed paedophiles who had come voluntarily to receive treatment at the Charité’s institute for sexual medicine. “It was amazing for me to see how different everyone was,” said Weber. “I’d never met another paedophile before.”
The institute has been running the prevention project Dunkelfeld (which means dark field) for a decade. Since 2011, it has gradually developed into a nationwide network called “don’t offend”. What started in Berlin has spread to 10 other cities, with more centres planned so that eventually the programme will be easily accessible for anyone in Germany.
There is a radical difference between the treatment offered to paedophiles inGermany and that in other countries. Strict patient-doctor confidentiality rules mean the men can be assured they will not be reported to the police. They would only be excluded from the programme if there was an active prosecution against them.
“I did not have to give my name and address, and I was given a pin number to connect me to my diagnosis data,” Weber, his chosen pseudonym, told the Guardian in a burger bar in central Berlin.
Those who run Dunkelfeld insist that the confidentiality clause is central to the unique project’s success and also accounts for its popularity.
“According to the German legal code, therapists are forbidden from revealing anything that happens in the context of treatment,” said Laura Kuhle, a clinical psychologist and one of Dunkelfeld’s therapists. “If people mention anything in therapy that could make them criminally culpable, they are protected. In other countries, that’s not the case.”
Kuhle is convinced that, if patients were not guaranteed that confidentiality, most would not turn up at all and those that did would not be truly honest.
“We need them to be completely open about what has happened in their pasts, so that we can work with them as effectively as possible. What situations have they found themselves in? What were the individual events that led up to what’s happened to them until now? You can’t answer questions like that if you are afraid,” Kuhle said.
For Weber, who is keen to stress he has never offended although he admits to having been dangerously close to doing so, the confidentiality clause was key. “I was so petrified of anyone even finding out I was thinking of doing it, because of the obvious stigma attached to being a paedophile, I memorised the telephone number before calling the centre, out of fear that someone might find the number on me. That way no one could suspect me of anything,” he said.
It was during puberty that Weber first recognised his sexual attraction towards young girls. “I found the feelings threatening, exceptionally unpleasant, but I couldn’t really put a name to them,” he said. .
“I recognised that this had the potential to get very dangerous when I was in my early 20s, particularly after one encounter I had with a girl on a beach. I recognised I was drawn towards doing something sexual with the girl, at the same time as not wanting to do it at all because I knew it was wrong.”
Three times he planned to carry out what he calls “concrete assaults” on young children. Three times he was prevented from doing so by a mix of circumstance and his own fear. His mother, who apparently knew nothing of his tendencies, pointed out a television advert for Dunkelfeld. The ad asked: “Do you love children more than you’d like to?” and promised free therapy with medical confidentiality.
Weber took down the number and went to a phone box to ring the hotline. “It felt surreal as it was the first time in my life I had talked to anyone about it, and the woman on the other end was so friendly, she talked to me as naturally as if she was giving me a recipe for biscuits,” he said.
At a subsequent appointment, Weber was diagnosed as a heteropaedophile because his feelings of sexual attraction for women were clearly subordinated by a stronger attraction towards young girls. He began the weekly three-hour therapy sessions, overseen by two therapists, with between six to 10 participants. The sessions took place at the end of a normal working day and were based on cognitive behavioural therapy methods.
“At the start of each session, the participants talk about their experiences of the past week and what is on their minds,” said Kuhle. The treatment includes helping participants to understand the child’s perspective, learning to cope in potentially difficult situations such as birthday parties, and developing ways to overcome bad habits such as viewing pornographic images or having sexual fantasies, which can increase the likelihood of a paedophile offending.
“Sometimes,” said Weber, “the survival tactics involve something as simple as saying to yourself ‘count backwards from 100, in units of seven’.” But Weber was told early on that paedophilia, according to current understandings, is a non-curable mental disorder without a known cause.
Sessions accordingly touched on what could realistically be changed and what would stay the same. “That was a blow, to know I couldn’t be cured, but at the same time, there was relief to know it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “Vital for me was finally being able to look at myself in the mirror and say ‘you’re not a monster, you’re a paedophile’, and that’s okay as long as you don’t abuse a child.”
