Posted by Sappho on August 22nd, 2013 filed in Quaker Practice
My husband and I used to own rabbits, and at one point we enrolled those rabbits in an organization called Furry Friends (later Pet Assisted Therapy Services), which brought animals to shut ins. Where would rabbits be most needed? we asked, and the woman in the Furry Friends office suggested that we bring them to a juvenile detention center. They had, she explained, first asked for big, energetic dogs for the teenagers at that prison, and so they now had a crew full of big, energetic dogs, but without many smaller, gentler animals for the kids who might prefer those. So we signed up our rabbits, and rode to the prison with the friendliest pit bull you can imagine.
One day, our rabbits got a special request, and so we took them into a small room, where boys held and petted them. Later we learned that room was for teens with particularly violent offenses, rapists and murderers, who weren’t allowed out in the yard with the rest. Of course, we wouldn’t have guessed it, watching them gently pet the rabbits.
I remembered that visit this Sunday, when, in our religious education session before meeting for worship, this week one on mysticism, a woman spoke of her experience visiting people in prison, and sometimes worshipping with them. “And we were very fond of those prisoners,” she said, “most of whom had killed someone.”
Can the leopard change his spots? As we ask that question, people often want to rule certain people out. Sure, people may change, but do the real predators ever change?
If a man hits you once, leave him, we are told, because he will hit you again and again. A pedophile is a pedophile for life, and can never be trusted. And a murderer can’t really be trusted back among the rest of us.
On the other side, there are those who will readily accept someone’s “was blind, but now I see” conversion, perhaps more willingly if it comes from the right sort of someone.
In the wake of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, we’ve learned the dangers of being too forgiving. I think, though, that it’s important to understand just where it was that the Church went wrong.
Was it in believing that it is ever possible for a pedophile to reform? I’m not convinced. Studies of recidivism, in fact, indicate that many convicted child molesters never molest again. Some of these may be people who simply haven’t been caught again, but some may be people who have managed to reduce their desires, or, if not to reduce them, at least to resist them (like Dan Savage’s “gold-star pedophiles”).
No, what was wrong with the Church’s actions, rather, was this: Suppose, just suppose, that even most of the priests they recycled were really cured? Let me be generous, and pick a fairly high number, let’s say two thirds. Now, you have a priest named Paul Shanley, who has molested multiple minors. You are in the leadership of the Catholic Archdiocese. He’s better now, you think. You can send him off to another diocese, the San Bernardino Diocese, where my mother-in-law lived at the time, to become assistant priest in a church, the little church my mother-in-law attended, and you can let the people of that church accept, in their midst, without knowing it, a man who has molested multiple kids. Let’s suppose that, even two thirds of the time, you’re right that he’s all better now. Is it worth the risk, to put him in a place where he may molest and blight the lives of multiple kids, again?
So there are limits, and placing these limits, for some offenses, can live alongside the knowledge that sometimes repentance is real. Sometimes repentance may involve accepting these limits. You get to live your reformed life somewhere, but that somewhere should not be a place where you are at special risk of reoffending.
And yet people do reform after some crimes that are quite grave. Murder, particularly. Joel, when he was writing about Alcatraz, got to know men who had been prisoners there, murderers, who had, long after, come out of prison to lead better lives. And so I think my friend was not too naïve, being fond of the prisoners, most of whom had killed someone.
Prison dog programs, after all, suggest that our rabbits may have done the rapists and murderers some good.