To Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, Abusers Step Forward

Published: Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Publication: The New York Times
By: Linda Villarosa

I am a recovering child sexual abuser," said the lanky 71-year-old man. "For several years in the early 90's, I abused three of my granddaughters."

As he spoke, the noisy room was stunned into silence. The man and his wife, from rural Vermont, were speaking in front of a group of about 100 teachers in Burlington.

"After each of the incidents, I felt guilty and hated myself," said the man, who also told of being sexually abused as a boy. "I vowed to stop, but I didn't. My stepdaughter confronting me is what finally stopped me."

The man and his wife, who do not use their real names when addressing groups in the workshops and asked that their names not be used to spare their grandchildren additional pain, are part of an unusual program sponsored by Stop It Now, a sexual abuse prevention group based in Haydenville, Mass. Instead of focusing exclusively on the victims of abuse, these programs also let abusers talk about what they did.

The goal is not only to allow abusers to educate the public about sexual abuse, but also to rally adults friends, family, neighbors, teachers, professionals and the abusers themselves to act before abuse ever occurs. Never before, say those in the field, has a prevention program directly asked abusers to step forward. And rarely, they say, has a program asked the public at large to confront suspicious behavior in adults.

For the past two decades, nearly all sexual abuse prevention programs have focused on children, rather than the molesters, experts say. Children, abused at a rate of 500,000 a year in this country, have been taught the difference between good touch and bad touch, instructed to say "no" if they are being violated and encouraged to get help. But the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church again highlights how difficult it is for children to come forward and confront the adults who are harming them.

"This approach marks a huge shift in the field," said Dr. Keith Kaufman, a professor and chairman of the department of psychology at Portland State University in Oregon. Dr. Kaufman is president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a nonprofit organization based in Beaverton, Ore., that two years ago began endorsing a prevention model that focuses on offenders.

"We have had a 20-year history of a singular approach to prevention with a focus on relying on kids to protect themselves from adults," Dr. Kaufman said. "This doesn't even make sense logically. Why do we think it's right to give children the huge responsibility of protecting themselves from sexual offenders?"

For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this fall has financed two state-based programs that focus on preventing adults from abusing children. Prevent Child Abuse Georgia, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, has just begun a three-year pilot program that will use a public awareness campaign to identify and educate potential sexual offenders.

In New England, Massachusetts Citizens for Children has created a school-based curriculum that will include teaching teenagers how to understand and identify inappropriate sexual feelings they have toward younger children.

These projects and others join the work of Stop It Now, which pioneered prevention programs like these in the early 1990's. In 1995, the organization instituted a campaign in Vermont, using print, billboard and public service announcements. For instance, one television public service announcement featured the voice of a mother who had sought treatment for her 10-year-old son after she saw him put his hands down the pants of a 5-year-old girl.

Another, using actors to depict a real case, described how a sister confronted her brother, suspecting that he was having sexual feelings toward their young niece. People were encouraged to call the organization's toll-free number for information, treatment referrals or simply to talk.

Comparing knowledge before and four years after the campaign, a Vermont telephone survey revealed a 40 percent increase in the number of people who could define sexual abuse, a 10 percent increase in respondents who could identify at least one warning sign and a 6 percent increase in the number who conceded that abusers were likely to live in their neighborhoods.

Since then, Stop It Now has created similar programs in Philadelphia, England and Ireland and will begin a project in seven counties in Minnesota next year.

Stop It Now's approach is modeled after other public health campaigns, like the one created by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I thought about the shift we have seen in behaviors like drunk driving and smoking," said Fran Henry, the founder and director of Stop It Now.

"People are willing to confront and challenge people from getting behind the wheel, because they've heard the message `friends don't let friends drive drunk,' " Ms. Henry said. "That clicked for me. Why couldn't we use those principles to both understand child sexual abuse and get adults to hold other adults accountable for their inappropriate behavior?"

