Sex offenders salvaged by Circles

Published May 1, 2001

Circles of Support staff, from left, Dan Haley, Eileen Henderson, Norma Lelless, Julie Bender, Ed Vandenberg.

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.

Circles does not provide surveillance for the released man, but it does provide warmth (clients have volunteers provided to help them every day of the program), direction and when necessary, loving confrontation.

“If the guy has had a drinking problem,” Mr. Savage noted, “then more likely you’ll see him re-offend, so we have to support people in sobriety.”

The volunteers provide a variety of supports, including late night check-ins by telephone, meeting for coffee or a meal, helping clients find a place to live and help with job searches.

Clients “are often ostracized by their families as well as by the community,” said Mr. Savage, “so the Circle has to try to replace that, to give them the opportunity to be relatively normal people.”

The program is not a cakewalk for the convicted pedophile, Eileen Henderson, Circles Toronto-based project manager said in an interview.

“They have to be willing to understand that there are victims, that they have damaged someone, and that it cannot be trivialized in any way.” Circles also meets as a whole group, and sometimes stand-in victims help offenders comprehend the magnitude of the damage they inflicted.

Finding a job is often a huge step for the ex-offender. “With a job,” said Mr. Savage, “you can find a decent place to live.”

If an offender wants to go to a church, “it’s a good thing that the minister knows their background. The guys must have a plan right down to where they will sit, because they cannot sit where there are children,” said Mr. Savage.

Usually, he said, pastors are receptive, but not always. “There was one church where the fellow was told he was not wanted, and of course, he never went back there. Instead, we helped him to find a church where he was welcome.”

After seeing how Circles work, there is often a change in police attitude. “The police have been wonderful,” Mr. Savage said flatly.

Most recently, the group was linked to Peter Whitmore, a convicted pedophile who was returned to jail after being caught in a Toronto motel room with a 13-year-old boy. Mr. Whitmore had begun to talk to the Circles group, said Ms. Henderson, but had not yet signed a covenant when police rearrested him.

Mr. Savage, a retired social worker, sees his participation as a natural extension of his Anglicanism. “I think the Anglican church is part of the community and we have an obligation to work with the community.”

Today, there are about 100 Circles volunteers, and more are needed.

Circles is proud of its record. “We’ve had a number of guys offence-free for a number of years,” said Ms. Henderson. “We just celebrated six years offence-free for one individual who was not given much hope.”


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