On a cool day in March, Spencer and 12 other pedophiles gathered in the conference room of a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The door was closed and the shades were drawn. There were about 30 mental health professionals and students in the room as well. Everyone sat at large round tables under fluorescent lights, sipping coffee and leafing through handouts of the day’s schedule. The pedophiles were mostly guys in their 20s and 30s. One goateed man looked like someone you might see mowing the lawn of a suburban family home. Another one in jeans and hiking boots looked like he could have been an Outward Bound leader. A well-groomed young man in pressed slacks, a starched button-down and cufflinks never lifted his gaze from his hands folded before him on the table. His face was fixed in an expression of pure anguish.
They were there for a workshop being held by B4U-ACT, an organization intended to create dialogue between mental health professionals and “minor-attracted people.” There were PowerPoint presentations (Spencer shared his: “One Minor-Attracted Person’s Experiences Navigating the Mental Health System”) interspersed with group discussions. A handout contained testimonials from pedophiles associated with the group who couldn’t make the meeting. (Iggy, age 20: “I think it’s morally wrong to have any kind of sexual relationship with boys, but it’s also immoral to hate and try to shame those with a sexual orientation which they didn’t choose.”) Many had begun to realize in their early teens a pattern of attraction that was different from their peers. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were a common theme.
B4U-ACT was cofounded by Russell Dick, a clinical social worker, and Michael Melsheimer, a pedophile and convicted sex offender. In 1995, Dick was the social work director at Springfield Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville, Md.; Melsheimer, a former YMCA director who had served four years in a federal prison for aggravated sexual assault involving children, was a patient there.* They served together on the residents’ rights committee and became friends.
After leaving the hospital, Melsheimer spent years haranguing the state of Maryland about the dearth of mental health services available to people like him, and eventually won an $8,000 grant to address it (or, as Dick recalls, “to shut him up”). The two started B4U-ACT in 2002 with the goal of making mental health care available to people who “self-identify as minor-attracted and who are seeking assistance in dealing with issues in their lives that are challenging to them,” the group’s Web site says. B4U-ACT is intended to help non-offending pedophiles “before they act,” although some who associate with the group are former offenders like Melsheimer who are seeking support so they don’t reoffend.
“We’re just recognizing that people who are attracted to children are there,” Dick said. “They didn’t choose it. Jerry Sandusky was once a young teen growing up, trying to figure out his sexuality perhaps, and there was nobody there saying, ‘If this is a situation you’re dealing with, here are some resources to help you cope.’ ”
Dick has received hate mail and death threats from around the world. (Melsheimer died in 2010.) Mental health professionals who associate with the group have been blasted as “predators with Ph.D.s” and the organization has been called “NAMBLA with a Ph.D. and a marketing plan.” One of the loudest voices against the group is Judith Reisman, a conservative activist associated with Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell. Reisman set the right-wing blogosphere ablaze last year after she attended and reported on a B4U-ACT symposium.
To Reisman, pedophilia is not some fluke of nature, but the product of an evil culture. “We’re breeding a nation of pedophiles,” she told me. “All the stimuli to which billions of people have been exposed over the last 60 years has manipulated the human mind. All the pornography they’ve been raised on and pharmaceutical products they’ve taken has made them crazy. Some of the crazy people are pedophiles. Some of the crazy people are scientists. Scientist-pedophiles. They will conclude that we’re born this way because it’s the easiest way to get away from the fact that we need to go back to the drawing board.”
Her writing and radio appearances claim that conditioning for pedophilia is driven by the homosexual agenda, and that the ultimate goal of gay men is to “obtain sex with as many boys as possible.” What then, I asked, was her suggestion for men like those who turn to B4U-ACT, self-identified pedophiles who don’t act on their urges, want support, and are trying to lead healthy lives?
“They should go isolate themselves totally. If it was me, I’d try to find myself on a mountain somewhere and never go anywhere, like people who cannot go outside because they’re allergic to everywhere outside their home.”
It might feel emotionally gratifying to propose that people with these harmful urges essentially imprison themselves, or as many online commenters say, put a bullet in their heads. But putting aside any whiff of science or sympathy, advocating isolation or suicide as public policy is simply not very practical.
In addition to B4U-ACT, other approaches to pedophilia are percolating that may ultimately protect kids by putting the focus on prevention. A website called Virtuous Pedophiles was created this year to “provide peer support and information about available resources to help virtuous pedophiles remain law-abiding, and lead happy, productive lives.” Some experts are looking for a model in Prevention Project Dunkelfield, an initiative in Germany that has provided free confidential therapy and pharmaceutical options to hundreds to men who are attracted to children, reaching out to them through billboards and television commercials. Some also advocate amending U.S. laws in a way that would mandate the reporting of suspected child abuse but would present therapeutic havens for pedophiles who have not offended or who may have in the past and don’t want to again.
None of this might register for truly unrepentant pedophiles. But if even a fraction of them can find safe routes to treatment, and if that prevents any portion of child sexual abuse, the effort seems hard to discount. The alternative is unconscionable.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2012: This article originally misstated the location of Springfield Hospital Center. (Return.)