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ON THE OFFENSIVE

Timothy Wacker represents perfectly the conflict that mental-health professionals continue to face over the treatment of sex offenders. He started raping his sister when he was twelve, an activity he continued for several years.

"The only time it was really hard was the first time," he says. "After that, rationalizing it was easy."

Ten years later, after being rebuffed by a teenage girl he'd hoped to have sex with, he stormed away. He selected a house at random and entered it. He raped the three children inside--an eight-year-old girl and two boys, ages twelve and fourteen--and then left.

Today, Wacker, 37, looks harmless. He is heavyset, with a moon face and a thin mustache. Thick glasses magnify wide blue eyes. He is housed in the minimum-security Arrowhead Correctional Institution outside of Canon City. In an interview, he comes across as candid and personable--even friendly. He has been in prison for sixteen years, since his arrest in 1978.

For his crimes Wacker received "day to life," an unusual sentence permissible under Colorado's sex-offender laws. It gives the parole board the discretion of allowing an offender out as early as the day after he arrives in prison. Or, as the name suggests, keeping him there for life, all depending on how he progresses in treatment. As of late September, 38 of Colorado's sex offenders were serving time under day-to-life sentences.

Since entering the state prison system, Wacker has passed through a gauntlet of treatments designed to harness or rechannel his anger and his sexual urges. He was shocked by electric currents at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, and he still attends group sessions at the Department of Corrections' ten-year-old and much-praised Sexual Offenders Treatment Program (SOTP). He says he's cured.

"Ever since the aversion therapy," he says, "I have been aroused only by adult females." Additional counseling has reinforced the message. Still, he admits that it's been more than fifteen years since he's come close to being alone with an adult woman or a child. Even before prison, he reveals, "I'd never even been on a date."

Despite his self-proclaimed progress, the nature of Wacker's crimes still leave many people skeptical that he can ever change. He twice has appealed to the state's Community Corrections program to live in one of its halfway houses. Twice it has refused to take him. His appeals for parole also have been denied. "It's very possible that he'll spend the rest of his life in prison," says one of his therapists.

Much of the skepticism and fear of Wacker stems from the fact that almost nothing is known about the particulars of pedophilia. Dr. Fred Berlin, who directs the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, in Maryland, says that researchers, hypersensitive to the public's revulsion, have yet to determine even how common it is. "For reasons that had to do mostly with politics, we've kept our head in the ground on this one," he says.

Even some of the bedrocks of sexual-disorder theory are no longer as firm as they once were. For many years it was assumed that most adult offenders had been abused as children. Yet when one Oregon researcher began hooking up her respondents to a polygraph, the number of those saying they were molested as children dropped from 67 percent to 30 percent.

Definitions of sexual abuse also are still very much determined by social myths. Just look at who is serving time for pedophile offenses--or, more specifically, who isn't. Peggy Heil, who directs the Colorado Department of Corrections' SOTP, says she sees plenty of men who have molested young boys and girls--and some women who have been convicted of molesting girls.

In her twelve years of working on the program, Heil says she has yet to see a single woman in prison for molesting a young boy. Yet when asked, many men in her program say they had sex for the first time when they were as young as nine or ten years old, and frequently with a woman three times older--statutory rape by any definition.

It is not surprising, then, that answers to everything, from the causes of pedophilia to the best way to treat it, remain elusive. In some instances, pedophilia is a horribly inappropriate extension of affection for children; at other times it is simply a brand of rape.

Berlin adds that recent studies seem to point to chemical aberrations in sex offenders' brains. Despite that, most current treatment continues to focus strongly on changing an offender's thinking patterns through group therapy.

Berlin also is deeply skeptical of aversion therapy, saying that, so far, no one has shown that changes observed in the lab translate into lasting results in the real world. Yet many clinics--including Pueblo's Mental Health Institute, continue to use it.

Claims of success rates in treating sex offenders also swing wildly between promising and fatalistic. Robert Freeman-Longo directs The Safer Society, in Vermont, whose literature describes it as "a national research, advocacy, and referral center on the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse."

Speaking from San Francisco, where he was attending the annual meeting of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, which he helped found in 1983, Freeman-Longo claims that current research indicates that as many as 90 percent of sex offenders, if treated properly, will not reoffend for five years or more. Other studies indicate success rates closer to only one third of that, however.

Despite the considerable blanks, researchers agree that pedophiles most resemble alcoholics--that they will always have their addiction and thus will require lifelong monitoring of every facet of their lives. (Right down to how they relax at home. Heil says that among men who are attracted to young boys, Home Improvement seems to be the favorite television show. Men who direct their sexual attentions to girls, on the other hand, prefer Full House.)

Sexual crimes against children are yielding stronger and stronger penalties from courts and lawmakers, who are reacting to the public's frustration. "People don't really care about treatment for sexual offenders," complains Freeman-Longo. "They're so fed up. The general feeling is, `Treatment is too good for people like this.'"

In 1990, in response to a string of gruesome sex-assault/mutilations, the state of Washington passed what is widely considered the toughest laws against sex offenders. One of its provisions allows parole boards to extend an inmate's sentence indefinitely, even once his prison term is up, if they think he remains a hazard to the community.

The law has been challenged by, among others, the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization has argued that detaining someone in prison indefinitely based on actions he might take is unconstitutional--particularly with sex offenders, whose behavior is so difficult to predict in the first place and about whose condition so little is known.

Still, the law has been upheld by the Washington Supreme Court. And even some treatment experts concede frustration at unrepentant prisoners. "There are people I would stake my reputation on who will reoffend," says Heil. "They're scheduled to get out, and they're already planning their next offense, writing fantasies in letters. And there's nothing we can do."

The Colorado prison system has struck a middle ground. The state does have a Sexual Offender Treatment Program, which was established in 1985. But its $900,000 annual budget is pocket change, according to Heil, who says that fully one quarter of the state's inmates have committed some sort of sexual offense, even if that was not the crime for which they were convicted.

The result is a long waiting list for the SOTP. With his 64-year sentence, Spencer Day is scheduled to be placed on the program's 300-person waiting list in the year 2020. Because of limited resources, the program accepts inmates only if they are eligible for parole in eight years or less.

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