I am on the board of two nonprofit organizations. One advocates for adults who survived childhood sexual abuse. The other consists of friends and families of people convicted of sex crimes. You might think that makes no sense. Isn’t one the enemy of the other? Isn’t one bad and one good? I don’t think so. All are human beings. Those convicted of sex offenses have been held accountable. Given the recidivism rate of 5%, they are less to be feared than the rest of society. Some who were convicted and made to register as sex offenders for life* were innocent or guilty of behavior that harmed no one – streaking, taking photos of their nude children, sexting while a minor, brushing dirt off a child’s clothed bottom, exploring bodies through childhood curiosity.
Aren’t those who were victimized scarred for life? Some. Not all. It is a disservice to survivors to tell them they can never recover from abuse they suffered as a child. Everyone is different. Many survivors are able to heal and put it behind them. Some even forgive their abusers. Why can’t we? Forgiveness allows us to rebuild community. It lifts something from our souls – the anger and hatred that act like cancers eating us from within.
Not all those who have committed sex offenses can be redeemed. Not all are alike. Some are pathological serial offenders and need to be separated from the community. These are not the majority. Yet in the last 30 or 40 years we have greatly expanded the types of behavior that are sex crimes, while branding all those convicted with the same indelible mark for life: “sex offender.” Punishment is never ending. It can include placement on a public registry; notification of neighbors, colleagues, and others; restrictions on where one can live; limitations on travel (passport identification as a sex offender) and association, as well as extralegal discrimination such as inability to get a job, find housing, or attend school.
Recently, a young star OSU baseball player, Luke Heimlich, was outed as a convicted sex offender. Luke molested a young relative five years ago. She was four when it began and he was 13. His actions were reprehensible, even considering his brain immaturity. Luke served two years’ probation and completed sex offender treatment. He has expressed remorse for the harm he caused and is trying to become a decent, contributing member of society. But what he did at 13 and 15 continues to follow him. After revelation of his past and a public outcry, he stepped down from the baseball team, which is on its way to the College World Series. Before The Oregonian informed the public about Luke’s past, he was considered a top draft pick by Major League Baseball. After, no team selected him. Some have suggested he be banned from athletics, while others that he be banned from attending university.
This is not a contest of sympathy. ‘If we have sympathy for Luke, we cannot care about the little girl (now 11).’ ‘If we are (justifiably) angry at what happened to her, we must hate Luke and ostracize him from our community.’ Are our hearts so small that they cannot encompass caring for both? Luke is not a monster. He is a young man who did something terribly wrong. He has been held accountable and received treatment. He is highly unlikely to commit another sex crime. We should spend as much energy preventing sexual abuse as we do righteously condemning those who are trying to make amends and contribute to the community. *In Oregon, those convicted of sex crimes may apply to be removed from the registry after specified periods of time following the end of supervision. ORS 181.820