Ministering to Sex Offenders


SAUL GONZALEZ, correspondent: With a buffet table topped with potluck dishes and guests catching up and sharing stories, this holiday gathering at Fresno, California’s Mennonite Community Church looks like a traditional church social. Traditional, that is, until you learn that many of the guests here tonight, like Robert Wilson, are convicted rapists and child molesters, all out of prison and on parole.

ROBERT WILSON: I had a lewd and lascivious act with a minor. It was my child. And when we get together like this, yeah, it’s a good thing. Nobody else out there on the streets are going to accept us and let us come into their little private parties and stuff because of who we are.

GONZALEZ: This gathering is the work of a faith-based program called Circles of Support and Accountability or COSA. It wants to create a new model for how society deals with sex offenders by offering the offenders help and friendship.

(speaking to Rev. Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower): You are working with men who society thinks of as the worst of the worst of the worst.

Rev. Clare Ann Ruth-HeffelbowerREV. CLARE ANN RUTH-HEFFELBOWER: Yes, it’s true, and even the worst of the worst of the worst are human beings, and they can change.

GONZALEZ: Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, an ordained Mennonite pastor, is the founder of Fresno’s COSA program.

HEFFELBOWER: We believe that it is possible for people to change. We’ve seen people change, and we believe coming from a faith perspective, that people created in God’s image have that good in them that can be there if they are given an opportunity to let that develop.

(at COSA meeting): “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

GONZALEZ: First started by Canadian churches in the mid 1990s, COSA’s work with sex offenders centers on small discussion circles that meet weekly. In the circles, four to six volunteers from the community are matched with one sex offender, called a core member. In this circle the offender is named John.

JOHN: And I screwed up and I made some bad choices because I become careless and I become complacent, and that is something that anybody that’s in my situation cannot do.

GONZALEZ: The circles are intended to get recently paroled sex offenders to take responsibility for the crimes they’ve committed and provide them material and moral support as they attempt to reenter the community.

JOHN: I can talk about anything, anything.

GONZALEZ: Anything.

JOHN: Anything. I told them things about me that I wouldn’t tell my closest friend.

(speaking to group at COSA meeting): I don’t want to get into debates. That’s not being helpful for the core member.

GONZALEZ: John, who didn’t want his face shown or last name used, molested half a dozen children, including his own daughter. He says after decades of his making excuses, COSA has forced him to confront the ugliness of his crimes.

JOHN: I was the one that caused the harm. It wasn’t their fault. It was easy to pick up on children that were feeling abandoned, neglected, and unhappy, because I had…

GONZALEZ: You targeted the vulnerable.

JOHN: Yeah. I targeted the vulnerable. It was easy.

GONZALEZ: Most of the sex offenders in COSA, who all volunteer for the program, say while serving time they received little or no counseling.

BEN: They might call them correctional facilities and rehabs. There’s no correcting, there’s no rehabbing going on.

GONZALEZ: You didn’t get any help?

BEN: There’s no help going on in there.

GONZALEZ: This man, who we’ll call Ben, is a former teacher convicted of multiple child molestation charges. He says too many sex offenders come out of prison with the same urges they had going in.

BEN: They know if they are going to offend again or not. They know it, you know, and they can fool themselves and maybe think they don’t need any kind of support group. But they really need it.

GONZALEZ: There are more than 700,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, with more than 100,000 of them living in California. In California, like other states, paroled offenders are required to wear GPS ankle bracelets. Offenders must also follow strict residency restrictions, preventing them from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks. Unable to find apartments that don’t violate the residency restrictions, many men have wound up on the streets, creating entire tent cities of sex offenders. Parole agent Andy Mounts and his partner showed us one encampment. They introduced us to Michael, a paroled rapist.

(speaking to Michael and Andy Mounts): In this homeless encampment, what percentage of the people living here are sex offenders?

MOUNTS: Michael, what do you think?

MICHAEL: I would say almost all of them.

GONZALEZ: All of them. Almost all of them.

MOUNTS: One or two are not. If you see 50 tents, Michael—47 or 48 sex offenders?


GONZALEZ: Is it good for the public, please don’t take offense, Michael, but people like you and others are out here instead of in an apartment or a home or in a more stable living situation?

MOUNTS: I can’t tell you that it is.

GONZALEZ: You can’t tell me that it is.

MOUNTS: That it’s good.

GONZALEZ: It’s this reality that COSA says it’s trying to remedy.

HEFFELBOWER: As long as we keep pushing sex offenders to the edge of the community, we’re putting them at risk of reoffending. An offender who has positive, pro-social relationships is less likely to reoffend than someone who doesn’t have those relationships in place. Now that’s seems to me like sort of a, duh, everyone should know that. But that’s what COSA is about, to fill in the social gap.

