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

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"We don't fight for reunification," she insists. "But if we can offer help and hope and treatment, we do it. There are some offenders who are not amenable to treatment. We work within the system and try to get parents to take responsibility."

Okner and Muessig both agree, however, with other advocates for children that this society does not protect children. "I'd like to see one celebrity," says Okner, "get on the television and talk about sexual abuse the way they talk about other afflictions and handicaps. No way. Not today."

Okner, who is married and has children, reaches a peak of intensity when he talks about children's rights: "I think children have the right to a safe, healthy environment while growing up. I think they have the right to be listened to. I think they have the right to depend on an adult for nurturing. They have the right to be loved. They have the right to be protected. They have the right to an education. They have the right to medical treatment. They have the right to grow up as healthy individuals, both physically and mentally. They have the right to lead healthy, adult lives. That's the bottom line.

"There's nothing that makes me feel worse than seeing a child who's had a terrible childhood grow up and have a terrible adulthood and then pass it on. And the cycle just keeps going."

Muessig is more blunt: "You hear over and over again that `Children are our most precious resource.' Bull!"

NO MATTER WHAT KIND of adult group Tom the Molester speaks to, there are similarities.

"We do have people that stand in the back of the room because inevitably in every group it is so painful that people get up and walk out," says Okner. "They have to be told this is a role-play. So we'll send somebody out to tell them, `Listen, calm down, this is a role-play. Please go back to understand why we're doing this.' We also tell people at the beginning that this subject is very sensitive, it's about child sexual abuse, it will touch some buttons. We give them some warning. I don't think we could go, boom! That could be very, very high-risk for them. I also feel more secure when Bob Mehlhouse is in a uniform."

Usually, the first questions are: Do you ever see your child? Tom usually tells them, "No, I can't see her until she's eighteen." Why did you do this? "Lots of reasons." Did drugs and alcohol help cause this? "Yeah, I think so."

That's not what Okner tells the victims he helps counsel. "What we tell the children," he says, "is that the offender is using drugs and alcohol as an excuse. That's not the reason. If I get repulsed about having sexual intercourse with my daughter, I'm certainly not going to do it if I get drunk. The first thing a hypnotist tells you is you're not going to do anything under hypnotism that you wouldn't do otherwise."

Although he does role-playing with victims, he doesn't play this particular charade with younger audiences. "I know that one out of three girls and one out of four boys have been victimized," he says, "and I want to very clearly tell these kids, `It's not your fault.' I don't want them to be more confused if they're going through it now."

With the adults, some will be angry and some will be crying. "I can always tell who I feel were victims," he says. "There will be a number of women crying. We always have a number of women crying. The women are more vocal than the men. Always. That's an indictment against men."

Age also has something to do with a group's reaction to Tom the Molester. "The most open groups are the youngest and oldest," Okner says. "There are more similarities, with the questions and the feelings. I find that the younger groups--the youngest are seventeen or eighteen--are more open for exchange. They ask more personal questions. And the groups that do the same are women in their seventies and eighties, often in church groups. Very open. More wanting to get the information. But the dynamics of the groups--the emotions are the same, the questions are the same and a lot of times, in most all the groups they'll say, `Thank you for coming. we know this is very brave of you and you're doing a good job.' Okner laughs. "And I'm saying to myself, `I don't want you to love me!'"

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy