Is Death the Answer for Child Molesters?

While the Catholic Church agonizes over what to do about serial child molesters in its ranks, lawmakers in three states could offer a solution — kill them.

The church, of course, cannot execute people, but its quandary over how to deal with its molestation scandal in many ways mirrors the long-running and contentious debate over how society should deal with people who violate children — particularly those who do it repeatedly.

Among the options some consider is the death penalty — a choice Montana and Louisiana have enacted into law, and which the Alabama House of Representatives recently voted for overwhelmingly, although it has not been made law there yet.

The Montana law allows a person previously convicted of "sexual intercourse without consent" with a person younger than 16 in any state to be sentenced to death if convicted of that crime in Montana. The law was passed in 1997 but, according to a spokeswoman in the state attorney general's office, no one has yet been charged under that provision.

Louisiana has had a law on the books since 1995 that allows people convicted of raping a child under the age of 12 to be sentenced to death. A handful of people in the state have been charged under the law this year alone, but no one has yet been convicted and sentenced to death

Alabama's bill, which cannot be considered by the rest of the Legislature until it reconvenes next year, would authorize the death penalty for people convicted a second time of having sex with a child younger than 12. No other states have the death penalty for a sex crime.

The idea behind having the death penalty for such offenders is the belief that it tells pedophiles how heinous their crimes are, and that death is the only way to be sure an offender won't do it again.

"The very serious meaning of this is to send a message to child molesters that it is a bad thing to do," said state Rep. Marcel Black, the chairman of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee.

Even though such laws exist, it is not clear that they will ever be used to execute someone. Legal experts say it is unlikely that any of the laws could stand up under a challenge before the Supreme Court, which in 1977 ruled that the death penalty is excessive punishment for rape.

None of the new laws have been tested in the courts yet.

A Mental Disorder?

On the other end of the spectrum, many public health experts argue that treatment is the better way to deal with pedophiles. Psychiatrists say child molesters suffer from a mental disorder that can be treated — a course that the Catholic Church seems to be leaning toward in its efforts to resolve the problem of priests who have abused youngsters.

But there are questions about how effective therapy can be, and no one ABCNEWS.com spoke to would say that child molesters can ever be said to be truly cured of their disease — which might seem to offer fuel to those who would impose the death penalty on these individuals, whether they are sick or not.

Experts say the issue is clouded by the repugnance people feel for the crime of child molestation, and what some say is a misperception that child molesters are more likely than other criminals to repeat their offenses, even after they have been arrested and punished.

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