VANCOUVER (CCN) — A little-known church ministry is reaching out to the most ostracized and despised criminals in the system.
Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) provides sex offenders with friendship, accountability, and help finding housing and employment the moment they step out from behind bars.
“The day I got out, I met these four people who had all read my file — and it’s horrible, horrible — but they chose to love me,” said Max*, who finished serving a two-year federal sentence in a B.C. prison in 2007.
The released sex offender now meets weekly with a handful of COSA volunteers who listen to his struggles and are not afraid to ask tough questions.
“They challenge me on my thinking. They know that when I’m really struggling, I want to go into preoccupying about pornography or sex or thinking about going and buying it. I’m learning and it’s really hard.
The taste of freedom is bittersweet for released sex offenders.
“People think we should be in jail for the rest of our lives,” said Joseph*, who only got out of a B.C. prison nine weeks before this interview. “We get out. We get out eventually, most of us. Then we have to live.”
When Joseph was arrested for his sex crimes, his friends and family members cut ties and he faced a scathing backlash in the media. It wasn’t any better behind bars.
“I was in prison with some bad, really mean, people. Murderers and armed robbers. They all hated the sex offenders as the worst people on the planet,” he said. “That’s how the public sees us. It’s warranted, a lot of it.”
When he finished his sentence and got out of prison, he had no one — except a COSA group put together for him by prison ministry head Maureen Donegan.
“They are the most despised and disliked, and that’s what makes me passionate about working with them,” said Donegan. She handpicks an average of four volunteers for every released offender and requires them to commit to at least a year of regular meetings with that person.
They also make themselves available for phone calls throughout the week and are trained in keeping appropriate boundaries.
“There is something very powerful about a friend who challenges them on something as simple as your fantasies or what you’re doing with your sexuality. These are very difficult issues, and that’s why it’s hard to get really good volunteers, but when you do, you see the results.”
After Joseph had done his time, he could not get into a halfway house, find work, or rely on his family to help him. The only place he could find to sleep had bed bugs and he would come to COSA meetings itching.
“Conditions are tough and you have to have support. That’s why COSA is the best thing that happened to me,” he said.
“My brother is back in the picture now, and so is his wife a little bit, and that was through COSA, because they encouraged me to call them. I’m looking to get a job now and they’re helping me with resources around that. One week they gave me some toiletries, which I was happy to receive because I’m on a tight budget.”
Finding work with Max’s or Joseph’s criminal record is a real challenge. “If you pick up any newspaper, you’d think (sex offenders) are impossible,” said Donegan. “What are you going to do with a pedophile or a rapist?”
Yet of all offenders, she said those involved with COSA are the least likely to reoffend. A 2009 study found the rate of reoffending sexually was 83 per cent lower in criminals who participated in COSA versus those who did not. The rates of reoffending violently and reoffending at all were also lower, 73 per cent and 71 per cent respectively.
“They have the lowest recidivism rate of any offender,” said Donegan. “We’ve had the highest-risk guys. What does that tell you?”
Isolation and secrecy are big dangers for sex offenders. When COSA drives both of those away with weekly meetings and hard, honest conversations, it makes a big difference.
“With no support, you’re going to reoffend,” said Joseph. “If no one is accountable, you feel like ‘It’s just me.’ But it’s not just me. There are people who are part of the community. If I reoffend, it hurts them! It causes them anxiety, fear, and a lot of pain.”
For Joseph, COSA volunteers are the face of the community. “Because I’m accountable, I don’t want to waste their time. If I do offend, it affects them. It’s going to affect a lot more people than just me.”
Max has weekly meetings with a psychologist in addition to COSA meetings.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I used sex and pornography to cope with distress and emotional pain. It was the drug of choice. That’s what I learned from my father and my grandfather,” he said.
Much of his emotional pain stemmed from feelings of abandonment. “My parents had me, but they turned around and left me. There was no nurture, there was no discipline, there was no validation. Nothing, just silence.”
When Max was 18, his mother died from suicide. He’s struggled with thoughts of taking his own life ever since. His sex crime was like “setting off a bomb,” where the “repercussions go on” long after the initial blast.
“My story is horrible, and it’s been such a tough job to undo the self-hatred and self-loathing that I feel and to not walk around with an invisible noose around my neck.”
Max said the regular meetings and his sincere belief that the volunteers care for him have given him something to live for. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the COSA group.”
The low reoffend rates are good news for released sex offenders and the community at large, Donegan said. “We’re making sure there are no more victims.” Since 2005, more than 100 released sex offenders in the Lower Mainland have participated in the program.
Anthony* has spent a total of 12 years behind bars in the federal system. His sex crimes earned him a designation as a long-term offender.
“I never had anyone be there for me,” he said. “I have trust issues. Mostly for authority, but even for my fellow human being. It’s because of things in the past.”
Anthony also tends to withdraw from people and suppress his emotions. After he was sentenced, fellow prisoners would say he was retreating into his “spider’s web.”
“I never talked about emotions or feelings. I didn’t have any. My whole life, I spent everything inside. Eventually, it gets out and never in a good way.”
Like Max, Anthony also experienced a sense of intense self-hatred behind bars and couldn’t believe it when Donegan promised to stay in touch and form a community for him after his release. He has now been meeting his COSA group for 26 months.
At his first meeting, just like every other sex offender in COSA, Anthony had to give a full disclosure of what he did to deserve jail time.
“They got to know the good, bad, and ugly of Anthony. They know the ugly, and it’s ugly. They didn’t walk out! You don’t know how much that means. It means everything. I’ve never felt so loved in my life,” he said through tears.
“We start to be human again and know we can be loved and love ourselves.”