Patty Wetterling questions sex offender laws

The outspoken activist has a change of heart over the wide-reaching scope of laws she helped put into action

Wetterling was dumbfounded. She had never imagined her idea being used against someone like this.

"It just makes no sense to me," she says. "The design of the law was not to punish kids for being kids. He thought she was 16, and she lied."

Wetterling found herself questioning not only cases of juvenile sex offenders like Ricky, but also adults who had clearly committed harm but still didn't seem to warrant the kind of permanent pariah status that registration conferred.

President Clinton signs "Megan's Law" on May 17, 1996. Looking on from left are Megan's mother Maureen and brother Jeremy, Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., and John Walsh.
AP Photo/Denis Paquin
President Clinton signs "Megan's Law" on May 17, 1996. Looking on from left are Megan's mother Maureen and brother Jeremy, Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., and John Walsh.
Beginning with her participation in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, Patty Wetterling has criticized sex offender laws, a striking position given her tragic personal history
courtesy of Wetterling
Beginning with her participation in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, Patty Wetterling has criticized sex offender laws, a striking position given her tragic personal history

One woman contacted Wetterling to share the story of her husband, a former alcohol abuser who had committed a sex crime when he was 19. He went to jail and afterward turned his life around, getting married and having two kids. The Adam Walsh Act retroactively forced him to register as a sex offender, ushering him into a deep depression. He could no longer sit with his own family at church or chaperone school field trips due to the law's provisions.

Wetterling also met a biochemist and college professor who had been caught molesting his stepdaughter. In addition to his prison sentence, he successfully completed treatment as well as a reunification program with his family and was judged rehabilitated by those who knew him. Yet the unforgiving rules of his status as a registered sex offender eventually pushed him into unemployment, homelessness, and a rootless life at the fringe of society.

She kept coming back to the same nagging feeling: These men were not the same as the man who abducted Jacob. These were not serial child abusers who had no capacity to change, and in a terrible twist, their status as sex offenders might actually make children less safe instead of more. Clogging the registries with so many people who don't represent a real ongoing threat could make it harder to discern those who actually do. Moreover, by perpetuating the stranger-danger myth, the laws could be lulling parents into a false sense of security, blinding them to the much more likely threat of sexual abuse by family and friends. Wetterling started feeling that sex offender laws had simply gone too far.

"We've caught a lot of people in the net who could have been helped," she says. "We've been elevating sex offender registration and community notification and punishment for 20-some years, and a wise and prudent thing would be to take a look at what's working. Instead we let our anger drive us."

To those who support the expansion of sex offender laws, Wetterling's concern for offenders can seem naive and misguided. After his daughter's rape and murder, Marc Klaas became a vocal supporter of stiffer penalties and stricter post-prison monitoring of offenders. He founded an organization, KlaasKids, whose mission is "to protect America's children from the predators who lurk in our shadows," according to its website, and endorses both Megan's Law and the Adam Walsh Act.

"My feelings for Patty are very warm, but I think she's wrong," Klaas says. "I don't think the system is out to punish innocent people. These are people who've existed in anonymity for thousands of years and now we're finding out who they are, and they're whining about it."

Wetterling is quick to say that she still supports registries as a law enforcement tool and believes in civil commitment for some offenders who are truly too dangerous to live in society. Yet she has a fundamental disagreement with the other victims' families.

"We just view the problem differently," she says. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for what John and Reve Walsh have done, and I used to sit down with Marc Klaas to have a drink or six. We've undergone a shared experience, and I'm never going to tell a parent the way they're dealing with it is wrong or the way I'm dealing with it is right. I just think some of this really angry, punitive stuff is letting the bad guys win. They're building a world that isn't caring and believing in one another. That's not who I am."


Inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Atlanta a few years ago, Wetterling stood at a podium and held a crowd of 1,300 people at rapt attention. She cleared her throat and told the story she's told hundreds of times, the story of Jacob's abduction. She talked about her determination to help prevent child sexual abuse, not just punish it, and about her resistance to simplistic solutions to a complicated problem.

Among those listening to her address the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse, was Joan Tabachnick, a co-chair of the organization's prevention committee.

"I think almost everybody in that audience was in tears because of the vulnerability she's able to show, speaking about the horrific experience she's had, as well as how she's translated that into public policy," Tabachnick recalls. "It's amazingly courageous to ask what can we do to prevent this given that there are so many other parents who don't want anything to do with what she's saying."

Wetterling approaches the issue of sexual abuse prevention with the same sense of complexity and nuance that she brings to her understanding of who sex offenders are. To help keep them from reoffending, she believes we need to aid their success with housing, employment, counseling, and social support, all of which the current system does much to dissuade.

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