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SEX-ABUSE SCANDAL Comparing state, church approaches



Published: Sat, July 13, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The state takes the approach that abusers can choose not to repeat their wrongdoing.

By D.A. WILKINSON

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- The Catholic Bishops of America have voted to adopt a policy to remove priests who sexually abuse children from public ministry.

The policy must still be approved by the Vatican, and the bishops are to meet later this year to work out details -- if not the realities -- such as how and where the priests are to be housed and whether they will be monitored or given counseling.

The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown has said it has 17 cases of alleged abuse and that five priests have been removed. The Diocese of Erie, which includes Mercer County, and the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which includes Lawrence County, each announced that several priests have been removed.

In most of the cases, the allegations and names of those involved weren't announced, much less reported to authorities for possible prosecution, before the statute of limitations expired.

The justice system

Is this system for handling alleged abusers the exact opposite used by the criminal justice system in Ohio?

"Exactly," says David Berenson, director of sex-offender services for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Ohio has a formal policy of "restorative justice" for both the victim and abuser, Berenson said.

"It involves an accusation, punishment, restoration, restitution, in which the victim has to have a say," he said. "It's a balanced-model approach."

For the abuser, the goal is rehabilitation.

Berenson said he finds the Catholic proposal "unbelievable. The Catholics are over the top with this."

Abusers in Ohio

Although sex abuse in the church is shocking, Berenson has a shock of his own: the extent of sex abuse in Ohio.

Of the 45,000 prisoners in Ohio's prison system at any one time, 9,800 -- or 21.5 percent -- are doing time for a sex offense.

Berenson said that when he gives talks about his job, people are stunned by the numbers and extent of the problem. He was, too, when he took over the job.

"I couldn't comprehend it," he said.

But the state's goal is crystal clear. Its guidelines state, "The highest priority of sex-offender programming is the safety and well-being of Ohio's citizenry."

Priests have been accused of being pedophiles -- attracted to very young children -- or ephebophiles -- attracted to adolescents. Some priests have abused boys; others have abused both boys and girls. But the state doesn't focus on the gender of the victims in its approach to treatment.

The state's guidelines read, "Sexual offending is a behavioral disorder which cannot be 'cured.'"

Instead, Berenson said, the state thinks the abusers choose to abuse -- and can choose not to offend. The state also thinks prisoners are responsible and accountable for their actions.

Prisoners' mind-sets

New prisoners basically fall into three categories: Those who knew what they did was wrong, those who never thought about the right or wrong of their actions, and those who are going to do whatever they want, Berenson said.

All new sex-offense prisoners take a 20-hour program that focuses on matters such as victim awareness and what the state describes as "relapse prevention." They also are given an evaluation to assess the likelihood they will commit another crime.

The risk assessment is based on extensive research in Canada, Berenson said. The assessment awards points in different categories, such as age, the relationship between abuser and victim, and the abuser's marital status.

Berenson said those in the two highest-risk categories -- about 45 percent of the sex-offender population -- will take an additional 18- to 24-month in-depth program to keep them from committing another sex crime.

For the low-risk offenders, the 20-hour course will be the only treatment they get. Berenson said that decision is based on the resources that are normally available to the prison system as well as the state's current budget problems.

Admitting wrongdoing

In spiritual circles, confession of wrongdoing is seen as the first step toward repentance and a new life.

Of Ohio's sex-offense prisoners, 68 percent either denied the crime, minimized its impact or blamed the victim, Berenson said. But he added there is no evidence to show that prisoners who admit their wrongdoing do better in rehabilitation.

Still, the program includes individual counseling and group sessions. Prisoners must keep journals and do autobiographical writing that brings them to an awareness of what they have done, Berenson said.

Overall, Berenson said, sex offenders have a lower rate of return to prison than other offenders. A study showed that after 10 years, 34 percent of sex offenders had committed a nonsexual crime and 11 percent had committed another sex offense.

wilkinson@vindy.com




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