Ms. Henry, 53, also brought her personal experiences to her work. She was sexually abused by her father from age 12 to 16. "I tried to get my father to stop, but wasn't able to until I was older," she said. "As a young teenager, I could never disclose what was going on if I knew my father would go to jail. My goal is to try and protect kids, by getting adults to take action, so that what happened to me never happens to another child."

Among the most controversial aspects of Stop It Now's work have been the two dozen workshops that spotlight offenders like the Vermont grandfather.

Nick, a 58-year-old cook at a New England university, has taken part in six or seven Stop It Now workshops. He was arrested 13 years ago, after admitting that he had molested three of his daughters and two of their childhood friends. He spent a year in prison and many more in treatment. Nick, who uses only his first name in workshops and agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his surname be withheld, said he spoke to groups because it was his responsibility "to participate in the process that identifies and stops other perpetrators of inappropriate sexual behavior."

"If I can help offenders see that what they are doing is wrong, and that there is a way to change, then I have served as a good example," Nick said.

Some find this approach ineffective, taking attention and resources away from those who have been abused and directing it toward those who have preyed on children. Stop It Now has even been accused of being an "amnesty program" for offenders.

Judy Little, executive director of Voices in Action, a nonprofit organization for victims of child sexual abuse outside Cincinnati, says that though offenders have a responsibility to prevent abuse, listening to them is difficult.

"The professional and humanitarian in me believes that if we are ever to stop this cycle, we have to help perpetrators heal and allow those that are healed to take part in prevention," said Ms. Little, who was abused as a child. "But part of me is still hurting inside from the abuse that I suffered, so I don't care what they have to say. I don't want to hear the empty excuses for their behavior."

Results from the Stop It Now telephone survey in Vermont found that only 66 percent of respondents would take direct action if they suspected abuse, and the number dropped to 43 percent if the abuser was someone they knew.

Stop It Now's help lines in Vermont and Philadelphia have taken 2,009 calls since 1995, 352 from people who identified themselves as abusers or someone at risk for abusing. Another 1,299 calls were from adults who knew an abuser or someone at risk for abusing.

Because many state laws require all professionals to report child sexual abuse to the authorities, callers generally do not leave their names. But the professionals can give them referrals and other information anonymously.

It is unclear how many abusers or family members have called to seek treatment, but most experts guess the number is few.

"Stop It Now is pushing the envelope, but it is still nave to believe that offenders and their families will come forward in droves, given the denial around sexual abuse," said Gail Burns-Smith, executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services in East Hartford, and chairwoman of the board of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

"Offenders have distorted thinking about the crimes they are committing against someone," she continued. "They don't see that they are doing harm to their victims. I'd say that, at best, this approach is only a hopeful solution."

Even Nick doubts that hearing a recovering offender speak would have stopped him from abusing or compelled him to stop. "I'm not sure if hearing someone like myself would have changed my behavior," Nick said.

"On one level I knew what I was doing was absolutely unacceptable. But while I was perpetrating, I disassociated myself. I was in denial."

"Looking back," he added, "it doesn't make sense how my daughters had become sexual objects to me. It was a force I don't fully understand. What I do know is that even as I was offending, I didn't want to be doing what I was doing."

Wayne Bowers of Lansing, Mich., who has twice been convicted of "indecent liberties with a child" for sexually abusing boys on the baseball team he coached, said that perpetrator-prevention might have helped him change.

"While I was offending I was out of control, but I was also sick and tired and looking for help," said Mr. Bowers, 57, who is the director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Alliance, an advocacy and education group.

"I was scared to death and wanted to talk to someone, but I had no idea who," Mr. Bowers said. "If there had been a help line, I would have called it. I served my time, I got treatment and I haven't victimized anyone for 20 years. I have an attraction to adolescent boys, and there isn't any way that I can totally eliminate those feelings. But I've found a way to keep myself in control. There is hope."

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