Magazine article Anglican Journal

Sex Offenders Salvaged by Circles: Prevents New Crimes

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Sex Offenders Salvaged by Circles: Prevents New Crimes

Article excerpt

MALCOLM Savage cannot imagine anyone more dangerous than a man who is released from jail with nowhere to live, no friends, no job, and a fear that people will find out who he is and hound him.

Sex offenders like that, he says, are walking time bombs.

Because of his deeply-held views that all people are both salvageable and fallible, the 71-year-old Anglican volunteers his time with Circles of Support and Accountability, a federally-funded project of the Mennonite Central Committee, with the aim of stopping these "time bombs" from exploding.

Circles, which works solely with convicted pedophiles newly released from jail, is drawing worldwide attention because of its reported success, despite the fact that the program is just seven years old. (Its infancy makes statistics hard to come by.)

There are 15 active Circles in Toronto and four more in Hamilton, Ont.

One Circles founder, Baptist pastor Hugh Kirkegaard, saw the traditional corrections approach to pedophiles failing miserably. "Someone," he said, "had to put a foot in the revolving door."

This can be a tall order, since police often feel duty-bound to inform a community of an ex-offender in its midst, even when a full prison sentence has been served. Once the word gets out, sex offenders are often publicly vilified and harassed. This, in turn, can drive them to re-offend, say program organizers.

Circles developed as a response to the treatment of a released pedophile in Peterborough, Ont., in 1994. Widespread media coverage of the man's name, photograph and address, and the resulting public outcry, drove the man out of town. The family who had befriended him received death threats and had to keep their children out of school until the uproar died down.

Re-established in Toronto, he became the first Circles client, has not re-offended and now plays the piano in a Toronto church where he has been welcomed.

The Peterborough incident, repeated many times across Canada when a released sex offender has tried to rejoin a community, shows that public education is needed, say Circles organizers.

Mr. Kirkegaard said. "The community has lost its ability to reintegrate people back in, preferring to leave it up to professionals." Stunning failures are evident with pedophiles.

"The bottom line," said Mr. Kirkegaard, "is that we don't want to see any more victims."

On the other hand, he noted, "public anxiety and fear is quite irrational around this group of offenders. The reality is that these people have a right to be here when they have done their time."

An ex-offender who signs a "covenant" with Circles will not find the experience an easy one. Mr. Savage, who has volunteered for four circles over the past seven years, said that group support does not mean group cover-up. "If we have to blow the whistle, we blow the whistle, but we never do it behind their backs," he said. …

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