This article was written in 2002 by Amitai Etzioni, a professor at The George Washington University and published in the Chicago Tribune. It is addressed to the Catholic Church but many of its conclusions apply, l’havdil, to the Jewish Community

Much of what the Catholic Church had not done about pedophilia among its ranks, implicitly assumes that it is a curable disease. Until this year, priests who were caught were often transferred to another parish, in part out of the hope that they had learned their lesson.

Recently, the pope, while calling sexual abuse a crime, also called for drawing on “the power of Christian conversion … [which] can work extraordinary change.” This assumes that priests will be able to overcome this horrible malady. Moreover, scores of priests have been sent to church-sponsored institutes–for instance St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Md.–dedicated to curing pedophiles. (The recently convicted Father John Geoghan, formerly of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese, is a graduate of two such institutes.)

The sad truth is that pedophilia is almost never cured. I ought to know. Not because I share this particular failing but because I spent a year reviewing the data available on numerous attempts to treat this illness. I turned to study the matter when civil libertarians demanded the repeal of Megan’s Laws, which require notification to those communities into which pedophiles are released. Such notifications are said to be justified because pedophiles are much more likely than other criminals to be repeat offenders.

Pedophilia is not a normal sex drive but an obsession, a strong impulse difficult to control. It has been characterized as a chronic, progressive condition that can never really be cured. The fact that pedophiles are rarely cured is reflected in the fact that even if jailed and treated, they continue to act out their impulse. When I studied the matter, I first ran into a puzzle: Studies of recidivism (rearrest or reconviction) of sex offenders show very different results. Some find that more than half of those released from treatment centers have been convicted again (56 percent according to the Massachusetts Post Audit Bureau); others find that this is true only for less than 5 percent of those who completed their treatment (4 percent according to the Pennsylvania Board of Parole).

A closer examination showed that the studies that came out with low rates of recidivism included in their definition teenagers who engaged in premarital sex in public spaces and other such acts that are legally an offense in some jurisdictions, but offer no indication of compulsion. Even for studies that show a high rate, the question remained, what about the others? Thus, if 56 percent of the “graduates” of treatment facilities in Massachusetts were rearrested for the same offense, were the remaining 44 percent cured? How could these figures be reconciled with the widely held notions among professionals who work in this area that cures are rare?

The puzzle was solved when I came across reoffense data, which sounds similar to rearrest data, but is not. Reoffense figures concern how often the same criminal act has been repeated by the same person–whether or not he has been caught. These data are particularly important because, while very few murders go unreported, sex offenses often do. The reasons include intimidation by the offenders, the difficulties of relying on children as witnesses, and the fact that many of the acts are committed by family members, whom their relatives all too often choose not to expose.

Indeed, according to one source, the average pedophile commits 13 offenses before he is caught. We live in a culture that combines a large dose of psychobabble with a heavy measure of optimism. We have seen too many movies in which after a dramatic confrontation on the couch, a patient suddenly remembers some childhood trauma, and after a stormy confession and a veil of tears, is liberated from the demons haunting his soul. We tend to believe in psychotherapy. Above all, we expect a happy ending. However, even strong advocates of psychotherapy will agree that its clientele is supposed to consist of neurotics and not those with more severe afflictions, such as psychopaths and pedophiles.

My study of Megan’s Laws concluded that far from being excessive, these laws are too weak. What are parents to do once they are informed that a new neighbor is a known child molester and very likely to reoffend? Accompany their kids whenever they play outdoors, walk to a friend’s house or to school? Keep the children locked up at home?

Several states, fully cognizant of the limits of Megan’s Laws, enacted much stronger laws: the Sexual Predator Acts. These allow public authorities to keep pedophiles locked up in state mental hospitals–after they have completed their jail sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these acts are constitutional because the claim is made that the offenders are held in these hospitals for treatment purposes, and holding them there does not amount, in effect, to preventive incarceration.

However, it is widely acknowledged that this is a sleight of hand. The president of the American Psychiatric Association, Herbert Sacks, observes: “The civil commitment of sexual predators to a mental-health hospital for purposes of social control is an abuse of the mental health-care system.” Indeed, so far very few have been declared cured by these hospitals, and hence released.

Regrettably, if we are to spare children much more abuse, and if one agrees that priests should not be treated differently from other mortals who commit major crimes, such hospitals are the place many of these priests will end up, until an effective cure is found. At least it is the place they ought to be.


Posted in op-eds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *