A TOOL TO CHANGE THE PERPETRATORS
The day after meeting the Secretary of Health, Social Services and Equality, I faced a group of 25 sexual violence offenders at a Barcelona prison. Among them were pedophiles, rapists, traffickers, and child pornography providers.
I was a bit nervous. I told them that after 20 years of working with victims this was the first time I faced people at the other side of the fence. And, using the Secretary’s words, that I was there to learn. I believe that helped open something in them.
They formed a circle, and many had tears in their eyes. Therapists and prison staff were also present.
The first question came from a well-dressed, educated inmate: “Chelo, I am the protagonist of something very similar to what happened to you. Did you forgive him?”
This question comes often in Q&As, but it is not the same when a perpetrator asks it.
Some thanked me for being there in spite of being a victim myself. The film had really awakened their consciences about what they did. Some would not be able to sleep that night.
An inmate from Ecuador described how, growing up in the streets of Guayaquil, he had to step on murdered bodies on his way to school. He had been in and out of prison in Ecuador and said he later came to Spain. Eventually he subjected his wife to horrific abuse.
After a while others asked me how I saw them. Did I view them as monsters?
I told them, as honestly as I could, that I viewed them as human beings. That inside as all, we have a victim as well as an executioner. They began to speak more freely.
One older man said, “We need to break the silence not only in the victims’ families, but also in the offenders’ families… How is it possible that my family never saw there was anything wrong with me growing up? I did not have any place to turn to. And now I am here.”
They related some of their struggles and stories, but more than anything they said they wanted their voices heard. When I told them that I would gladly come back to gather their stories, they were thrilled. The staff was all for it. They also wanted me to come back and show the film to a group of female inmates.
As we were leaving, the well-dressed inmate approached me. “I am a doctor, and I abused two of my patients,” he said. This gave me goose bumps. “And I was always involved with human rights organizations, supporting so many of them,” he continued. “I don’t know what happened to me.”
He asked with great urgency, “You talk about forgiveness and reparation. Do you think that being here, in this place, is ‘reparation’?” Of course I said no; prison was something society had imposed. He needed to take ownership, I said, attempt to make up for his crime by doing something positive, help another, write about it, etc.
Later I found out the group I met with had been in a rehabilitation program for two years. And the prison staff told me that they’ve had much better results rehabilitating sexual violence offenders through therapy than they’d had with any other types of offenders.
I realized that if we really want to heal the infected social fabric from this pandemic, we perhaps need to start listening also to the perpetrators.
When they left the room, I broke down in tears. It was overwhelming, but it gave me hope.