On April 6, the Empire-Tribune introduced readers to one woman, who, powered by courage and the desire to speak out, told a story of years of abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

When Athena Dowell came forward, she was speaking on behalf of victims of sexual assault. She never dreamed her story would impact the lives of sexual assault offenders receiving treatment to overcome their behavior.

Shortly after the article was published, Jan Keith, a professional counselor licensed in sex offender treatment, took the article to her group sessions and asked her clients to read Dowell’s story. As an exercise in empathy and understanding, Keith instructed the offenders to write letters to Dowell as though she was their victim. The exercise was like many the offenders are required to complete as a part of their weekly treatments, which they are required to attend for three years as part of their parole or probation.

The following is the story of one man’s struggle to gain control of his past and change his behavior. The man, who we will call “Tom,” victimized two children, ages eight and 12. Today, Tom is working to move on with his life. He works daily and owns a business. He does everything he can to keep his past where it belongs while never forgetting where he has been. Tom has no intention of relapsing back into the life of a sexual predator.

First comes admittance, accepting responsibility

“I used tactics such as grooming, buying things, making promises, lying and manipulation to get others to trust me. Whatever it took to get a potential victim alone,” Tom said. “There are no typical looks for sex offenders, we could be anyone. Not all sexual offenders creep around bushes and jump out of trees to grab their victims. Some of us walk into your homes as your best friend, uncle or grandfather.”

Through the cycle of abuse, offenders develop tendencies and triggers that facilitate their crimes. In one session, Keith required her clients to complete an exercise admitting their behaviors during victim selection.

“I look for vulnerability and a need to be needed,” Tom said. “I look for someone who is playful and offers trust.”

When asked how he depersonalized his victims, making his desires more important, Tom rationalized his behavior by saying that “rape was not rape if it didn’t hurt.”

“They wouldn’t tell if I made them feel good,” he said.

Tom also said there is a way of manipulating victims into accepting intrusive sexual touch, violation or demeaning comments, and also said that making opportunities to be alone with his victims provided the opportunity for abuse.

“I would volunteer to watch the kids,” Tom said.

Fantasies, substances often lead to abuse

Tom admitted he watched pornography frequently, a deviant behavior strictly prohibited by the terms of his treatment. He said that part of the arousal was in allowing his victims to “accidentally” see the sexually explicit materials. He also said that alcohol lowered his own inhibitions and that he would allow the victims to taste the alcohol to help them relax.

“I spent hours on my preoccupation,” Tom said. “My fantasies and deviant thought patterns were out of control. If I had used that time constructively, I would have been much better off. I fantasized at work, during sex, everywhere.”

Tom said his choice to be sober has given him a new sense of control.

Understanding the lives of his victims

Perhaps the most important part of the treatment process is for the offenders to understand the impact the abuse had on their victims. Tom readily acknowledges his actions have severely affected their lives.

“I understand that my victims will likely have strained sex lives and question the motivations of family members and friends for the rest of their lives,” Tom said. “I understand that they could always struggle with low self esteem.”

In a letter to his victims, Tom wrote: “I was selfish and never considered what you thought or felt. I wish I could take back what I did and how it has affected you. Nothing I can say can make you better. I am working in therapy to stop my sexually abusive, manipulative behavior so I don’t hurt anyone else - ever.”

Understanding the impact of his actions

Another part of the treatment process is for abusers to understand how their “choice to sexually offend” has affected their lives. “Socially, I have to be very choosy about my friends and the places I go. A lot of places are off limits by choice and others by necessity,” Tom said. “I have changed my choices in my social life. I don’t date much because I do not want to explain.”

He said he feels much better about life now that his past is behind him, but admitted that his choices have impacted his own family.

“At home, mom has to be attentive about who she allows in the house and our family can’t bring children around. She is affected, her grandchildren are affected,” he said.

In a letter to his family, Tom wrote: “I am sorry for causing you humiliation, pain and degradation by committing sex crimes. I can’t know how it is to have to explain that your son is a sex offender. Thank you for standing by me when you didn’t have to and being a part of my positive change. I can never take back what I put you through but I can be sure that behavior changes, better decisions and family support will help me to never offend again.”

Keith tells her clients that their behavior is the result of deep and unmet human needs to live, love and be loved.

Tom has a family that truly loves him. A family that makes his daily journey one worth traveling. He said that love makes his life worth living.

He has grown to understand that his mind is one that must stay busy and occupied.

“I am an excitement junkie. I never knew how to deal with feeling normal,” Tom said. “My sex offender behavior is definitely a long-term destruction. So, if I make the right choices I can have a normal life even with this modified lifestyle, which I have created and will always be forced to live.”