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Labeling sex offenders won't protect children.

JESSE K. TIMMENDEQUAS IS NOT THE SORT OF person you want to know, much less have as a neighbor. Now 35, he has spent at least the past 15 years either sexually abusing children or serving time for doing so. He has confessed twice to child molestation, and one judge called him a "compulsive, repetitive sexual offender."

In 1994, according to the police and prosecutors in New Jersey, Timmendequas preyed on another little girl, 7-year-old Megan Kanka. This time, they say, his brutality did not stop at sexual abuse; this time, he murdered his victim. Megan, it turned out, had Timmendequas as a neighbor. When he and two other sex offenders were released from prison, they moved into her community of Hamilton, New Jersey. The authorities did not inform the Kankas or anyone else on the block that the ex-convicts were coming. One day, police report, Timmendequas lured Megan away by promising her the chance to pet a puppy. Once he had her alone, he strangled her.

The justifiable outrage that followed Megan's death has led to an unjustifiable law named for her, first on a state level and then in federal legislation, signed in May 1996 by President Clinton. "Megan's Laws," as the statues have come to be known, require authorities to notify communities when a child molester is released into their midst. An example is New York State's Megan's Law, officially known as the Sex Offender Registration Act. Under its provisions, offenders must register with the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services within ten days of being released from prison. Some offenders must then verify their home address annually for ten years. High-risk offenders must keep in touch every 90 days. When Governor George Pataki signed the law early in 1996, he declared: "This will make New York's communities safer for our children."

He's wrong. So is the law. The best intentions--and they abound in tile case of victimized children and their pained survivors--don't always result in good laws. Megan's Law is an example. It won't resurrect Megan or protect her peers. It certainly won't rehabilitate child molesters, which is the action society needs to take to guard youngsters. Warning parents about a potential threat to their children is a worthwhile goal, but Megan's Law is so unconstitutional that it can't survive a serious challenge in the courts. A federal judge has already blocked enforcement of the New Jersey version of the law on which the laws of other states have been modeled. Once Megan's Law has been removed from the books, as it inevitably will be, society will be back where it started. Maybe then it will direct its rage in the proper direction: toward taking some serious action to deal with sex offenders rather than opting for quick fixes and bad laws.

It's not difficult to see why the federal judge has put the brakes on Megan's Law. First of all, it unjustly continues the punishment of the person after he or she has served time. Released from prison, a person is labeled by the state of New York as either a level-one, -two, or -three risk, which determines who will be told about his or her crimes. Level-three persons have to register for life; they will not only have information about their crimes disseminated but also have their exact addresses given to the public, in much the same way that red meat is given to leopards. Some people want punishment to continue beyond the prison walls because, they rightly complain, offenders are released too early from prison. Sentenced to ten years for one of his offenses, for example, Timmendequas was paroled after serving only a few months. Such foreshortened punishment is ineffective and should be ended, but it does not justify extending penalties past the walls of prison.

A second reason such laws are wrong is that they pick out one specific group of criminals for special treatment. Why select only child molesters for such public labeling? Why not burglars? I'd sure like to know when one of them moves in next door. Wouldn't you want to know if your new neighbor is given to selling drugs or stealing cars or destroying property? If so, then be prepared to explain why we shouldn't pin a list of sins and crimes on you, too. Such scarlet letters would allow everyone to know what you've done and might do again. The people you deal with on a daily basis at work might appreciate knowing that you are quick to anger or slow to forgive or have a roving eye or a foul mouth.

But what is most wrong about Megan's Law does not involve constitutionality; it involves morality. First, the law provides a false sense of security. Every community already has child molesters in them. It is a parent's duty--albeit a sad one--to teach his or her children properly about strangers, the dangers of the world, and how to protect themselves. If parents begin to believe that the state is doing that education for them, they will drop their guard and abandon one of their most important duties toward their children: teaching them about the reality of sin and evil in the world. None of us likes to tell our children that there are bad people in the neighborhood, but we must; it is part of their moral upbringing.

There is another moral problem at the heart of Megan's Law: it is an attempt to avoid admitting the truth about our ignorance about the causes and cures of sexual abuse. We don't know what to do with child molesters because we don't understand what makes them the way they are. We don't know why Timmendequas and his ilk prey on children; we can't comprehend it, and they can't explain themselves. The compulsion they are under is overwhelming; and even when they look for help, there is little to be found. We easily label them, to use the words of several New York politicians, as "fiends, monsters, and predators," but we shy away from taking the more difficult road of offering counseling and making sure they take part in it as a condition of their release from prison.

Faced with such lack of understanding and inability to treat the problem, we resort to the legal equivalent of leeches. Until psychology advances enough to help us treat sex offenders, we are embarrassed by their existence among us. So we try to shun them. The same sort of labeling was tried a few years ago with drunk drivers, who were ordered to drive cars with license plates that identified them. It didn't lower deaths from drunk driving. What does work are immediate punishment, effective treatment programs, and aftercare.

