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    Trusting in sex offender treatment

    Pedophiles and others whose behaviors are seen as controllable are often freed without undergoing a Ryce Act civil trial.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 28, 2002


    TAMPA -- The pedophile scrubs pans in a family bakery and fills his week with church. Tuesday night is Bible study. Wednesday is prayer group. Thursday is choir practice. Sunday is worship.

    "An idle mind is the devil's workshop," says William Bernard Johnson. He knows it is a good week if he can keep his mind off children.

    He used to hunt them, back in the 1970s and '80s. He wore disguises: Little League coach, older pal, the big, childlike grownup who always had free tickets to movies and ballgames. He sought out boys without dads, learning that loneliness made them easier marks.

    "I'd befriend them, like their big brother," said Johnson, now 41. "I saw the loneliness in them and I'd get them to trust me."

    By Johnson's admission, he molested 30 children, most recently his 6-year-old stepson in 1995. When his latest prison term ended in 1999, he was among the first to face the Jimmy Ryce Act, a law intended to force Florida's most dangerous sex offenders into treatment rather than allowing them to go free.

    In the state's eyes, Johnson was a menace. Doctors pegged him a high risk to reoffend. After he spent 21/2 years in intensive treatment at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, however, even prosecution experts had a different opinion.

    They said he should go free.

    It's a surprisingly common scenario in Hillsborough County, where prosecutors have asked that 52 sex offenders be confined under the Ryce Act, which requires a civil jury to decide whether the offenders are fit to re-enter society.

    Of the 30 cases that have been resolved in Hillsborough, the state voluntarily dismissed or suspended 14 of them before taking them to a jury -- often, as in Johnson's case, because offenders have agreed to be treated while awaiting trial.

    In other cases, offenders are committed at trial only to be released, after treatment, when prosecutors could not find doctors to say they should stay behind bars.

    The pattern illustrates a striking disconnect between the popular perception of sex criminals as incorrigible sociopaths -- bolstered by recent tales of pedophile priests wreaking abuse across decades -- and what psychologists now believe about the majority of such types.

    "The public has a general tendency to monsterize sex offenders," said Dr. Ted Shaw, a psychologist who specializes in sex offender treatment and who has done hundreds of evaluations for the state in Ryce cases. "You can't cure sex offenders, but most can be successfully treated."

    The ideas underpinning such treatment emerged in the 1980s, fueled by a theory called "love maps," which maintains the nature of an individual's sexual urge is largely fixed by early adulthood. In other words, no amount of therapy would purge a genuine pedophile of the attraction to children.

    With this insight, doctors shifted to the relapse-prevention techniques used in addiction treatment, in which recovering alcoholics learn, for example, not to enter a bar when depressed.

    Likewise, a pedophile is taught he is never completely safe around children, and that he must guard tenaciously against stressors that trigger his urges.

    "Before the relapse model, we thought we were curing sex offenders," Shaw said. "We thought once they finished treatment, they were okay, they could be around children. When we started to look at the research, (we found) the guys were doing better if they believed they weren't cured."

    William Bernard Johnson, the man who molested 30 children, might be the poster boy for such an approach -- at least so far.

    Johnson, now a $7-an-hour assistant in a Tampa bakery, speaks with imperfect grammar but in language laden with psychiatric terms learned from his doctors.

    He molested kids, he explains, because grown women made him feel inadequate. Adults ridiculed his size -- he is six-foot-four, 300 pounds -- and the lazy way he had of speaking. But kids accepted him.

    "I had myself convinced that I was being a friend to these kids," he said. "That was one of my main justifications."

    Johnson, who has been free since December, said he knows better now. "I wasn't helping them and wasn't their friend. I was killing them."

    But not everyone has faith in the efficacy of treatment.

    "These guys are sick and twisted, and they always will be," said Judy Cornett, 40, a Tampa woman whose 11-year-old son was raped in 1992. The attacker, Kevin Kinder, calmly admitted to luring several boys into the woods and raping them.

    A jury sent Kinder to Arcadia's Civil Commitment Center in 2000, but a year later, eight experts -- including the prosecution's own -- said he had improved enough to go free.

    Cornett is still outraged. She believes Kinder fooled the experts.

    "He's a manipulator. That's one of the talents they have," she said. "If you sat in jail for six years, and you had an opportunity to get out, are you going to sit there and admit your sickness?"

    The case of Roosevelt Daniels, who was released the week after Kinder in November 2001, also has given ammunition to critics. In 1985, Daniels sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl who later killed herself -- a result, her mother says, of the trauma.

    Hillsborough prosecutors sought to have Daniels held under the Ryce Act when his prison term ended in March 1999. Treated while awaiting trial, he went free in November 2001; prosecutors could not find any doctors to testify that he should remain behind bars.

    But in March, Daniels was arrested after a 10-year-old Tampa girl said he tried to accost her while she was walking home from her bus stop. Based on her statements, he was charged with violating his probation by trying to have contact with a minor.

    So can sex criminals fool the experts into believing they're safe?

    "It's a good question. It's real hard (to tell), especially if the person is bright and knows the lingo," said Dr. Karen Parker, the clinical director of the Sexually Violent Predators Program for the state's Department of Children and Families.

    Since 1999, the department has screened 9,750 sex offenders about to be released from prison but recommended that just 610 of them be committed under Jimmy Ryce.

    The most common type of sex offender -- a white, married male who molests a daughter or stepdaughter -- probably wouldn't meet Jimmy Ryce criteria since his statistical chances of reoffending are small. Same for an elderly, crippled rapist who in the past overpowered his victims but is now confined to a wheelchair.

    Who makes the cut? The worst of the worst: often repeat offenders who target strangers. A few, experts concede, are genuine psychopaths beyond the reach of psychological methods.

    Jeanine Cohen, the assistant public defender who handles Jimmy Ryce cases in Hillsborough, believes it would be more efficient -- and constitutionally sound -- to give sex offenders treatment during their initial incarceration, rather than hold them under the Ryce Act. The act is named for a 9-year-old Dade County boy who was raped, murdered and dismembered in 1995.

    For men who volunteer for treatment under the act, Cohen noted, there's a risk: Everything they say in treatment can be used against them at trial.

    "They're making a decision to take this gamble, which so far has been paying off in Hillsborough County," Cohen said. "Look at the numbers. I think those who really want to help themselves have obviously worked really well at the program, to get out in a year to three years."

    Michael Sinacore, the Hillsborough prosecutor who oversees Ryce cases, believes the law is effective in channeling people to treatment, but he said it can offer no guarantees that sex criminals will stay out of trouble.

    "You can't read their minds," Sinacore said. "So it's up to the experience of the experts to determine whether these people have truly improved or whether they've just learned what to say. It isn't an exact science."

    Meanwhile, Johnson, the pedophile, puts in 30 hours a week at the bakery and tries to keep his nights full. He lives in a rooming house and is saving for his own apartment. Members of the Baptist church he attends know of his past and accept him, he said, and he talks about his struggles in a church brotherhood group.

    "They say there's no cure, and there might not be a cure," Johnson said. "You've got to be on guard at all times."

    -- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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