In the wake of the release of long-time incarcerated convicted sexual offender and former priest Paul Shanley, journalists are rushing to find a different angle to present the situation.
The focus is on another convicted offender, former attorney Joel Pentlarge who, since he has been released, has done everything he could to provide housing and stability to those who have the most difficulty finding it.
Joel lives and owns rental properties in the small town of Ware, Massachusetts, and he rents to those convicted of sexual crimes. He has rented one of his homes to Mr. Shanley, but this story isn’t about Shanley. It is about one man doing all he can to help others.
It is also about the truths that people don’t want to face.
One of these is expressed by Mr. Pentlarge. “…if someone is getting out (of prison) and has a safe and secure place to live, hopefully a job, and access to appropriate services, that substantially reduces their chances of reoffending.” No one, not even the most rigid advocate of the punitive public registry, can deny this truth, yet they continue to support policies that are in direct opposition to what the facts show.
Another important truth regards the propensity, or lack thereof, of those on the registry to commit another sexual offense. Neighbors have protested the 86-year-old Shanley’s move into the neighborhood and expressed fear for their children’s safety. Police Chief Shawn Crevier, in response to this, said that “…he doesn’t recall a time when any registered sex offender living in Ware has reoffended.”
In response to being told of some of those neighbors throwing garlic on the home where Shanley moved, Pentlarge spoke more words of truth, words that resonate strongly in light of the vigilante activity that occurs daily across the nation against those on the registry and their family members. “This is a level of hysteria,” he said, “that makes you think we’re not that far removed from the witch hunts of Salem.”
In regard to concerns about housing restrictions in Massachusetts being disallowed by the state courts, Robert Prentky, a psychologist and expert in the area of sex offender treatment, was interviewed and spoke a truth now accepted by everyone with even the most superficial understanding of the subject. “As long as there are housing restrictions that are placed on sex offenders, we create more of a problem than we solve… restricting where registered sex offenders can live could do more harm than good,” he said.
He also addressed the truth of the futility of parents focusing on Shanley to protect their children, saying that this “…“isn’t remotely close to what they need to do.” He reminds us that “…the vast majority of sex offenses are committed by someone the victim knows – family members, friends and acquaintances.”
The final and arguably most important truth is found in the relationship that Mr. Pentlarge has developed with two of his former victims. There are those who say that victims of sexual assault are “damaged for life” and “can never forgive what was done to them” and that those who commit these crimes “feel no remorse” and “cannot change.”
Contrary to these popularly held beliefs, forgiveness and reunification are not only possible but also are healing for both victims and perpetrators. The journalist reports after interviewing Pentlarge, “…he is committed to not reoffending…He has apologized to his four victims…Two of them, now adults, visit regularly. He said they had court orders prohibiting contact lifted.”
No area in criminal justice is as fraught with myth and fiction as is the area of sexual crimes. Laws and policies are firmly entrenched that have no basis in fact or reality. Meaningful reform will come about in two ways; one is when courts recognize that many of these laws and policies are in fact violations of constitution protections. The other is when the myths and lies are exposed and legislation is crafted that is based on truth.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.