Jaycee Dugard's kidnapping story got me thinking about the day I got a call from a distraught child molester.
I had gotten to know Carl well when he was in a Virginia prison, as I based a book about sex abuse on his life as a pedophile. After Carl got paroled 10 years ago, he called occasionally to talk about his efforts to stay straight -- efforts that depended on creating a network of adult relationships rather than befriending children.
Blessed with a fine voice, Carl joined a local church and sang in its choir.
But one day he called near tears. The pastor had found out about his conviction for molesting a boy in his Scout troop and, fearful for the choir's reputation, expelled Carl from the group.
I was furious. Sure, the pastor should know if he has an ex-sex offender belting alleluias from the altar. But guys who claim a calling to rescue sinners should have a stomach for the discomfort of actually dealing with them. Instead, the pastor's just-go-away reaction was typical of how we respond to sex offenders who live among us, and counterproductive to boot. We need these guys out in the open and engaged with grownups who watch them.
Jaycee's case has convinced me even more that Carl had the right idea. All sex offenders should be assigned to church choirs.
That would be more effective than what we do now: adding to our sex offender registries, which are bogged down with an estimated 674,000 people. Phillip Garrido was on the registry in California; then he abducted Jaycee and held her for 18 years.
Garrido's tale compelled to me to visit my state's registry to see how many convicted sex offenders live in my town. I'm glad to know the three guys' faces and addresses, but the registry makes me wonder.
First, why can't I also find out about killers and muggers living near me? They're more dangerous to my family than some pathetic misfit who flashes people from his truck.
Yes, such offenders are on these registries next to rapists, which raises another question: Why do the registries give me virtually useless information about the crimes, like "Sexual Abuse, 2nd Degree"? For all I know, the biggest mistake made by the teenage offender in my town was having sex with his under-aged teen girlfriend in her parents' living room, rather than out in the car like smart people. As for the Chester the Molester-looking 68-year-old: Did he force himself on young boys, or once make a drunken move on his neighbor's wife?
These registries are so overcrowded with all levels of offenders that, says The New York Times, they "are overwhelming to local police departments" that attempt to keep track of the people on the lists.
Equally counterproductive are the alleged safe zones that we draw around certain neighborhoods, declaring that convicted sex offenders can't live near a school or park -- playing on the myth that molesters hang around schoolyards. Sorry, but molesters are more likely to be in the school, working.
If you live outside this make-believe circle of safety, we've essentially directed the molesters to move onto your block. Jaycee's town had no such law and was thus a sex offender haven; more than 100 lived in her ZIP code, according to the Los Angeles Times.
These laws have driven many such offenders even more underground, blending into group housing, moving often and not registering with local police.
David Finkelhor, one of the nation's foremost sex abuse experts, examined the registries, the residency laws and other efforts and concluded, in an upcoming report for the Packard Foundation, that "little evidence exists that they are effective in preventing sexual abuse."
The real danger to my children isn't wacko strangers like Garrido; it's nice guys like Carl. Public spectacles like Garrido can make us forget that.
While Garrido gave his neighbors the willies, Carl was the friendly guy you want to have next door. He was an accomplished outdoorsman, successful businessman and outstanding Scout leader -- all of which enabled him to befriend adolescent boys and their families.
Carl was like dozens of other molesters I've talked with and almost all of the 2,000 whose cases I've examined: He liked children and they liked him. He didn't need to yank a kid into his car. He courted children by connecting with them, just as adults do with each other.
For every Garrido, there are countless Carls. Just about every day, my electronic news services send me stories about ministers, teachers or youth group leaders being accused or convicted of child molesting. On the day Garrido told his parole officer about Jaycee, I got this headline from Oklahoma: "Ex-Youth Minister Faces Molestation Charge."
I eventually lost touch with Carl, making both me and his former pastor complicit in what happened later. After a couple of years of freedom, Carl got locked up for violating parole. The state of Virginia won't reveal details, but apparently Carl didn't build enough healthy adult relationships. He died of cancer in prison.
If that makes you feel better, remember that most molesters are not locked up; they're at a home near you. Somehow, we have to watch them rather than hide them, and let them sing in our choirs.