GONZALEZ: And it appears to work. A recent study of COSA in Canada showed a sharp decline in recidivism rates among sex offenders involved in the program. COSA volunteers who help the sex offenders are often motivated by a combination of religious faith and a wish to protect their families and communities. Some COSA volunteers have also had a very personal experience with sexual abuse—as  victims.

Alicia HintonALICIA HINTON: I really want these men to know they are accountable to me personally for not creating another victim.

GONZALEZ: Until it became too emotionally taxing for her, Alicia Hinton, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, was a COSA volunteer. Although she stills sits on COSA’s board and believes strongly in its work, Hinton thinks some of COSA’s sex offenders still haven’t confronted their crimes and guilt.

HINTON: It was difficult for them to face me every week, and they didn’t want to talk about it with me.

GONZALEZ: They make excuses.

HINTON: They make excuses. They make lots and lots of excuses. It’s always somebody else’s fault, and it disgusts me. It disgusts me.

GONZALEZ: As paroled sex offenders return to communities and neighborhoods, one question often dominates. Can people who committed such heinous crime be rehabilitated to a point where they won’t harm others ever again? Unfortunately, it’s a question with no easy answer. For Heffelbower and many others who work with sex offenders, there’s no such thing as a complete “cure.”

HEFFELBOWER: It’s like an alcoholic. An alcoholic can be in recovery, but they can’t forget that they are an alcoholic, and so I think whichever perspective you take…

GONZALEZ: Meaning the impulses are…

HEFFELBOWER: Meaning the impulses may be there, but you learn how to manage them and keep them from acting on them.

GONZALEZ: COSA’s offenders acknowledge their struggles.

(speaking to Ben): You do have thoughts that still make you uncomfortable?

BEN: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: For younger men, for?

BEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I don’t like that. I haven’t approached them. But unfortunately I guess still working out some kinks and whatever happened in my past.

GONZALEZ: In spite of her own ambivalence working with sex offenders, Hinton believes more programs like COSA must be created.

HINTON: There is no other option. There isn’t. If we are going to just decide that somebody else, our government, is taking care of these men, and it’s not, we are fools. We are putting our children at risk.

JOHN: People trust me. That’s good. People trust me, and they can trust me for honesty.

GONZALEZ: John says he understands the fear and loathing surrounding men like him, but believes through COSA he’ll continue his journey toward some measure of redemption.

JOHN: I don’t want to die in prison. That’s no place for an old man. That’s no place for anybody if they have any sense at all. I want to be a good man, and a good man is someone that is accomplishing something worthwhile in life.

GONZALEZ: And who doesn’t hurt others.

JOHN: And doesn’t hurt others.

GONZALEZ: But whether John and other sex offenders can ever be fully accepted beyond these circles is a different question.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Saul Gonzalez in Fresno, California.

  • Magister

    I have been fortunate enough to meet and talk with Robin Wilson who was instrumental in developing the CoSa program in Canada. This is a wonderful idea. All those people who are so frightened for their children and want the government to do something about it, can do a much better job themselves by volunteering for a CoSa program. We need these to start all over the USA. As the article says, IT WORKS! That’s what we really want right?! We want to do what works to keep our children more safe. It seems to be Christian organizations who take up the call but anyone can do it.
    God Bless and protect all those who volunteer for the CoSa program as mentors and those seeking to never commit their crime again.

  • Merv

    That tent city of homeless sex offenders sounds to me very much like the colonies of lepers that lived on the outskirts of towns in New Testament times. The parallels are extraordinary, and it sounds like CoSa is doing what Jesus did, TOUCHING the unclean and declaring them clean.

  • Kathy Sutton

    I do not believe pedophiles are treatable! They should stay away from children and the public forever.

  • john smith

    My friend John in clovis is looking for a nurturing church that he can feel comfortable in being a sex offender. His offenses are over 20 years old and he is not in fellowship right now. I know he needs that support so any suggestion on churches in the clovis/fresno area is greatly appreciated,

  • Tony

    Clovis Hills Community Church is a great church. As I tell people when they ask, “They accept sinners.”

  • Barbara Dantin

    I was sexually abused by my Father at an early age. One hand says damn you but the other hand says thank you for giving me so much. Now at 57 yrs old, “the other hand” has won the conflict. I am thinking that offenders can be 1at, 2nd, or 3rd degree offenders. My point being, they are not all the same. When I think back to who loved me the most, it was my Father. He taught me to fish, he taught me about sports, he taught me to cook, he taught me the importance of school, and he even taught me moral values. Some offenders, maybe not all, are good human beings with an illness. I am glad that there are those who want to help them. I applaud your efforts.

