Getting Through
 – The Therapeutic Process in Sex Offender Treatment.

Patrick Walsh

If I can get through to a person, even those whose behaviour has a lot of destructive 
elements, I believe he or she would want to do the right thing.

Carl Rogers, (quoted in Baldwin & Satir, 1987, p. 50)

The therapist who works with child sex offenders does so with the 
knowledge that he is engaged in testing the validity of the central tenet of
 humanistic psychology. This states that despite the evidence of their worst actions, 
men and women are born good and have the capacity to respond to the healing 
power of authentic engagement with others. There are times when the therapists
 faith will be challenged. In addition to any doubts he may have himself, he will also 
carry the weight of knowing that society works on the assumption that sex
 offenders in general and child sex offenders in particular are beyond redemption. 
Many of his own colleagues will fear that in his efforts to engage therapeutically 
with the sex offender, he may unavoidably fall into a collusive relationship with the
 abuser. This article will attempt to explore some elements of the process of therapy 
with sex offenders in a way that outlines why such a seemingly quixotic endeavour 
may be worthwhile.

Engagement and Empathy

Very few people enter therapy unless a major crisis forces them to do so. The
 motivation to reflect and to change derives from a real need to come to terms with 
significant life-events, to grapple with what may seem like insurmountable 
obstacles or to deal with chronic emotional pain. It is reassuring to note the small 
but increasing number of men who are deeply distressed by erotic interests in 
children who are seeking help, even though they have not actually abused.
 However, the crisis that brings the sex offender into therapy is that he has been 
found out or that he fears the consequences of being found out. The question is
 whether this is sufficient to lead him to therapeutic engagement. The perpetrator’s 
motivation is largely to protect himself and he is more often than not unable to fully 
acknowledge the extent of his wrongdoing. He tends to present himself as the
 victim of circumstances and to have little understanding or feeling for the 
devastating consequences of his abuse.

The therapist’s capacity to empathise has always seemed most mobilised in 
situations where, to some extent, the client is the victim. Perpetrators of sexual
 abuse, however, will invite you, in the initial stages of therapy, to empathise with
 their sense of being victimised by having been caught and with their anxiety to 
escape. The therapist’s dilemma is whether he can combine empathy with 
judgement and live with the reality that the perpetrator has concealed his abusive career for a long tune, explaining it away or minimising its consequences. If the
 therapist signals that he accepts an early and attenuated version of the history of
 abusive behaviour, the perpetrator will heave a surreptitious sigh of relief and row 
merrily out of deep water.

The Process of Abuse

In the early stages of therapy the therapist will be kept afloat by clinging on to his 
holistic and integrative perspective. He will know that, in addition to engaging with 
the perpetrator, his task throughout the therapeutic process will be to bring into 
focus a living image and knowledge of the perpetrator’s victims. He will search for
 and digest victim statements and testimony, he will get to know the victim’s life
 and family and he will build up a composite picture of the network of people who 
have been affected, in ever widening circles, by the abuse. It is through the victim’s 
eyes that he will know and eventually learn to empathise with the perpetrator just 
as it is through the perpetrator’s eyes that he will learn how catastrophic was the
 abuse of the victim’s vulnerability. The partners, relatives and friends of the 
perpetrator will frequently help in this process. These are people who are usually 
left out of the therapeutic process but whose lives are unimaginably changed when 
the abuse comes to light. Their distress and pain and those of the victim will help 
to keep the perpetrator – and the therapist – honest!

Perpetrators of abuse tell us that one of the factors, which overrode any inhibitions 
they may have had to abusing, was their ability to constrict and even to distort the 
images they held of the child they were abusing. If one takes an overview of the
 pattern of his abuse, one sees a complex shift in which the perpetrator initiates 
involvement with a child in order to satisfy his own wider needs for affection, fun,
 or the vicarious enjoyment of childhood games or adolescent activities. At this 
stage, he can empathise with certain aspects of a child or adolescent. Some are
 drawn to isolated children and want to befriend them. They themselves know what 
it is to be isolated. Others wish to immerse themselves in a group of playful boys 
never having done so themselves because they learned to survive by being “good”.
 Significantly, some men who have abused adolescents have described how they 
were drawn to those who seemed to dance on the “wild side” and how they were
 exhilarated by what they thought was their exuberant disregard for convention. 
Gradually, however, the involvement becomes sexualised. and sexuality being the
 powerful reinforcer that it is, sexual arousal very quickly becomes the driving 
motivation behind the relationship and all interactions are enlisted to its service.
 The more children the perpetrator abuses the less altruism informs his concerns and
 what may once have been a need to recover lost or absent parts of his childhood
 experience merely serves to enable him to develop the skills to target and groom 
those to whom he is attracted.