Learning to control his feelings was the most important aspect of the sessions. “I am responsible for my behaviour. If someone says they can’t control themselves, that’s just not true.” Which is not to say he didn’t struggle. “There were several times I wanted to stop,” he said. “Because you’re taking yourself apart and putting yourself back together again with the tools to cope and it was incredibly scary.”
Weber, who runs a support group for non-offending paedophiles called Schicksal und Herausforderung (fate and challenge) sports a beard and a burgundy T-shirt. He is not someone who would stand out in a crowd.
Statistics gathered by the Charité’s therapists indicate that, of 440 paedophile patients they have so far treated, the average age is 37, 71% are employed, 39% are in relationships, while 36% are the caregivers for one or more children. They are almost always male. “We have been contacted by 17 women in the last decade. Only one of these would I say had a paedophilic disorder,” said Kuhle.
Perhaps surprisingly, the project has the strong backing of Germany’s conservatives. The ruling Christian Democratic party (CDU) of Angela Merkel is highly supportive and pushing for health insurers to fund the therapy, which costs €5m-€8m a year. So far financing has come from government and charitable grants.
In a recent policy paper on the subject, the CDU argued that the best protection for children “would be for people with a paedophilic disposition (of whom it is estimated there are around 250,000 in Germany) not to become offenders in the first place”.
“But in order to lessen the number of attacks by paedophiles, our healthcare system must provide sufficient and low-threshold treatment possibilities for them … on a financially sustainable and anonymous basis,” it advised.
By its very nature, it is almost impossible to evaluate the project’s success. While a paedophile who has participated might be asked if the treatment had prevented him from offending, any answer is likely to be highly subjective and possibly unreliable. To measure its success according to the number of recorded cases of child abuse is also problematic, as those rates are known to have gone up if only because of the increasing number of abuse victims who feel prepared to come forward as the subject has become less taboo.
But experts like Kuhle say the popularity of Dunkelfeld among paedophiles is proof of how vital it is. “I meet many colleagues from other countries, particularly the UK and the US, who would like to introduce this therapy and are in the process of trying to roll it out, but are often hindered from doing so by the legal restrictions.”
After Channel 4 screened the documentary The Paedophile Next Door, which featured the institute’s unique style of therapy, last November, Dunkelfeld’s hotline was inundated with calls from Britons with paedophilic disorders. Therapists say they were frustrated at not being able to help.
One British man was so desperate, he moved to Germany to be able to access a Dunkelfeld programme. In an email exchange with the Guardian, the man, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote: “So far, all I have ever received from the NHS is doors slammed in my face.
“Despite paedophilia being listed as a mental illness in the DSM (the standard classification of mental disorders), they don’t want to help you, they just want to see you locked up or perhaps even burnt at the stake. I am so sick and tired of UK medical ‘professionals’ looking at me as if I’ve grown horns and a barbed tail.
“I moved to Germany for therapy, I am learning German and I have a social worker helping me. (Yes, a social worker helping paedophiles!).”
Although Dunkelfeld has come in for criticism for focusing on the potential abusers rather than the abused, it has been supported by victims’ groups in Germany and elsewhere. The family of April Jones, the five-year-old Welsh girl who was murdered by Mark Bridger in 2012, have appealed for help for paedophiles who seek it.
“If someone says to the doctor: ‘I have these feelings, can I have help?’ it would be better to try to help them before they ruin someone else’s family,” Coral Jones said this year.
Anne, now in her mid-20s, was abused as a child by her policeman stepfather and later discovered the man she was in a relationship with had a paedophilic disorder. She assists relatives and friends of paedophiles by helping them to access therapy.
“If people search for help but can’t get it, then there’s something wrong with us as a society,” she said. “You just have to think of the many children who I’ve no doubt are saved because this therapy exists. It also prevents these men as well as the mothers and wives who so often protect them, from hiding from themselves anymore.”