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THE DIRTY FAMILY SECRETLIKE ALL MOLESTERS, TOM KNOWS HOW TO CON

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"Very few get angry," Okner says of the people he speaks to. "And it's because I have the control. I have control when I can take a group of up to 200 people and make them sit in their seats and control their feelings so I don't get this `You're lucky a goddam officer is here, because I'd come up and kick your ass.' That, to me, is control.

"I'm intimidating. I'm conning them. They don't know if they should get mad at me because I'm such a sad sack of shit or like me because I have the `guts' to get up there. In every case, they say, `Thank you, you're a brave person. I have to hold my hand out to you because you're so brave in getting up.' But what about Tom's daughter?

"This is not an indictment against the audience. That's not fair, because we're trying to get reactions out of them. But the questions are always about Tom. Very few, interestingly enough, about Tom's daughter. All they would have to do is ask Tom what he did to her, and he would tell them. Maybe they don't want to hear that. Maybe that's too hard."

Okner and Mehlhouse started doing this shock shtick after discovering that audiences simply tuned out a straight presentation on the topic of child sexual abuse. "It was very easy," says Okner, "to just eat your lunch and not look at us and feel very good when it ended because you could leave and forget about it."

Okner, who works full-time in the county's Human Resources Department, was already doing role-playing in his off-hours work with Valley East Counseling in Mesa. He often acts the part of the offender so the victims can expel their anger and hurt safely, with no danger of reprisal. He put together "Tom" as a composite of the molesters he had run into as a counselor.

"Not that we wanted to shove something down someone's throat, but we feel that because it is such a problem with children and because it's happening so much, we wanted to approach it a different way," Okner says. One of their goals was to make people remember what they saw and heard so they could protect other children--or their own children.

When Okner says he doesn't want his audiences to be fooled, he's talking about people's reactions to child sexual abuse. He mentions the mid-Eighties case of Mesa schoolteacher Ken Lamberton, who got twelve years in prison for running away with a young girl. "I don't want them, when they read a story about a teacher of the year and an upstanding citizen that takes a fourteen-year-old girl to Colorado--I don't want them to say what I heard: `Look how this girl ruined his life.' My comeback to that is: Who is the adult and who is the child?

"Isn't it the adult's responsibility to keep those boundaries? I don't care what you think. I can sit and I can think anything I want. But there's a difference between sitting and thinking about it and then actually crossing over that border. I'll give anybody the freedom to think about what they want. But once you cross the border, it's a different story. Acting out is different."

COURT RECORDS are bulging with cases of child sexual abuse, stuff that really did happen. Sometimes, though, it's tricky to get that information to the public. Splashing the names of victims across front pages or on TV screens can be just another assault on those victims.

Some local cases are well-known. Like the two boys who were molested and sent to Father George Bredemann for counseling. The Catholic priest played sex games with them at his desert hideaway and got caught. He got a flood of support from his bishop and his parish. The victims got squat. Father George's court file is full of letters from priests and parishioners defending his innocence. Only on the eve of his sentencing did Father George emerge from his cocoon of denial and express remorse and utter responsibility for his misdeeds. He wound up with a light sentence. The con games of a molester.

Another recent case in the Maricopa County Superior Court records tells the story of a stepfather who forced his wife to perform cunnilingus on her young daughter. The man also forced the girl to perform fellatio on him. He took pictures of her. The wife did not protect her daughter from what the authorities called her husband's "subtle threats" and "manipulation" and sometimes brutal intimidation. A cop described the case as one of the "most profound and classic intimidation cases" he'd ever seen. After four years of this sexual abuse, the girl somehow summoned the courage to go to the police, and the man was arrested. Was there denial? The man described his marriage as "excellent and loving." A psychologist reported that the man "continually indicated" that his intent was to "teach his stepdaughter about sexuality." The man also was found to have "a severe lack of accountability for his act." One thing he really was concerned about was the reaction of his co-workers. That drove him to drink after he was busted. He got a year in jail. The wife got probation. Their court files are full of great character references, including pleas from their friends and co-workers that the court "keep this family together."

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy