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

About fifteen minutes into his talk to the civic group about America's dirty secret, the uniformed deputy sheriff says, "I've brought a guest and his name is Tom. He's a convicted child molester."

Tom molested his own daughter for several years, the deputy says. She's now in a foster home. Tom served a year in the county jail and is on probation, back home with his wife and going to counseling.

"He's a little nervous," Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Mehlhouse says, "so please bear with him."

Tom takes over. He talks about his alcoholic parents and about his wife, who also was an incest victim. He says he loves his daughter and notes that he "didn't hurt her." He wants her back.

Tom was stressed out in those days. He explains what happened as "displaced love." Sometimes, when Tom talks about his mother and how much he loved her, he cries.

Tom's explanation basically goes like this: "Okay, I made a mistake. I've been in jail and I've found the Lord and He forgives me and why can't you? And my daughter, she's very good-looking and she's sexy and she went around in underwear and nightgowns that you could see through, and I was having problems with my wife and she was depressed because she was a victim. And nobody in my whole life wanted to help me, and I'm really not good at anything and so I made a mistake. Yeah, but my daughter was there and she loves me and what did I do so wrong because she loved me?"

The audience is well-behaved, even when the questions start. Some praise Tom for his honesty and tell him he's brave for talking about, you know, "what happened." After all, Tom's in therapy. Once, however, some guy got up and asked Tom, "Did you ever try Smith & Wesson therapy?"

WHEN THE TIME is right, maybe when somebody is getting really angry, Deputy Mehlhouse will break in on Tom the Molester and ask the audience, "How many of you feel that children are conned when an adult does this to them?"

People raise their hands.
Then he asks them: "How many of you feel children are manipulated?"
The hands go up again.

Then Mehlhouse says: "What I'd like to do now is reintroduce this man. He is not really a child molester."

Tom the Molester is actually Marc Okner, a 37-year-old counselor of sexually abused children. He definitely is not a child molester, although he's been fooling audiences in Arizona for more than three years.

But there's a twist to his act.
It's one thing to portray a molester, but what Okner does is portray a molester who is still denying responsibility for his acts. He wants his audiences to get angry at Tom's denial.

When the merry-go-round stops and Tom the Molester is unmasked, the mood of the audience can be thick.

"I'm telling you it's silent," Okner says. "I can't even describe the silence. You have taken somebody to the height of their emotions and just stopped them.

"What I've done to break the silence is use humor. I'll say, `I'm really an ax murderer.' And you hear many of the people go `Whew!' Then I ask, `How many of you are upset?' And some will raise their hands. And some will say, `You know I think it's pretty shitty that you get up there and fool us.' And then I tell them I'm not here to entertain.

"I want them to look and say, `Bullshit.' I want them to get angry, and I want them to get angry for a very specific reason. Because I don't want them to be fooled."

The object is to give these audiences of adults a jolt--a taste of the rationalizing, the con games that abusers practice with their victims, their families and themselves.

Okner and Mehlhouse manipulate their audiences the way molesters manipulate children.

This is not about strangers who lurk in the night. An estimated four of five sexual-abuse victims know their abusers, who often are their fathers, mothers, uncles, grandparents, clergy or family friends. Manipulation of the victims' emotions helps keep "what happened" a dirty secret.

Advocates for children say as many as one in three girls and one in four boys are victims of sexual abuse in the United States. Incest is the dominant virus found in this particular sick culture. The average age of victims, according to some studies, is seven. The specific acts range from voyeurism and exhibitionism to fondling to intercourse and beyond.

Physical force usually isn't required. Coercion and fear work well, especially if other family members help cover up the abuse, either actively or by saying and doing nothing. It's a control thing. Like the way Tom the Molester tries to control his audiences of well-meaning church groups, college kids, service clubs and cops.