How one Mennonite organization launched a radical -- and successful -- approach to helping sex offenders
Wray Budreo is lying in bed in his bachelor apartment, a dingy 180-square-foot box in Toronto. His body is twisted, knees pointing to the wall. He weighs about 90 pounds, and his health problems include severe osteoporosis, the result of taking Lupron, a drug that eradicated his sex drive, for years. He rarely has visitors or ventures out. At 60, he many not live much longer. It's a bleak existence, but things were even worse 10 years ago.
In 1994 Budreo was released from jail after serving a six-year sentence for three counts of sexual assault. It was not his first incarceration. Having committed more than 26 sex crimes against young boys over 30 years, he had been in and out of prison most of his life.
Surrounded by noose-wielding demonstrators, he was smuggled out of Kingston Penitentiary in the trunk of a car. He knew no one and had no idea how to go about the practical business of living. He tried to settle in Peterborough, but violent protests forced him to move to Toronto. At the time, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said there was a 100 percent likelihood that he would harm another child, but there was little they could do about it -- Budreo had served his full term.
Ten years later, Budreo remains a free man, largely because of people like Eileen Henderson, project manager of the Ontario branch of Circles of Support and Accountability. Part support network, part neighborhood watch, Circles is a fledgling Mennonite organization that has helped Budreo and other sex offenders turn their lives around.
Henderson was hired in 2000 for her extensive background in working with people on the fringes of society: ex-cons, inner-city families, street kids. It didn't hurt that the 52-year-old, who works up to 70 hours a week, was willing to do the job for a small stipend ('Let's just say I put in a lot of volunteer time,' she says).
On the Friday morning before a holiday weekend, Henderson is on the phone in her Toronto-area office, trying to find a residential detox program that will accept a sex offender; few will. She is pulling out all the stops, considering programs as far away as Vancouver. One of her charges, a man in his mid-40s, was found in a drunken stupor the previous night and if, by 2:00 p.m., she can show there's hope that he will be accepted somewhere, the judge might give him another chance.
She sips coffee but jokes that today she'd like something stronger. 'These things always happen around the holidays,' she sighs. 'It's a hard time of year for our guys.' Her 'guys' number about 50. She also has four part-time staffers and 200 volunteers, half the number she needs.
Circles was started in 1994 by Harry Nigh, a Mennonite pastor. He had come to know Charlie Taylor, a developmentally delayed pedophile, and when Taylor was about to be released from prison, a CSC psychologist asked Nigh if he could help the man, who had no support. The result was the first 'circle,' consisting of Taylor, Nigh, and a small group of church volunteers. They assisted Taylor with housing and health care, and they met with police, media, and angry community members to let them know he was receiving help. They stopped in for social visits and made themselves available for phone calls around the clock. Once a week, they met formally to solve problems, celebrate small victories (one month out, moving into his own place, birthdays), and, most important, to hold Taylor accountable for any risky behavior he might be considering, such as moving in with people who would be a negative influence or deciding if he could handle walking near a school. They were even prepared to call police, if necessary. Six months later, a second group came together around another high-profile offender -- Wray Budreo.
Today, 100 circles across Canada are run by 20 organizations. The concept is being emulated in Ireland, the Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The goal is to prevent anyone else from being victimized, and it seems to be working. A 2004 study done by Robin Wilson, a CSC psychologist, showed that high-risk offenders who have the support of a circle are up to 70 percent less likely to offend again (the recidivism rate for sex offenders is 17 percent). It's a startling achievement that is based on showing love and support for society's most loathed criminals.
In January, Henderson reports that Budreo's health is declining. His blood pressure has been dangerously low, causing a bad fall that put him in the hospital. He rests in bed quietly. Nothing he does can ever erase the harm he has caused. Thanks to Henderson and Circles, though, he's found something close to peace.
Reprinted from Saturday Night (April 2005). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (10 issues) from Circulation Department, 111 Queen St. SE, Suite 450, Toronto, ON M5C 1S2, 14304; www.saturdaynight.ca