Patients, not predators: Why Germany offers paedophiles rehabilitation services
A faceless man wearing a white mask stands alone onscreen. “Early on I noticed that I’m a bit different,” he tells the camera as his identity beneath the disguise begins to switch from one face to another. "It was obvious what you should think of the likes of me. Sicko. Pervert. Scum. I thought so too. But I didn’t even act out my fantasies,” the voice on the German television advert that offers rehabilitation services to paedophiles continues. “In therapy, I learned that no one is to blame for their sexual preference. But everyone is responsible for their own behaviour.”
And with those stirring words, the man behind the mask finally reveals his face. He has floppy brown hair, brown eyes, a beard and a moustache. He looks just like you or me, or like a stranger you’d lend a cigarette filter to on the street and not give a second glance.
But he’s a paedophile.
This concluding line on the advert tells us “preventive therapy prevents child sex abuse”, the important message that a groundbreaking paedophile therapy programme has been trying to spread for 12 years now.
Founded in Berlin, Prevention Project Dunkelfeld is a rehabilitation services program designed to offer help to people in German society who are sexually attracted to children. Revolutionary in its outlook, it offers free and confidential treatment options at 11 sites across the country to self-motivated individuals who wish to seek help with their sexual impulses.
Although chances are we’ll probably never know exactly how many paedophiles there are in the world, it is estimated that a mind-blowing 1-5 per cent of the adult male population from all social and economic backgrounds are attracted to children. Far less is known about women.
However, what we do know is that most people see paedophiles as people who need to be punished, not assisted. But Project Dunkelfeld strongly believes the opposite. The offenders who visit the centres for help often arrive with unrealistic expectations, wishing to erase their desire for children altogether. But, tragically for everyone involved, the majority medical professionals believe this is not possible.
Doctors involved in the project, dubbed “Don’t Offend” (Kein Täter werden), strongly believe that pedophilia “is not curable” but “can be treated” by teaching offenders, whose identities remain anonymous, to control their urges.
The project works by integrating “psychotherapeutic, sexological, medical, and psychological approaches as well as the option of additional pharmaceutical support.” Patients - including those who have had direct contact with children, those who have consumed child pornography but never touched a child and those who have never allowed themselves to indulge in any of their sexual fantasies - come together to learn methods of self-control in order to stop them from offending in the future.
Discussion revolves around how to deal with difficult situations including birthday parties and how to overcome habits like watching child pornography or indulging in inappropriate daydreams. Furthermore, the treatment - which takes one to two years - teaches them about the scarring consequences of acting on their unnatural desires and how much they could damage a child by doing so. In addition, the €3 million a year project funded by state governments, offers chemical castration on a voluntary basis.
Although it may sound outlandish to those who have always envisioned paedophiles as monsters who linger under the surface in society, the 2005 project sheds light on the fact that paedophiles don’t choose to be attracted to young people, it just happened.
The program is life-saving for some people out there. Normally unable to get help or to even talk to anyone about their feelings, it is a regular occurrence to find desperate messages like the following on the internet from people who are struggling with their lust but remain determined not to harm anyone: "I’m a 20-year-old man who has been trying to deal with an attraction to young girls since I was 13. Women just don't interest me. I wish with all my soul that I could have a brain that's wired normally. I know that I can never act on what I feel, but I need to speak to a therapist because I don't think I can get through this on my own."
In fact, Prevention Project Dunkelfeld appears to have paved the way for hundreds of people to clamber out from the shadows and admit they need help. According to Klaus Beier, the head of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin’s Charite hospital, about 7,000 people had contacted them by October 2016. Of the 7,000, 2,300 of them went to the therapy centre, 1,300 were offered therapy and 659 of them decided to start the therapy.
The Guardian spoke to an individual who had been through the groundbreaking program. Max Weber had never actually offended, but knew he needed help and was enticed by the confidentiality clause which states that therapists are forbidden from revealing anything that happens in the context of treatment.
Weber told them: “I recognised that this had the potential to get very dangerous when I was in my early 20s, particularly after one encounter I had with a girl on a beach. I recognised I was drawn towards doing something sexual with the girl, at the same time as not wanting to do it at all because I knew it was wrong.”
“I am responsible for my behaviour,” he continued. “If someone says they can’t control themselves, that’s just not true. There were several times I wanted to stop,” he said. “Because you’re taking yourself apart and putting yourself back together again with the tools to cope and it was incredibly scary.”
His story acts to highlight the long blurred line between paedophiles and child molesters. It is a little recognised fact that not all paedophiles are child molestors. In fact, there is a whole community “virtuous paedophiles” out there, people who admit that they’re attracted to young people, but choose to resist the temptation, both in reality and in the online world.
Yet these people are often seen as one and the same as offending paedophiles out there and still universally despised for having an attraction that they cannot control, but successfully resist.
But programs like Don’t Offend are the one thing that could assist us in depleting the number of child molesters and increasing the number of non-offending paedophiles out there. If experts are right, it is near impossible to completely cure paedophile’s sexual desires, but we can teach them to control them.
And that is what we must do. At the moment Germany runs one of the few rehabilitation services in the world that aims to help people who are tempted to become - or are already - sexual predators. Given public opinion of these people, it seems unlikely that other countries will follow in their footsteps anytime soon.
But we can only hope, because as a society we need to admit to ourselves that paedophiles are not always the dirty old men sporting trench coats, thinning hair and riding around in white vans. Instead many of them are just people who desperately need help.
To find out more information about Prevention Project Dunkelfeld visit the Don't Offend website.