Taming the Beast Within
When it comes to paraphiliacs and the law, however, treatment takes a back seat to keeping potential victims out of harm’s way. Those who have been arrested face incarceration, mandatory counseling, and entry onto the Sex Offender Registry Board, which designates an offender’s risk level on a three-tiered scale—the highest, Level 3, being the most likely to act again. (Sorrentino and Saleh point out that not all sex offenders are paraphiliacs and not all paraphiliacs are sex offenders: Some people’s deviant urges do not constitute crimes, while others may have already acted on their urges but have not yet been apprehended.) A person’s status limits where he can live and work, and offenders’ names are sometimes made available to the public. Advocates who work with this population point to the low recidivism rates among sex offenders—about 15 percent—to make the case that such restrictions further ostracize and isolate paraphiliacs, potentially increasing an offender’s likelihood to act out. But victims’ rights groups contend that it’s that same 15 percent that will forever muddle any discussion about treatment and release.
The recent case of John Burbine—the Wakefield man charged with abusing children at his wife’s at-home daycare center—showed how tragic it can be when an offender is mishandled. After being found guilty of molesting three boys in the late ’80s, Burbine was deemed a Level 1 offender. He received a six-month suspended sentence and two years’ probation, during which he was told to undergo court-mandated psychological counseling. Three years after his arrest, his case was essentially closed. Two decades later, the Department of Children and Families began receiving complaints about him fondling children at the daycare, but because those allegations failed to result in charges, they were never reported to the registry board. In 2012, Burbine was finally charged with more than 100 alleged incidences of rape or abuse, some on children just a few days old.
After Burbine was apprehended, legislators were quick to change the state’s registry board laws. This past August, they gave the public access to the complete list of Level 2 and 3 offenders. As a Level 1 offender, Burbine’s name would still not have been made public, so a new sex-offender recidivism commission has been proposed to reexamine the state’s outdated leveling process.
Burbine, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, faces a potential life sentence if convicted. During pretrial proceedings in November, however, he offered the court a Faustian bargain: Allow him to be surgically castrated, but reduce his sentence. As regressive as castration sounds, consider the fact that eight states, including California, Florida, and Texas, have instituted court-mandated chemical-castration treatments for high-risk sex offenders. In Texas, offenders can also opt for surgical castration. (The ACLU in California opposes these treatments, saying that it’s impossible to get informed consent—an acknowledgment that an offender understands and wants the treatment—while he’s under court order.) The judge refused Burbine’s proposal. His trial is scheduled to begin this May.
The glaring problem in cases like Burbine’s, according to advocates who work with the paraphiliac population, has little to do with sentencing, jail time, or registries. Instead, they argue that the real problem lies in the fact that chronically disturbed men lack easy access to relief from their demons. “They have these intense urges to be sexually involved with a child,” Saleh explains. “They fantasize about the child, and want to have sex with the child, but they know doing so will get them in serious trouble and would certainly cause harm to the child. So it’s an internal battle that they are dealing with day in and day out where they struggle for and against the impulse for sex with the child.”
Occasionally, when she answers her office phone, Sorrentino can immediately hear the desperation in the caller’s voice. Most people on the phone don’t reveal that they’re about to abuse a child, she explains: “If someone tells me that they’re planning on sexually abusing an identifiable kid, then I have to do something.” Keeping quiet is a form of self-protection—mandatory reporting laws in Massachusetts stipulate that any person who learns that a child is in danger must report the threat to the Department of Children and Families. So instead, these men often tell Sorrentino that they’re “worried about themselves” or about the intensity of their fantasies and are concerned they might someday commit a crime.
Only a small percentage of Sorrentino’s clients come to see her voluntarily, a fact that she attributes to their shame, societal stigmas, the high cost of treatments, and the lack of awareness about the fact that such treatments exist. Of the very few men who do find her, not all are treatable. Some men who call Sorrentino’s office live out of state—too far to travel to see her for regular treatments. Some want Lupron injections but can’t afford the follow-up visits.
For men who are “worried,” there are limited resources in the U.S. One of the few places in this country where paraphiliacs can receive guidance is the help center run by the Northampton-based child-advocacy group Stop It Now, which responds to inquiries from people who suspect abuse or may be committing it themselves. But just 8 percent of the 704 inquiries the group received last year were from adults who called about their own deviant desires. “For most of these folks, it’s, ‘Please help. I don’t want to be this person. I have attractions to children, but I’ll kill myself before I hurt anyone,’” says Jenny Coleman, who runs the help center. She typically offers callers names of specialists and suggests ways to avoid acting on their urges. But she doesn’t have a way to ensure they’re getting the help they need. “I don’t hear back from a lot of people,” she says, and acknowledges the hardest part of her job is “the not knowing.”
Not knowing is familiar territory for those who work with paraphiliacs. An estimated 85 percent or more of sexual-abuse incidents go unreported, says Jetta Bernier, the executive director of the child-advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children. Of those cases that are reported, she says, a very small percentage lead to criminal charges. “It’s easy to think about people who offend as living in some kind of vacuum, and we tend to turn them into monsters and bogeymen in our head,” says Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “But when you think about it, if the majority of sexual offending happens by somebody who is known to the victim—and we know for a fact that that is true—then the majority of offenders are people in the community on a day-to-day basis. So there are people who are aware of their behaviors or can become aware of their behaviors.” She hopes that strong prevention strategies can lead to better policy.