Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Pope Benedict XVI Right?

What if Pope Benedict XVI is right and doesn't have the courage to admit it publicly? The thought occurred to me the other day. By day, I counseled clients on the front line of the United States' war on sex. By night, I was tongue-clucking over a church too hard-headed and hard-hearted to do the right thing.

And then it occurred to me: The church may be right.

It is by now obvious that there are abusive priests in the church. And there are abusive fathers in our homes. There are abusive aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches. Why the world is filled with sexual abusers. It's enough to throw us into a panic, and so we do panic and fret.

Lawmakers belt out one harsh and over-broad law after another. Romeo's lovemaking nets him the scorn of a serial killer. We make those who are a risk of violent offense register and seek treatment with those who were merely curious in the wrong way and at the wrong time in their lives and in our nation's history. We want to lock people up and throw away the key. We call these offenders sick, deviant, beyong redemption, and so we punish them.

We are the sick and twisted ones. Our society is steeped in cheap and easy sensuality. Yet step out of line for a moment and you are labeled a deviant. Then comes scorn. What sane and humane society seeks to punish the ill? And why can't we as a society take broader responsibility for trapping a generation or more of young Americans in the vice of lust, one of the deadly sins?

The church is criticized for not doing enough with errant priests. Yet increasingly I read that the men, and they are almost all men, are isolated and sent for treatment and care away from press of daily life. That's not enough for the hypocritical Puritans in our midst: They want the priests in prison, and they want money damages for those abused. It is a sick and twisted cycle.

Perhaps, I say, the Pope is right.

Lust is a sin. Pedophilia is an illness. Prison is not confession; it expiates no sin, and rights nothing. Imprisoning the sick is what a sick society does. And justice does not require the ill to pay fines to those they harm.

Anger grows over a church perceived to be refusing to be held accountable. But I wonder whether that rage is misplaced, really. Did we really think we could make a profit stoking desire and that the demons of lust, once set free, would obey the rules. When do we take responsibility for what we have wrought?

I've seen good men destroyed by baseless allegations of sexual misconduct. I've seen purported victims, still children, coddled, and made into veritable rock stars by the court. Prosecutors strut and preen about accountability. Yet once the prison door slams, nothing has changed. The angry victim can now enjoy the cheap and easy drug of revenge, but this pill, once swallowed, poisons the soul.

I'm starting to admire the Pope. He doesn't owe the world an explanation for the sin in his church, any more than we owe him an explanation for the excess we court in the name of profit and free expression. When one of the pope's own errs, the church takes him in and offers to treat the wounded, even as it offers counsel to victims. How much better the pope and the church than we. When a citizen fails, we brand him for life and call him a monster. We seek to ruin him. And we call it justice.

There are, Augustine wrote long ago, two cities: the city of man and the city of God. I am a pagan, and do not know God. But I know that I respect the pope far more than those critics that think call for the church to shed compassion in the name of revenge.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Letter To Barack Obama: Virginia, RSOL

Dear President Obama:

When you took office you promised to give a voice to the voiceless. You spoke of the audacity of hope. You promised to include those often forgotten and despised. I am appealing to you honor those promises now.

This past weekend you appeared on a television show called America's Most Wanted. You met with the show's creator on national television and listened to him call for yet more laws designed to get tough on crime. As you know, John Walsh is a tireless advocate for crime victims. He lost his own son to murder decades ago.

Immediately after appearing on America's Most Wanted, you were contacted by a group called Virginia Reform Offender Laws. The group asked for a meeting to talk about a class of victims who have no media spokesperson and who garner little sympathy. Members of the group would like to sit down and discuss with you the other America, those stigmatized for life as a result of conduct that often wasn't even criminal a century ago. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans living in fear of the shadows cast by laws that fail to draw meaningful distinctions between those who are a risk of future harm and the overwhelming majority of folks who simply make mistakes.

John Walsh and America's Most Wanted are powerful tools in what is often an hysterical over-reaction to isolate acts of horror. When a young woman is abducted, raped and murdered by a stranger, the nation rightly grieves. But tapping that grief for purposes of stiffing moral panic poorly serves the nation. Many of us were surprised that you agreed to appear on a television show that panders in fear and unresolved rage.

Virginia's, Reform Sex Offender Laws cannot offer you a national forum. There is no television show dedicated to Americans forgotten and scorned by the criminal justice system. But these other Americans are organizing in each and every state in the union to educate lawmakers that the sex offender hysteria is destroying lives. Virginia's group is among the most sophisticated in the nation: In recent weeks, the group has provided lawmakers in Virgina with a recent publication about the weaknesses in our laws regarding sex offenses.

The other America still looks to you for leadership, Mr. President. When the Virginia group called the White House earlier in the week to request a meeting, a promise was made to convey the request and to get back to the group. I am urging you to take a little time to sit down with representatives and hear what they have to say. You can still make a difference for the voiceless folks looking to you for hope. Please do not scorn them. That is the easy and convenient response. But it is a response that fails to look beyond appearances.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Maine Citizen's For Change Presses Legislative Fight

If you leave lawmakers alone and assign them the task of fixing a state's sex offender registry, odds are they will screw it up. So Maine Citizen's for Change decided to leave nothing to chance when the state's Supreme Court gave lawmakers until the end of this month to alter the state's sex offender laws.

The citizen's group is little more than one year old. But they are speaking with a voice that can be heard in Augusta. Members of the group have been using the telephone and email to lobby lawmakers.

Members of the legislature are up against a deadline set by the state's high court to address infirmities in the state's existing sex offender laws. The court held in Latalien that retroactive registration was, in fact, punitive and could constitute ex post facto punishment.

"The retroactive application of the lifetime registration requirement and quarterly in-person verification procedures of SORNA of 1999 to offenders originally sentenced subject to SORA of 1991 and SORNA of 1995, without, at a minimum, affording those offenders any opportunity to ever be relieved of the duty as was permitted under those laws, is, by the clearest proof, punitive, and violates the Maine and United States Constitutions’ prohibitions against ex post facto laws. [¶64] Because the Legislature, in its upcoming session, may wish to consider revisions to SORNA of 1999 to address the registration of offenders originally sentenced subject to SORA of 1991 and SORNA of 1995, we postpone the effective date of our mandate to March 31, 2010. See M.R. App. P. 14(c). State v. Letalien, 2009 ME 130 (emphasis added)."

Lawmakers are expected to vote tomorrow on a proposal to change the law to satisfy the court. Maine Citizens for Change is hoping that lawmakers will provide reform that takes into account the individual characteristics of a registrant.

For further information about how to get involved in Maine contact:

Jane M Cantral
State Coordinator
Maine Citizens For Change

Virginia Leading The Way

I have not yet read Dr. Richard Wright's Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions. But I ordered a copy yesterday. If I were a lawmaker in Virginia or a member of U.S. House Judiciary Committee, I would have a copy given to me gratis. A Virginia advocacy group has made its mission the education of lawmakers and has either hand-delivered of mailed copies of the book to lawmakers.

The Virginia groups is called, simply enough, Reform Sex Offender Laws, or RSOL. It is one of a series of statewide organizations united under that banner. This latest lawmaker education campaign is a stroke of genius that should be replicated elsewhere.

Virginia lawmakers are this term neck-deep in proposed legislation regarding sex offenders. Among the bills being considered are calls for civil commitment, new laws against sexting, legislation to ensure compliance with tht federal Adam Walsh Act, and other measures. Typically, there is little debate about passage of such bills. Proponents promise to get tough on crime, hitch their proposal to the latest sensation news story they can find, and then date someone to oppose measures designed to keep the streets safe for little children. It is no wonder in such a climate that the laws regarding sex offenders have become an unintelligible mess.

Virginia RSOL is doing something about it. It is working to educate lawmakers about the consequences of passing laws without worrying about the consequences. Other states should consider following suit.

Here is a list of Virgnia lawmakers who received a free copy of Dr. Wright's book. I suggest follow up emails to these offices to determine what lawmakers thought of the book. I fear an absence of pressure will result in their ignoring the book. We all know the truth of the old aphorism: "You can elect a lawmakers to the statehouse, but you can't make 'em think."

House Courts of Justice Committee

Chairman: David B. Albo R VCC

Vice Chair: Clifford L. Athey Jr. * R

Ward L. Armstrong D VCC

(Minority Leader)

William K. Barlow * D

Robert B. Bell R VCC

William Cleaveland * R

Benjamin L. Cline * R

C. Todd Gilbert * R VCSC

H. Morgan Griffith * R

(Majority Leader)

Charniele L. Herring D

Patrick A. Hope D DelP

Salvatore R. Iaquinto R

William R. Janis R

Joseph P. Johnson Jr. D

Terry G. Kilgore R VCC

G. Manoli Loupassi R

Jennifer L. McClellan D

Jackson H. Miller R

Christopher Kilian Peace R

David J. Toscano D

Ron A. Villanueva R

Vivian E. Watts D

* On Both House Committees

VCC = On Virginia Crime Commission and received their book on December 15, 2009

VCSC= On Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission

House Militia Police and Public Safety Committee

Chairman: Beverly J. Sherwood R VCC

Vice Chair: Thomas C. Wright Jr. R

Clifford L. Athey Jr. * R

William K. Barlow * D

Charles W. Carrico Sr. R

William Cleaveland * R

Benjamin L. Cline * R

John A. Cox R

James E. Edmunds R

C. Todd Gilbert * R VCSC

H. Morgan Griffith * R

(Majority Leader)

Matthew James D

Mark L. Keam D

Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. D

L. Scott Lingamfelter R

Donald W. Merricks R

Paula J. Miller D

James W. Morefield R

David A. Nutter R

James M. Scott D

James M. Shuler D

Roslyn C. Tyler D

* = On Both House Committees

VCC = On Virginia Crime Commission and received their book on December 15, 2009

VCSC= On Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission

Senate Courts of Justice Committee

Chairman: Henry L. Marsh III D VCC &VCSC

R. Creigh Deeds D

John S. Edwards D

Janet D. Howell D VCC

Robert Hurt R

L. Louise Lucas D

Ryan T. McDougle R

Ralph S. Northam D

Mark D. Obenshain R

Toddy Puller D

Fredrick M. Quayle R

William Roscoe Reynolds D

Richard L. Saslaw D

Open Seat (was Cuccinelli)

Open Seat (was Stolle)

VCC = On Virginia Crime Commission and received their book on December 15, 2009

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Obama On "Most Wanted"? Ugh

Please tell me it's not true. Tell me President Obama did not appear on the 1000th edition of America's Most Wanted. Tell me he did not succumb to the fear-mongering hysteria that seeks to transform worst-cases scenarios into norms of public policy.

But it is true. The president sat for an interview with one of the angriest and most self-righteous men in the United States, John Walsh. He's the father of Adam Walsh, a little boy abducted and murdered several decades ago. Since then, we've all felt the pain of the Walsh family.

Is it only in America that we transform those undone by grief into celebrities?

Walsh is a hero to many Americans. His son was abducted and killed by a stranger. Because this should never have happened, Walsh wants to make sure it never happens again. He's been instrumental in playing to the moral panic that has made our nation's over-inclusive and draconian sex offender laws the target of international criticism. Human Rights Watch has taken note; last summer the Economist carried a front page story of our war against the very forms of desire we stoke with advertising and a culture drenched in cheap, easy and vulgar sensuality.

President Obama's decision to appear on America's Most Wanted was not the reasoned and measured response of a commander in chief committed to rule of reason. Obama sat with Walsh and was lectured by the talk-show host about the need to take DNA samples of every person accused of a felony. The president listened to a man who has lent his son's name to controversial federal legislation that has been declared unconstitutional in some federal courts and is destined for a Supreme Court challenge. What was Obama trying to accomplish with this appearance?

Obama promised change. But it's looking more and more like the same old stuff. Pandering to fear to keep the plebeians at bay; bailing out those too big to fail to keep the elite fat and sassy; promising to close Guantanamo, but now folding in the face of those critics who want men tried in secret. It's looking more and more like the same old stuff in D.C.
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