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 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.

"The media has seized onto particular cases that are particularly horrific, and that has created this image of sexual molesters that has been to the detriment of the treatment of sexual offenders," said Alisa Klein, the public policy director of STOP IT NOW!, an organization that is running pilot projects around the country to prevent child molestation.

Karl Hanson, a psychologist and senior research officer with the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, said 17 percent of sex offenders will repeat their crime within four to five years — a smaller number than for other crimes.

With therapy or treatment — which ranges from "cognitive therapy" to change sex offenders' understanding of what they do to "chemical castration" to eliminate the physiological cause of the urge — that number drops to less than 10 percent, said Hanson, who is considered one of the leading experts in his field.

Some mental health workers say that imposing the death penalty on child molesters could cause more problems than it solves.

For people who hope to minimize the destructive effects of child abuse on the victims, who are often related to their attackers, the idea of hanging a death penalty over child molesters seems counterproductive. They say children would be less likely to come forward if they knew their assaulter — someone they might love — were facing capital punishment.

"If they think that Uncle Jack is going to be killed, they won't come forward," said Hanson. "That's not what they want. They want him to get treatment."

Another Option: Psychiatric Commitment

Public health officials who work with sexual predators wonder whether the laws would really have any positive effect on sex crimes against children, suggesting that imposing the death penalty for a sexual assault on a child might only encourage the attacker to kill the victim, eliminating the witness without risking a more serious penalty.

And many others are not convinced treatment works.

"I don't believe that there's any treatment that works for sex offenders," said Ed Wolahan, a corrections program specialist with the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections. "That's my personal opinion."

A decade ago, some states began to move back toward the idea of locking up molesters and throwing away the key. First Washington and then Kansas passed so-called sexual predator laws, allowing offenders to be committed to mental institutions indefinitely — after they had served their prison term.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Kansas law in 1992 because it provided for civil — not criminal — commitment, and since then other states have followed suit. Authorities in Wisconsin have constructed a 300-cell block for the civil commitment of sex offenders. The facility is within the state's penal system, but it is run by mental health practitioners.

"Other states are looking at the same thing," Wolahan said.

Does Anything Work?

There is still a strong push for treatment, though, and recently there has been extensive research on whether it works. But there is still no consensus, and the effectiveness of the various therapies used to treat child abusers is a matter of debate as well.

"Asking whether you can treat men who have sex with children is like asking whether you can treat drunk drivers," said Dr. Fred Berlin, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine assistant professor of psychiatry. "There's more than one answer."

One method that gained popularity in the 1980s was so-called drama therapy, wherein child molesters and other sexual predators are forced to undergo a mock rape themselves — without penetration. This method has come under fire from some psychiatrists who note that many people who commit these crimes were victims themselves before they ever became molesters.

In Florida, a judge can order a sexual offender to be "chemically castrated" with doses of a drug called Depo-Provera. It has been shown to be effective with some kinds of sex offenders, according to Chris Slobogin of the University of Florida Levin College of Law. After a second offense, the treatment is mandatory.

Perhaps the most widely accepted method is "cognitive therapy," in which psychiatrists try to change the offender's thought processes with regard to sex crimes. The therapy is based on a belief that many potential molesters are influenced by situations they find themselves in. It works on limiting the person's likelihood of acting on impulses he might feel in those situations.

No matter what therapy is used, though, sex offenders need to be kept under supervision to ensure that they do not repeat their crime after they are returned to society, according to the NIC's Wolahan.

"Housing sex offenders together seems to work," he said. "These people are master manipulators. They squeal on each other."

‘Stop Me Before I Molest’

In some states, programs have been instituted to try to stop molesters before they victimize children, by education campaigns to drive home the idea that sexually abusing children is wrong. These programs also offer potential molesters connections to counseling services while at the same time teaching children and other concerned adults the warning signs and steps that can be taken to intervene.

STOP IT NOW! has pilot programs being tested in Vermont, Minnesota and Philadelphia that reach out to would-be molesters, their friends, families and potential victims.

While the organization, founded 10 years ago, addresses issues of what to do with sex offenders once they have gone through the legal system, its focus is on prevention, educating the public about child molestation and incest, and trying to foster the understanding — even in would-be offenders — that these are bad things to do, Klein said.

The group offers a hot line number for people to call for information if they suspect someone is at risk or feel that they themselves are suffering from a compulsion to molest a child, she said.

What might sound like a pipe dream — getting people to call and say "Stop me before I molest!" — has been getting results, though, according to the organization's Klein.

"A lot of people from law enforcement have started to understand the value of what we do," she said. "There are now people from district attorneys' offices and members of police forces who sit on the advisory boards of these pilot projects."

Johns Hopkins' Berlin said such joint efforts between law enforcers and therapists could offer the best hope of limiting pedophilia.

"Pedophilia is a mental disorder — no one would choose to have relations with children," he said. "If you have almost any other psychiatric disorder, you know where to go for treatment. There's almost nowhere to go for treatment for pedophilia. To me, if anything has been ignored, it's that side of it.

"The attorney general ought to be involved, but the surgeon general ought to be involved, too," he added.

But preventing future offenses isn't the only concern. Lawmakers, says Alabama Rep. Black, are often more interested in dealing with crimes that have already occurred.

"This isn't about deterrence," he said. "It's about punishment."