Play tackles child sexual abuse

    When it comes to sex offenders targeting children, the phrase “lock them up and throw away the key” sums up how many people feel. A play now running in Philadelphia takes a different tack: It delves into the family life and feelings of one pedophile.

    When it comes to sex offenders targeting children, the phrase “lock them up and throw away the key” sums up how many people feel. A play now running in Philadelphia takes a different tack: It delves into the family life and feelings of one pedophile. The play has stirred some controversy, as Maiken Scott reports from WHYY’s Behavioral Health desk:
    (Photo credit: Gene Smirnov)

    [audio:100616msjerry.mp3]

    We think of them as the scary man in the park, the stranger offering candy, the terrifying face on a sex offender registry. But who are pedophiles, really?

    Chris Kirchner from the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance [http://www.philachildrensalliance.org/] says the answer is often much closer to home:

    Kirchner: Almost all of the cases, the largest percentage of cases that we see the child knows the alledged offender, and it’s often a family member: a parent an uncle and aunt, it could be a sibling, about a quarter of cases that wee see involve a juvenile offenders

    CAPTION HERE
    An advertisement for the production.
    A new production called “Love Jerry” by the “Nice People Theater Company” takes audiences inside a family torn apart by child sexual abuse.

    When Mike, his wife, Kate, and their 8 year old son Andy move in with Mike’s brother Jerry, everybody seems happy.

    Jerry: A toast – to my stupid brother, his gorgeous wife, and my beautiful nephew Andy, who looks just like me.

    But the good vibe does not last. Jerry, who is shy and isolated, was sexually abused by his uncle as a child, and is sexually attracted to children. He is ultimately caught abusing Andy. His brother Mike must now decide if he will try to help Jerry as he undergoes treatment:

    Mike:
    He is my brother Kate: Andy is your son! Mike: he’s got nobody else in his life, Kate: yes, but you do, and if you stand by him, you’ll be betraying us

    The play takes audiences uncomfortably close to the predator, inviting compassion while making clear that his acts are appalling. After reading the play, co-artistic director of the Nice People Theater Company, Miriam White, had mixed reactions:

    White: I think we were 75 percent excited and 25 percent terrified

    Excited, says White about the play’s depth and humanity, but terrified of touching a taboo. White and other staff say reactions have been mostly positive.

    There’s been criticism, including in an article in the Inquirer, that the play humanizes pedophiles too much, and asks audiences for sympathy were none is due. Playwright Megan Gogerty says her intention in writing “Love Jerry” was not to make excuses for pedophiles, but rather to open up a conversation, and dispel dangerous myths:

    Gogerty: By not being honest and face the facts about this issue and who these people are, by painting them as monsters and boogiemen rather than flesh and blood people, it feeds into this cycle of denial that allows us to close our eyes to something that is uncomfortable, which in my view makes children less safe

    Dr. Barry Zakireh of the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia treats pedophiles. He says another myth is that these sexual predators inevitably will offend again and again:

    Zakireh: The rates of recidivism are far lower than commonly believed or stated in the media, so I think there is a huge misconception about how often people with sexual offenses re-offend.

    Zakireh says up to 25 percent of child sexual offenders commit abuse again. He also says that treatment, usually a mixture of individual and group therapy, is effective for the majority of offenders – especially in getting them to monitor and control their behaviors.

    Family ties and social support are crucial for treatment to succeed, says Zakireh. But that’s what many pedophiles lack – even before their offense:

    Zakireh: So once they are caught I think you can imagine, they lose friends, they lose family, and in a very rapid way they lose all of the social support that they might have had even in a limited way, and that has a tremendous impact on them, negatively.

    The title of the play, “Love Jerry,” is meant as a question. Watching the play, you find yourself grappling with the choice faced by Jerry’s brother Mike. Could feel compassion for a sex offender, or even provide support.

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