From the victim’s point of view, a realisation grows that this man who was a friend,
 who was fun to be with, who opened up new experiences is really not interested
 her. The goodies are a means to an end. She, herself, is a means to an end. She is
 depersonalised and turned into an object and the sense of betrayal is huge. For a 
long time, however, the sense of having been stupid not to have seen it coming is
 even greater than the sense of betrayal.

Knowing the Perpetrator

Martin Amis wrote a book called “Time’s Arrow” in which the action is described 
in reverse order. The reader starts in the present and follows the narrative 
backwards into the past. In some way the therapist works similarly. He starts with 
the abuse and moves back through the sequence of manoeuvres and strategies the 
abuser has employed and arrives back at the precursors: the interpersonal deficits, 
the childhood humiliations, the intense emotions, which set the scene for abuse.
 Gradually a picture of the perpetrator is revealed. He is often someone who hides
 poor interpersonal skills behind a role, perhaps of workaholic father, perhaps of
 one who is seemingly devoted in a selfless way to serving others. He is often
 someone who is unable to sustain adult relationships because they are too
 demanding of him. He feels himself accountable to the adults close to him, even 
his wife, but is unable to draw emotional sustenance or to give it. His needs are so 
great that they are properly described as being childish, rooted in the secretly 
blighted past of his own childhood.

Shame and Humiliation

In Ireland, the public image of the paedophile has been formed by the distorting
 pictures published in newspapers of Brendan Smyth who was presented as a larger
 than life monster. It is interesting how often perpetrators of child abuse turn out to
 be “ordinary”, often quiet, hardworking, unassuming, helpful. As children many of
 them learned to survive by being compliant and “good”. They feared adults and 
often felt abandoned by parents. Many of them were physically or sexually abused
 themselves. But more of them felt systematically shamed in some way. The
 experiences are different but the outcome is the same, a deep sense of shame. A 
perpetrator leaves his victim, in turn, with a similar sense of humiliation and 
shame. In order to do so, he had to have experienced such feelings himself.

Some weeks ago, six men who had sexually abused children sat in their weekly therapy group in silence. An air of resigned demoralisation lay heavy in the room.
 One of them asked: “How will we ever regain respect for ourselves, not to speak
 of the respect of others?” His words captured their overwhelming recognition that
 they were men reviled and that revulsion was an appropriate response to what they 
had done. Although the two therapists sat with the feeling, they immediately felt
 their antennae straining to detect any slump into self-pity.

It is only well on into the treatment process that one comes to dealing with the 
victim in the perpetrator. When one does meet him one realises that the perpetrator does not like himself. He does not feel sorry for himself at his core. He has often 
turned against himself at an early age and has grown up dispirited as a result. Much
 of his life is a concealment of his own shame and when he acts out, he does so out 
of that core experience sometimes with a need for revenge, sometimes with a 
forlorn need for intimacy, sometimes with a sense of entitlement. Whatever the 
need the result is the same, he turns his victims into his shamed and exploited self.

The Trajectory of the Therapeutic Process

Throughout the therapeutic process, one struggles to ensure that all elements of a
 complex picture are made visible and that the interrelationships are understood. 
However, this is not just an intellectual exercise. It is a disinterment of experiences,
 which can only be remembered with pain and self-disgust, and an emotional re-
unification of elements that had been separated and ultimately unsuccessfully 
banished or ignored. The therapist’s role is, as always, to be present to the person, 
knowing the worst, helping to uncover the pattern of abuse and the trail of deceit 
which encased it. The goal of therapy is to offer opportunities to the person of
 giving an account of himself and thereby making himself accountable to others.
 The most difficult thing for him to do will be to take an adult stance and not to run
away when things get tough.

