The Bishops will no doubt take comfort in the Canadian belief that punishment is not the proper response to sexual abuse. The National Post reports:

As North America’s top experts on sex abuse gather in Toronto this week, a philosophical debate about how to treat some of society’s most reviled criminals is coming into stark focus.

The U.S. and Canadian specialists converging for their annual meeting say evidence is mounting that a “public health” approach centred on treatment, rather than lengthy incarceration, stands the best chance of curbing the sex offenders’ fearful urges and protecting the public.

Victims groups and the current federal government worried about what they consider lenient courts are pushing a more punitive approach, embodied by proposed new legislation that would force many sexual “predators” to spend at least five years in prison.

U.S. and Canadian delegates to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuse conference say Canada has been among the world leaders in championing an evidence-based, balanced treatment of the sexual-abuse problem, though they worry its progressive reputation among treatment professions is becoming “tarnished.”

Countless studies show that therapies including a Canadian-developed “circle of support” to ease offenders back into society will reduce repeat offences, said Dr. James Cantor, a Toronto psychologist who works with abusers. New MRI-imaging research he is pursuing even suggests pedophiles have unique brain abnormalities, pointing to the potential for diagnosing them and preventing abuse before it ever happens.

Not everyone is happy with the treatment model:

Some supporters of a law-and-order direction, though, say judges swayed by the testimony of such treatment professionals are handing out too many conditional or otherwise lenient sentences, and question the repeat-offending statistics that underpin the whole treatment model.

“The … system we have in Canada, often leaves [accused abusers] feeling that they’ve won, even if they were convicted,” said Roz Prober, whose group Beyond Borders raises awareness about child sexual exploitation. “Some way you have to get a message through to people that what they are doing is entirely wrong and hugely damaging.”

She said her group wholeheartedly supports treatment, coupled with stiff sentences, but complained that the data on repeat offences touted by Canadian professionals as proof their techniques work are often based on criminal-conviction statistics and underestimate the problem. Government “victimization” surveys suggest that much sexual abuse goes unreported or does not lead to charges and convictions, said the Winnipeg-based victim advocate.

The more correctional-oriented philosophy is getting a significant prod with the Protecting Children from Sexual Predators Act, a government bill that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for several existing offences, as well as creating two new crimes. Judges, for instance, would have to mete out a penalty of at least five years to those found guilty of incest, aggravated sexual assault or sexual assault with a weapon involving a child under 16.

Ironically, Dr. Cantor said, many of the American treatment specialists coming here for the association’s annual meeting would like to see the States move to the less-correctional stance that has been the Canadian tradition in the past.

“For probably the last 15 or 20 years, the system in Canada has been the envy of the rest of the civilized world,” said Dr. Robin Wilson, a prominent Toronto psychologist who relocated to Florida. “[Now] our friends in the U.S. are saying ‘What’s up with Canada? Why are you trying to fix a system that is not broken?’ ”

Lengthy, automatic prison terms for sex offenders only create hardened criminals who are beyond being fixed by treatment, making them more dangerous when they get out, he charged.

A few reflections:

First of all, let me be clear: I am NOT equating pedophilia with homosexuality. But the argument that homosexual behavior must be natural and acceptable because God or Nature has made some people with homosexual desires can also be applied to pedophiles, and indeed is how they justify their acts to themselves. If pedophiles have different brain structures than other people, how can we blame them for their actions?

The problem is that we have forgotten that desires are not self-justifying. Just because  someone really wants to have sex with: 1. the neighbor’s wife, 2. the handsome young man down the street 3. his  secretary 4. a child, does not mean that he can act on those desires. Reason, that cold blanket, has to intervene and judge whether the desire is in accord with the reality of the situation.

Secondly, identify people who might commit crimes is a dangerous practice. Will these potential criminals be forces to undergo treatment? One study I discovered showed that a large proportion of a group of randomly chosen young men showed a sexual response to pictures of children. But these men would presumably never act on their desires, because they are moral people.

And why would this be confined to sexual crimes? Crimes of violence cause much more harm to society, and it is easy to identify which young men are prone to violence.  Can they be treated, and can they be treated against their will, before they have committed a crime? And involuntary treatment is a form of punishment.

The purpose of punishment is not only to protect society, but to express society’s disapproval of certain acts and to enable the criminal to expiate his crime. Expiation has vanished from the vocabulary of theologians and criminologists, but ultimately it is the most profound rationale for punishment.

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