Beyond redemption?

Why do we treat sex offenders as pariahs? Are they all beyond redemption? What should we do with sex offenders to ensure there are no more victims?

Beyond Redemption?, a Would You Believe? special on RTÉ One, broadcast on Thursday, October 20th, looks at the way we deal with sex offenders who have been released back into society.

Through interviews with Sex offenders and those that work with them, this special, investigative Would You Believe? documentary lifts the lid on Ireland's sex offenders to discover a number of unpalatable truths: most are not paedophiles, most are never caught or convicted and almost 40% of them are children under 18; most sexual abuse happens within families and is kept secret. Demonising the few sex offenders who are convicted is understandable, perhaps, but takes the focus away from the majority, who continue to operate undetected. In fact, it endangers rather than protects our children and our society.

Like it or not, a more humane approach to sex offenders actually reduces further victims.

For over 20 years, reporter Mick Peelo has investigated sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. But sexual abuse is not only a Church problem, it's a societal problem. Most abuse is not done by priests and most priests are not abusers. Confronted by harsh evidence that most sexual abuse in Ireland takes place within the family, Mick realises that Irish families are doing exactly what the Roman Catholic Church did in the past, covering it up and keeping it secret, in order to protect the institution.

He believes it's time to take the focus off the Church and look at ourselves. He's seeking answers to some difficult and taboo questions: Why do we treat sex offenders as pariahs? Are they all beyond redemption? What should we do with sex offenders to ensure there are no more victims?

With unprecedented access to Arbour Hill Prison, where many of Ireland's convicted sex offenders are incarcerated, Mick hears from Governor Liam Dowling and Psychologist, Dr Emma Regan, about the sex offenders' treatment programme, how it works, and what they believe needs to change, inside and outside prison, to prevent these men from reoffending?

Mick meets and interviews sex offenders and the people who work with them and uncovers a harsh reality - that by pushing offenders out and away from our communities in an effort to protect our children actually achieves the opposite, putting children and vulnerable adults at even greater risk of further abuse.

But there is another way. though it's one that many will find hard to stomach.

Mick goes to Canada where, over 20 years ago, Mennonite Pastor, Harry Nigh, and his Church community took in a notorious paedophile, Charles Taylor, who, the authorities believed, was likely to reoffend within a week of his release. This Christian community built a Circle of Support and Accountability around a man the public had good reason to regard as a dangerous, serial predator, so that he wouldn't reoffend. For the rest of his life, Taylor never did and those Circles of Support continue to help other offenders to re-build their lives in safety in a community setting. Mick meets a former police officer, Wendy Leaver, from the Sex Crime Unit in Toronto, who initially saw these 'tree-hugger Christians' as misguided and naïve. Today, 20 years later, she is their biggest advocate: "I've gone from locking them [offenders] up, one hundred percent, hoping someone would kill them in realising.a better, a more humane way is to safely reintegrate them into the community."

Peelo discovers what changed Wendy's mind - the realisation that Circles of Support and Accountability are the most effective way of preventing further abuse.

This Circle of Support model has been so successful in preventing sex offenders from reoffending that it is now being adopted all over the world. Today, the Probation services in Ireland are piloting what was once seen as a Christian response and adapting it to secular institutions and situations. Would You Believe? talks to the people behind the pilot project and one of the new volunteers.

Ironically, Peelo discovers one of Ireland's best kept secrets: that our secular institutions' responses to sex offenders now appear to be more Christian than the Catholic Church's. Contrary to public opinion, An Garda Siochana, the Prison and Probation Services believe that most sex offenders are not beyond redemption. They all see the benefits of the Canadian Christian model and have been quietly adopting a similar, humane approach to sex offenders, because they believe it leads to a safer society. In contrast to this, Mick interviews a priest out of ministry for sexual offences, who claims that the Roman Catholic Church's response to men like him is anything but Christian, having shifted from cover-up to a position of zero tolerance and the dangerous isolation of all offenders. "There's no question about redemption here and what might redemption look like for this person, who is actually trying."

UCD Forensic Psychotherapist, Dr Marie Keenan, supports a number of priests and religious removed from ministry for sexual offences. She maintains that the Catholic Church's response to clerical offenders is driven by public opinion and that it treats these men with "cold disregard.They are left out in the cold and what stays protected is the institution." Capuchin priest, Fr Paul Murphy, disagrees. For the past 20 years Fr Paul has been trying to find an effective way to deal with offenders in his order and believes that the current Church response of zero tolerance can redeem these men. It's not how he intended to live out his vocation, but he believes it works.

One of the most startling revelations in this documentary, however, is that almost 40% of perpetrators of child sex abuse are actually children themselves. So, Peelo asks: Are these children paedophiles? Are they, too, beyond redemption? Is the Irish family, like the Church in the past, covering up child abuse and keeping it secret, in a misguided attempt to protect the institution? Because of the stigma and the shame of sexual abuse, many families hide it rather than confront it, leaving vulnerable people at risk. However, Mick talks to one mother who did the unthinkable, reporting her own son for sexually abusing his younger sister. She knew she wouldn't be helping either her son or daughter if she kept it secret. In fact, because of her actions, all of the family were helped to return to some sort of normality. Families "need a response that is not punitive," says Joan Cherry, Director of NIAP, an agency that works with families and teenagers who sexually harm. Today, despite the pain and anxiety it caused to report the abuse, the mother says that "there is life after sexual abuse in a family."