With child molesters, we've got the punishment part down (if we make sure to keep them in prison longer); it's the treatment and aftercare that we've fumbled. In desperation, we reach for quick fixes like Megan's Law. While that will help us point a finger at someone, it will also distract us from protecting our children from those offenders we don't know and prevent us from providing the help that could turn a twisted individual into someone with the self-respect that leads to respect for others.

The horrible death of Megan Kanka, the terrible suffering of her family, the lingering fear in their community--all of that should be harnessed to produce something more effective, constitutional, and moral than Megan's Law. She deserves better. And as Christians called to witness repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation by a Lord who showed us how when he healed lepers, forgave a condemned criminal, and told an adulteress to sin no more, we have to add that Jesse K. Timmendequas deserves better, too.

It's easy, Jesus said, to love the Megans of the world. He will judge us on how we loved the Jesses.

Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

The best way for the legal system to deal with convicted child molesters who are released from prison is:

Require ongoing counseling after release which should be indefinite and at the offender's expense. Also, require all child molesters to register with the local sheriff's department, and a register of all offenders should be maintained.

Cheryl Napoli

Kansas City, Mo.

I believe a known child molester is extremely likely to inflict more of the same and needs to live in a protected society. I do not think punishment is much of a deterrent, but living daily in a way that redirects one's understanding of self and others may result in change. Until that is certain, a child molester should not reenter society.

Judy Brodersen

Denison, Iowa

Place them in a halfway house.

Name withheld

Redlands, Calif.

Rehabilitation is the best solution--if the resources and personnel are available.

Richard Blewett

South Wales, N.Y.

Notify citizens in the locality in which the molester resides, and do not release a child molester from prison early and place them on probation.

Ira L. Shafiroff

Harbor City, Calif.

Why should molesters ever be released? The molester's compulsion is almost impossible to eradicate, so why should the public be subjected to danger?

Name withheld

Havre, Mont.

Don't release them.

Name withheld

Spalding, Nebr.

To not release a molester until a counseling and treatment program has been successfully completed while in prison and a competent, professional therapist agrees the individual is ready for society.

Ray Fredell

Sandy, Utah

In the case of repeat offenders, some sort of monitoring device should be worn on their person at all times.

Christine Purcell

Coolville, Ohio

To require continued treatment, such as a meeting once a week or month, something like the Alcoholics Anonymous method. Also, to require continued follow-up with a counselor.

Sister Barbara Reder, S.P.

Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

To treat them as any criminally insane person, by requiring psychiatric treatment, either inpatient or outpatient, as well as long probation periods with close supervision. Convicted child molesters should not be allowed to work or volunteer in jobs that involve contact with persons under the age of 21. Information about their criminal record should be made available to employers and landlords.

Cathy Boutte

Shawnee, Kans.

Probation should include treatment, and this treatment should be paid for with health grants where recipients need help--possibly based on a sliding-fee scale.

Name withheld

St. Paul, Minn.

If I knew that a convicted child molester lived in my neighborhood, I would:

Talk to my three children. Tell them that this person is very sick and to never talk to or go near that individual. I would tell them that this person cannot help what he or she does and it's best not to get into a situation you can't get out of.

Name withheld

Belfry, Mont.

Organize or join a campaign to force the molester out of the neighborhood.

John J. Harlon

Sterling, Va.

Try not to treat that person unfairly, but be aware.

Gerald Wheeler

Horseheads, N.Y.

I would want to know if that person could be rehabilitated, and if not, I would like him or her put away--rather than imprisoning another victim for the rest of his or her life.

Patrick DeLorenzo

Potomac, Md.

To continue their rehabilitation through private meetings with prison representatives and counselors. I think the prison system should keep track of child molesters, but it should be done in a private manner, much like what is done for other prisoners as they are gradually mainstreamed back into society.

Father Mark G. Boyer

Springfield, Mo.

Tell my children that if this individual approaches them, they are to take to their heels and use their lungs while they seek help.

Name withheld

Baltimore, Md.

Take my child by the hand and make sure he knew who this person was and where he lived and warn the child to stay away.

Noreen White

Chandler, Ariz.

Make sure that everyone in the neighborhood knew so that we could each keep an extra eye out for one another's children.

Name withheld

Tampa, Fla.

Reinforce to the children not to talk to strangers, and when the person is no longer considered a stranger, not allow the children to go into this person's home or to be with him alone.

Marian P. Deilke

Cottage Grove, Minn.

Be more cautious with my children, but I would not label or condemn the former child molester.

Dan Litwin

Duluth, Minn.

To be realistic, I would certainly be aware of where my grandchildren or other children visiting were playing. Otherwise I'd probably just go on with life.

Name withheld

San Diego, Calif.

Offer my assistance in taking them for counseling; but I would not allow my grandchildren to be near the person. Jesus said love my neighbor, not be stupid.

Agnes Dick

Central Islip, N.Y.

Specifically instruct children to never speak to or be near that person, and tell them why. Explain that the person is mentally ill--a tragedy--but that person inflicts harm on children.

Sally Burt

Lincoln, Nebr.