In a sense, the perpetrator in the therapeutic process is asked to embrace the
 accountability forced on him by disclosure. The only way he can do this is by
 telling the whole story and revealing the person who became an adult so damaged 
that he could not resist exploiting the vulnerability of children. The therapist must 
have the capacity to connect with all of the major parts of the tapestry of this man’s
 life. He must find the child as well as the inadequate and struggling adult. He must 
be able to track the seams of manipulation and deceit that enable the perpetrator to
 compartmentalise his emotional life. He will find group therapy with its capacity 
to reveal the complexities of these men’s lives a necessary forum in which to carry
 out the work. But, ultimately, as in all humanistic psychology, he makes himself 
available to the client and allows the full range of feelings generated to resonate in 
the reciprocity of his relationship with the abuser.

One of the many ways in which the therapist may fail to maintain his therapeutic
 engagement is to lose touch with the humanity of the abuser by focusing on the
 need for control to the exclusion of all else. Because the treatment of perpetrator of 
sexual abuse is still regarded with suspicion and has yet to demonstrate its
 effectiveness with the public, there is a high level of anxiety resting on the 
shoulders of those who provide such services. In some programmes, the response 
is to rely on external controls on behaviour rather than on the belief in the 
possibility of internal change. There is a deployment of techniques designed to 
force disclosure in therapy and to force compliance with regimes of close
 supervision. Experience tells us that such approaches can be counter-productive 
and can undermine any hope the perpetrator has and needs that he can move 
towards living a non-abusive life. If the perpetrator is unable to move from relying 
exclusively on external factors to control his abusive behaviour and does not
 undergo a transformation of the heart as well as the mind, conditions which were implicated in his abuse may well reappear and overwhelm his resolve.

Finding a Future

The therapeutic project with perpetrators may, therefore, be seen as having two 
phases. The first part of the project is the uncovering of how the abuse came to be 
perpetrated and the work of making sense of it. The second part revolves around 
the question whether the perpetrator can live in the world in a non-abusive way.
 Clearly the longer the career of abuse has lasted and the fewer memories the
 perpetrator has of living constructively and with a reasonable sense of emotional
 well-being, the more difficult the task. However, just as the therapist has uncovered 
incidents and relationships in the past which served to lock the perpetrator into a
 career destructive to others as well as himself, he helps the perpetrator to search for 
images of how life might be lived, of how relationships might be developed and of 
how needs might be met in ways which are not abusive but which make life worth 

In addition to therapy, the perpetrator will need “corrective” experiences, which
 will enable him to access the kind of satisfactions in relating and living, which will 
render the destructive satisfactions of abuse redundant. He needs to move from a 
place of disconnection to connection with society and learn to build up community 
rather than destroying it. He needs opportunities to relate constructively with 
others. He needs meaningful work and he needs appropriate living arrangements.

It is ironic that many sex offenders are attempting this project of reconstruction in 
a context in which they may have permanently destroyed the ability of their family 
to tolerate them, where they have no friends and where they may have great 
difficulty in finding work. These are the factors, of course, which are most likely 
to recreate the conditions of re-offending.

A Moral Project

Ultimately, the project of therapy with perpetrators of abuse goes far beyond
 dealing with the distress associated with traumatic events in the past. It involves an
 expansion of the self to include, as far as possible, all the elements of the person’s 
life and relatedness and it locks on to the question of how a good life is to be lived
 while identifying the changes that need to be made, internal and external.

In the final analysis, the perpetrator is required to grow in emotional and 
psychological integration but also to grow in moral stature so that, ultimately, he 
will not be a risk to children. As the story of abuse unfolds and the therapist 
engages with the perpetrator, he finds himself encountering someone who, in his
 heart, hates his abuse and hates himself for doing it. This is why the therapist is encouraged to continue the struggle to “get through”.


Baldwin, M., & Satir, V. (Eds.) (1987). The Use of Self in Therapy. New York:

Patrick Walsh is Director of the Granada Institute, Co. Dublin.