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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Targeting child molesters

In 30 years and 1,600 columns, I never once wrote on the issue of sex crimes against children. Until today.

The man whose powerful pitch convinced me is Christopher Largen, a Texas-based freelance journalist and social activist who was a victim of repeated sexual assaults from age 5 through 14. On one occasion he was drugged by a child pornographer; on another he was driven to contemplate suicide.

Now a recovered and spirited man in his mid-30s, Largen is crusading for toughened police, prosecutor and judicial action to arrest, sentence and hold child molesters. And not for vengeance, but because "American children are being molested, raped, tortured, even murdered."

Even the children who seem to survive molestation intact, argues Largen, must often contend with years of depression, anxiety, nightmares, and/or social and sexual alienation. At worst, they suffer self-mutilation and suicidal tendencies. Without therapy, many are tempted into prostitution or exploit children themselves, "repeating the scenario of their abuse."

But far too often, Largen contends, the criminal-justice system fails to pursue child molesters diligently, or after conviction permits parole and release far too easily. Hard statistics are hard to find — "indecency with a child" in one state could be "sexual assault of a child" in another. And often there's "little rhyme or reason to sentencing" — for example, a man who raped two boys, 6 and 7, was given a year's probation, compared with a 19-year-old male who's guilty of sex with a willing 16-year-old girl ("statutory rape") given jail time.

Somewhere in America, the Justice Department estimates, a child is sexually assaulted every four minutes. But in many jurisdictions, prosecutions and especially sentences lag far behind. In Denton County, the north Texas enclave where Largen lives, there are over 70 convicted sex predators against children who never served any jail time. In Dallas County, more than 800 convicted sex offenders are on the streets.

Within a half-decade of their first conviction, reports the Center for Sex Offender Management, nearly half of all convicted child molesters are arrested for new crimes.

Largen recently created a nonprofit to gather allies — fellow survivors, police officers, therapists and others — in the push against violence to children. It's called "Building BLOCK — Building Better Lives for Our Communities and Kids" (www.building-block.org).

I told Largen my concern was that former child abusers who have made legitimate efforts to reform could be permanent social exiles, left without hope. Where's the line to be drawn?

His reply: There's a big difference between types of child sex abusers. Some are "opportunistic/situational offenders" who don't necessarily prefer sexual contact with children, but may be tempted when drunk or in a momentary impulse. Given long-term therapeutic support, they have a reasonable chance of recovery.

Far more dangerous are "fixated/predatory" offenders who prefer children, intentionally get close to them, "groom" children psychologically before molesting them, often to express power and domination, sometimes sadistically. For these "classic pedophiles," long-term direct supervision is critical for the community's safety.

Largen said he and his allies "vigorously oppose acts of vigilantism, vengeance or violence toward convicted perpetrators." But what must change, he said, is today's system of placing child sex abusers "in a caged and violent environment to be treated like animals for a few years, then released into communities with children, expecting them to have magically learned self-control and empathy."

What that means, of course, is that the American criminal-justice system needs radical, basic reform. Some people say the system should, first and foremost, punish wrongdoers. I say OK — maybe for some especially heinous crimes. But the critical questions should be: Does the system (1) protect us — and our children — against harm? And (2), since the vast number of prisoners will eventually be released, does it make every effort, use every modern psychological tool, to rehabilitate where rehabilitation is possible?

On the child-abuse issue, it's clearly failing us on both critical counts.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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