I would like to see the church doing the following for convicted child molesters:

Pray for them. Advocate greater legal protection for children. Do not shelter the abusers nor excuse their conduct. We should act with compassion and charity but not with foolishness.

Name withheld

Poplar Bluff, Mo.

First of all, pray for them and their victims. Secondly, offer a support group to help them live respectable lives, as we do for those who are dealing with homosexuality.

Father Edward M. Kachurka

Ozone Park, N.Y.

Stop being so righteously naive. Stop opposing the death penalty for murder and other heinous crimes. Be more concerned about the victims' rights.

Ray Bruckman

Venice, Fla.

Support counseling for offenders, and support child-safety awareness classes for parents and children. It is difficult to tell children that there may be bad people in the neighborhood; education in a Christian context can help both parents and children and might open some eyes as to our Christian responsibility toward convicts.

Jim Tonti

Mesa, Ariz.

Lobby for adequate psychological treatment and care for them.

Name withheld

Chicago, Ill.

Offer opportunities for reconciliation and counseling. I would also like to see the church actively involved in helping the victims of child molesters and their families so that they may find ways to accept what has happened, live whole lives, and move toward forgiveness of their persecutor.

Denise S. Szabo

Jersey City, N.J.

Provide space for support groups and group-counseling sessions. Churches also should see to it that these people have support with finding work, maintaining a household, and regaining or gaining a sense of themselves as members of a community.

Father Milton Adamson, C.S.C.

Phoenix, Ariz.

Voice opposition to singling out certain citizens for branding. It is like the scarlet A in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Facts don't necessarily decide who is guilty or innocent, and the innocent may be branded and the truly recovered will be forced to live with a brand no longer applicable.

Name withheld

Sacramento, Calif.

A mentor or sponsor could be assigned--someone who would lead, comfort, and influence the person toward God, the church, and spirituality. Someone to help the person strive for self-forgiveness and love of humanity.

Mary A. Gigac

Villa Maria, Penn.

The church should continue to reach out to all sinners regardless of what their sins might be. The Good News of Jesus Christ is meant for all of us, to heal us of our past and convert us to a new way of life.

Name withheld

St. Louis, Mo.

Excommunicate them. I believe the sin of child molestation deserves it.

Dana Snodgrass

Bellevue Wash.

Be honest with parishioners when such acts are committed by ordained clergy.

Mary Kay Frank

St. Marys, Pa.

General comments

I fail to see how justice is served by releasing a repeat offender anonymously into a neighborhood. The preservation of the public good might be best served by never releasing offenders into general society.

Mary Schuster

Scottsdale, Ariz.

I'm tired of seeing criminals go free while their victims live in terror.

Name withheld

Euclid, Ohio

Unlike burglars, robbers, and the like, child molesters steal some thing that can never be replaced--a child's innocence, trust, security, and, all too often, the child's life. The mental and emotional scarring of molestation lasts a lifetime. That is why it is proper for authorities to single out child molesters for special treatment. Probation officers cannot watch them 24 hours a day. Although we can never know who all the molesters are, we can concentrate our efforts on preventing the known molesters from having an easy time finding additional victims.

Laura W. Meredith

Frostburg, Md.

Children, especially young children, are vulnerable no matter how much parents have talked to them. Child molestation is not the fault of children or their parents. The burden of responsibility should be on the molester. If we break the mores of civilized society, we should pay the price. We can deal with compassion, but people have a right to protect their children.

Patrick Keefe

Salem, Mo.

Since this is a problem in the church itself, prevention should be a high priority, as well as treatment and monitoring behavior. The church should share any information learned (such as effective treatment) with other workers in the field.

Mary Ann Knorr

New Town, Pa.

I think there are as many facets to the solution as there are sex offenders. I think the concept of Megan's Law would help protect kids. But it is insufficient to overcome the constitutionally bad-law aspect James Breig points out.

Christopher Durel

Arlington, Va.

Parents have the difficult job of helping their children realize that strangers are not always nice without squelching their children's faith in humanity--something best accomplished in a secure family environment with access to other adults well-known to the parents.

Holly Wiegman

Madison, Wis.

I would like to know whether a serial offender has moved into my neighborhood.


Authorities should be required to notify communities when a child molester moves into their area.


Megans Law will give parents a false sense that their children are safe.


Criminals are not imprisoned as long as they should be.


Parents need to teach children to be wary of all strangers, not just known criminals.


Megan's Law should be applied to all dangerous criminals, not just child molesters.


Rehabilitation and treatment during imprisonment and after release is the best way to prevent convicted child molesters from victimizing someone again.


Publicly labeling child molesters will not stop the overwhelming compusions that drive them to victimize children.


In the case of Megan's Law, the public good outweighs the right to privacy.


Labeling and shunning people even criminals--are unchristian acts.


No matter how long you keep a child molester in prison, unless he or she receives treatment, that person is likely to become a repeat offender.


Along with James Breig, I believe that lebeling sex offenders will not protect kids.


(All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we will withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many letters cannot be used at all. We try to reflect major opinion trends accurately. Our thanks to all who wrote.--The Editors)
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Article Details
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Author:Breig, Jim
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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