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We should help to heal sex offenders

I'm riding along in my car against the background noise of a radio talk-show host working up her audience over the prospect that a sex offender might be living nearby. The discussion centers on the federal crime bill, which encourages police to pass out photos and addresses of anyone in the neighborhood who has been previously convicted of molestation.

The host's diagnoses range from "monsters" to "scum bags" and her policy proposals range from leaflets to the death penalty. Then, a soft-spoken male caller offers a simple solution: Sex offenders should be made to wear large identifying tags around their necks, with immediate imprisonment should they be caught without them. "You know _ like Hitler did with the Jews."

A brief silence follows and the host moves on to other matters.

For the past decade, I've been treating these "perpetrators," as the stilted language of law enforcement puts it. They usually suffer from one or another of the 50 so-called sexual paraphilias. Few are strangers to their victims. Most are friends and family members who have harmed their own. Few are violent, and unlike demons, they tend not to fall out of the sky.

I think of Sean, a 14-year-old hockey and baseball player who wants desperately to be straight and macho but who, from age 11, has been attracted to younger boys. Hiding this from his family, his jock buddies and himself, he clings to the hope that all will eventually be well. Then one day, a tease turns serious and Sean and a 10-year-old boy are involved in monthlong series of convoluted sexual encounters. Sean is arrested, and though he is being effectively treated, will probably carry the label of sex offender for the rest of his life.

Take 26-year-old Scott, who came to us charged with sexual assault. The incident arose out of a consensual bondage scenario with his girlfriend that suddenly turned violent. He had no history of sexual offending. However, as a teenaged juvenile he was sentenced to an adult prison for burglary. Two months later, he was gang-raped. His inability to fend off his attackers anointed him a cell block "punk." For the next three years, he was made to serve the sundry sexual needs of straight, non-sex-offender inmates. Scott returned to the streets transfixed by violent sexual obsessions.

The painful dilemmas that wind their way through these lives are seldom well-addressed through the criminal-justice system and even less so through vigilantism. John Money, the eminent Johns Hopkins University researcher studying sexual compulsions, summarized it best. "The adversarial system for the treatment of paraphilia by means of prosecution and punishment," he said, "must be pronounced an abject failure."

Despite the popular view that sex offenders are untreatable, research shows otherwise. Studies done in Canada, California and Vermont demonstrate that appropriate treatment can substantially cut the chances of a sex offender reoffending. Unfortunately, in the current national hysteria, a troubled pedophile dare not talk much about himself or his past without a high probability of his therapist reporting him to the authorities. The risk doesn't end there.

Take 13-year-old Troy, grossly sexually abused by a 25-year-old friend of his older sister when he was 11. Shortly thereafter he attempted the same thing with his 8-year-old sister. He was locked up for a number of months, then released for treatment at a local mental health center. The adolescent group members had to begin each therapy session with this mantra: "My name is ___. I am a sex offender and I will be one for the rest of my life." The ritual troubled Troy and he asked his mother, Why? The therapist told her that she had seen it on Oprah.

In the end, all the hot lines, leaflets, talk-show kitsch and vigilantism won't slow the rate of sexual abuse. Precisely the reverse. As troubled individuals are tagged and driven from neighborhoods and families and friends and slip into that nether world of isolation and trance that feeds perverse fantasy, sexual offending can only grow more dangerous.

Miller, clinical director of the Augustus Institute in Alexandria, Va., is a national authority on corrections, alternative programs and clinical work with violent juvenile and adult offenders.

Special to the Los Angeles Times