Convicted pedophile seeks intervention help

Man wants state to offer list of services for those struggling with disorder

April 29, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A Westminster man, once convicted and imprisoned for sexually assaulting a teen-age boy, wants the state to offer help to those struggling with pedophilia before they commit a crime.

Michael Melsheimer, who has undergone treatment for pedophilia and has made his disorder known to his Carroll County neighbors, said Maryland lacks a comprehensive list of services and treatment programs, for prevention and intervention, and has no money available for outreach efforts.

"Unless there is dialogue, you will never solve this problem," said Melsheimer, 59. "People don't think we want to do anything about this problem, but many of us do. The state deals with offenders after someone is hurt, but it never does anything for prevention."

Melsheimer has lobbied state legislators, health administrators and the governor to make treatment programs readily available for those afflicted with sexual disorders. The General Assembly passed a bill this month that allows judges to sentence repeat sexual offenders to life in prison.

Maryland is slowly moving forward with publishing a directory of treatment services for pedophiles - but it probably will be available only to the courts. Such limited circulation "defeats the whole purpose," Melsheimer said.

Melsheimer was convicted of sexual assault in the 1970's in New Jersey and served three years in prison there. On his release, he sought help from Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Baltimore-based National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. Sexual disorders are among the most ignored areas in mental health, Berlin said.

"Pedophilia is looked at as a moral and criminal justice issue and not a public health issue," Berlin said. "We are at the point today with pedophilia that we were with alcoholism before there was a Betty Ford Clinic."

In a letter dated Feb. 13 to Maryland's Mental Health Administration, Melsheimer asked the state for a listing of therapists willing to treat sexual offenders and for a promotion of their programs through local health departments.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, recently replied to Melsheimer with a list of state services for sexual disorders. The state also expects to post a list of providers and their specialties on the health department's Web site by June 1.

Melsheimer's letter coincided with a survey undertaken by several state agencies that could result in the publication of a directory of sex offender treatment providers. The state's Family Violence Council said a directory listing all treatment providers and their services does not exist.

The council and several state agencies - the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Human Resources and the health department - have begun to compile the list "to assist referral sources in making educated decisions about where to refer sex offenders for treatment," according to the Feb. 28 letter to mental health professionals.

Larry Fitch, director of forensics services for the state Mental Health Administration, said the directory should be complete within the next several months, but that it will be primarily for use by the courts.

Fitch said the state can refer the mentally ill to about 12,000 caregivers. About 600 professionals are trained to deal with pedophilia and other sexual disorders, but their services have not been much in demand, he said. "We don't see these people coming in voluntarily," he said. "Most often, they are referred by the courts.

"I hate to say this is a low priority, but there are so many people with serious mental illness who can be treated and who respond dramatically. Sexual disorders are not so amenable to treatment. The success rate is awful."

Saying pedophilia cannot be treated is "extremist and not in keeping with the facts," Berlin said. Few statistics exist on how many are afflicted but the numbers could be as high as those with schizophrenia, and pedophilia poses a tremendous burden on society, he said.

The state is not providing help "because we think of these people as undeserving of help," said Berlin. "We have demonized them. But, if we can see them as people struggling with a problem, we can make society a better place by treating them."

Berlin said treatment ideally should occur before a crime is committed.

Pedophilia and related sex crimes have dominated national and state news lately with allegations that several Roman Catholic priests have abused boys and hidden their crimes for decades.

In Maryland, the murder of 9-year-old Christopher Ausherman prompted several bills to strengthen punishment for child predators.

State Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Republican representing Carroll and Frederick counties, dubbed the bills "Christopher laws," in memory of the child who was killed by Elmer Spencer Jr., a man with a history of violence and sexual offenses. Spencer, 46, was found guilty two months ago of murdering and molesting the child and is awaiting sentencing.

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