  • Michael

    Excellent work…this is exciting and innovative and on track. I applaude “Religion and Ethics” for this. There are two other organizations that those concerned with the direction of current US sex offender policy may be interested in. … You might also find of interest Dr. James Powell’s remarks at a recent RSOL (Reform Sex Offender Laws) Conference held June 2010 in Washington DC. …

  • Sandy

    I am an incest survivor everyone in my family has been victimized but my brother is now a sexual predator in treatment in Florida. He molested family members and I have finally forgiven him. He is also a victim, due to treatment I have seen a powerful change in him. I need information to help with his release, I am willing to have him live with me but I live in Kentucky and he is in florida. Are there any CoSA groups there, he and others need our love, compassion and acceptance. They are still human beings, not animals and we should prevent child abuse by educating, informing and being accountable when we as teachers, parents, friends and family suspect a child is being harmed. Children are not born pedophiles but rather made that way through their own experiences…watch out for the signs in children. Please if anyone has information of where these men can turn, let me know, I need to help them transition back into society and succeed. Even those who seem unlovable deserve our love. God Bless you all.

  • Steve

    Up until last Thursday, I was employed by a computer company in the San Diego area. On Thursday of last week I was denied access to my job location because they found out about my lifetime commitment to register as Sex Offender. I came home from prison in 1990 after being incarcerated for six and a half years. I had gone to a trial in 1984 and lost on two of the counts filed against me. I lost because of the victims rights bill which basically allows the word of mouth of an accuser as evidence which can be used in a court of law against the defendant. I did my time, Every year on my birthday I faithfully go down to the police department and give them all the details of my current living situation, car license plates, etc. In other words, I comply with the law as a law obiding citizen should be expected to do. Anyway, I came home and began to rebuild my life. I married and began working to support my wife and myself. I have been consistantly employed for over 18 years to this point. I never had any trouble with the law before the conviction which was a ploy by my ex-wife for seeking custody of my children and I have had a clean record for over 20 years. I did nothing wrong except fullfull my commitment to register for life for the past 18 years. I am being penalized and denied work for following the law which requires me to register for life. In every other way, I am a model citizen and a home owner, but now I have no job because I cannot get out from under the stigma of having to register for life. This is the third time that I have been laid off at Christmas time, but the first time I have been fired because of the trouble I had with the law over 26 years ago. Perhaps you would like to pay my unemployment? I filed yesterday. I would just like to commend CoSa for the work that they are doing with real or actual sex offenders. This is a horrible enough way to live life when you haven’t done the crime. People with problems need help. As long as sex offenders are going to be released from prison without treatment then it is up to the community to keep themselves safe by open communication with the “lepers” helping with group treatments, but DON’T BE AFRAID AND DON’T LET YOUR FEAR RULE YOUR GOOD SENSES. Remember: most sex offenders were abused first before they ever abused anyone. Help others and you will difinitely be helping yourselves too.

  • jennifer

    they are liers ,monipulater, they will even tell the truth to get you to trust them again. once they get your trust they will think they can do it again .their sick mind will tell them that and they do it cause they like it ,because it feels good to them ,they get off on babies, and this page is trying to help them back in the community, what about the children they have hurt ! my 11 year old daughter laid in her bed one night and her father came into the room and hurt her when he left the room that little girl was gone forever, and what is left of her will never ever be the same so WHY should he!! poor guy has to live in a tent city are you kidding me let them rot

  • Stephanie

    I was molested from a young age and raped in my teenage years. I have a great life, married with two children and strong faith in God. I didn’t pursue punishment for the offenders except for the rape. One of the offenders was a cousin who later committed suicide. I did go through rehab in my late teen years to help deal with the pain of that and physical abuse by my mom and absence of my father for most of my life. That’s where my relationship with God began and my life has not been the same. I now am trying to find help for my brother who is in jail because he asked my niece if he could do something inappropriate to her while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Thank God it didn’t happen but I’m trying to find help for him- he was molested from a young age by my niece’s father, his brother. He has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and was raped while in county jail. He has been around my children although I’ve always been there as I’m very protective of my children by nature. My bro was offered a split sentence with one year being in treatment facility for drug/alcohol abuse. Teen challenge
    accepted him knowing the charges but revoked their offer after finding out that he has to register as a sex offender. I am now frantically searching for a treatment center that will take him. I really believe that our God is big enough
    to change the people who want to be changed. I wish there were more programs like cosa and I hope I can find one for my bro where we live.

  • Lori

    I also was molested as a child and raped as a teen. I also did not persue punishment for those who sexually abused me. As an adult I am NOT a victim and have learned, with my relationship with Jesus, that we are all sinners and we all can change. I work with sex offenders, their families, and those who choose to stay victims or decide that they are survivors and can help others through their situation. We all have labels if we like them, agree with them or not. People can change and sex offenders are NOT the worst of the worst. Punshment does NOT always have to be given to those who offend, which includes each and ever human being. We’ve all offended at least one person in our life time, though it may not have been sexual. It’s time we learn to forgive, and extend grace and mercy, just as we would like it extended to us.