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Okner relishes his role-playing ability--he lapses into it often during conversation--but Tom the Molester is no pal of his. He got into this work in the first place because someone close to him suffered through this tragedy.

"I don't do it to entertain--it's not a skit," he says. "I become, as much as I can, something that I detest. It's a very hard thing to do. I actually have to convince these people that I am a child molester who is in denial and who is going to ask for their forgiveness because `Hey, the cards dealt me a dirty hand.' What I do is take a composite, depending on my audience, of the offenders I've come into contact with, and every word, everything I say to my audience, is planned in my head, very quickly, to get reactions, to solicit responses and feelings."

Once the tension is broken by Okner's joke about being an "ax murderer," the audience members may be a little surly, but they're all ears, and Okner and Mehlhouse talk about what sexual abuse does to children.

"We've seen kids in counseling from age three to near-adult. These kids come in, all of them without exception, feeling guilty," Okner says. "That they did something to cause this. They may have been told by the offender that they did something to cause this. They all feel guilty. They all think it was their fault. And when they don't get the secret out, when you don't get the counseling, they feel like shit. They feel like sluts. Most of these kids are high-risk for suicide. A lot of these kids use drugs. A lot of kids we're seeing have no motivation to go on. They're severely traumatized. A lot of kids are very promiscuous. They're looking for that love. They're looking for that relationship. They were taught that's what they're good for. A lot of these kids are in foster homes, taking the blame for breaking up their families. And a lot of times they're told that. A lot of these kids go through the justice system and feel like they're being prosecuted."

It's a litany of misery. "A lot of these kids become pregnant," Okner says. "They want babies, which will give them unconditional love. And we deal with boys. And boys have a very difficult problem, because most times they were molested by men. So they have issues of homosexuality. They had an erection. They think they did it, they wanted it. They go through a lot of the behaviors that the girls go through."

A lot of these kids are primed by their abuse to pass their hatred on to the next generation. Okner says: "We never tell a kid, `Hate your father.' We just want them to deal with what he did. But a lot of these kids minimize. There's nothing that says these kids have to molest. But we do deal with a number of children who are molesting--down to four years old, molesting siblings. There's no quick answer to this. This is very new. The therapy is new; the counseling is new. It's the first generation of kids that have been in counseling for this.

"Seven out of ten prostitutes come from abusive families. Our kids are runaways. Our kids are the shoplifters. A lot of these kids set fires. Is there hope? Depending on the severity of the trauma, the frequency, the age that this kid got into counseling. We have more success with the younger ones than we do with the teenagers. But we do have some real strong kids in there. Not a whole lot. But we do have kids who do make it, who are able to have loving families. The counseling process is really long-term. It is not easy."

Will a shock tactic like Tom the Molester have an impact on adults? "After every presentation," he says, "we have at least someone, if not more, come up and say, `I've never said anything to anyone, but I'm going to get some help and I'm going to deal with it.' And that, to me, is one less person carrying the secret. Because that's what it is. It's a secret."

If he didn't take a shock approach, Okner says, he thinks his audience would respond "just like they're watching a news show."

BUT IT IS a show. And the adults--most of them--will leave the room and resume their lives as before. The kids whom Okner and the slew of other mental-health counselors work with haven't even started to live their own lives--and in most cases aren't prepared to. Why portray Tom the Molester as someone who's justifying, rationalizing and denying responsibility for abusing children? "Because they all do," says Okner. "That's what counseling does for abusers. It tries to get them out of denial. And the best thing they could say, not only for themselves but to the children, is: `You are not to blame. I'm sorry. I'm sick. You didn't do it.'"

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy