Photo above: Marilyn Callahan and Tim Buckley authored book on sex offenders

Even amid the national outcry about sex abuse and sexual harassment, very little is known about sex offenders or the treatments that best help them. Arguably the least understood population of the criminal justice system, sex offenders are subject to some of the country’s most punitive sentencing laws and their incarceration, life after prison and rehabilitation efforts are often misguided.

Two Salem people with decades of experience with offenders in professional and prison settings have written a riveting new book , SO, The New Scarlett Letters , that addresses the facts surrounding these offenders and also describes proven, successful rehabilitation practices.

Author Marilyn Callahan is an award-winning social worker who has treated male offenders for more than 50 years and pioneered treatment for female sex offenders. Co-author Tim Buckley is a leader in the Oregon Prison Project, which since 2010 has been highly effective in training inmates in Nonviolent Communication to help them increase pro-social behavior and decrease aggressive behavior through the development of empathy.

The authors say it is time for society to more widely help victims shed shame and trauma, as well as time for offenders to learn how to change, make their amends and begin to earn back society’s trust.

Callahan became interested in working with sex offenders when she was still in her teens in the 1950s. At that time, she says, the subject was not discussed. There was “no information out there,” she says. “Nothing was said about sex offenders in that era, other than in the Bible.”

Over the decades Callahan developed an unique way to approach offenders – not through outside coercion that doesn’t change the individual within, but by building the offender’s identity and empathy to create inner strength and belief in self.

“My basis of treatment is for you to know yourself and the positive aspects of yourself so you can be truthful with yourself,” she says. This is “backwards from trying to emphasize the negative aspects of a person, which doesn’t work.”

Callahan has found that “thinking errors” heavily influence criminal behavior, and often begin at a very young age. “When we grow up,” she says, “our sense of the world is incomplete. People come out of homes where generations of sex abuse has occurred. They have no sense of empathy. We can help them learn their thinking errors so they can address them.”

Callahan doesn’t “believe in a cookie cutter approach,” but says there are several tenants she stands by, including that offenders have to be accountable, take responsibility and want to change their patterns.

The book covers a wealth of topics, including the myths of sexual offenses, the spectrum of sexual offenses, the distinct profiles of male and female offenders, sex offenders with mental or developmental challenges, treatment, prison release and much more.

Sex offense is a label that covers a multitude of crimes, Buckley notes, “from public indecency to serial rape of children. While the punishment is usually proportionate to the crime, the label stays on your record forever. Society is not very forgiving about that label, and often thinks anyone with that label is a pedophile.”

Less than 5% of sex offenders, all of whom must sign up on a national registry for life, commit new crimes.

Buckley believes it’s important to remember that all human beings make mistakes “and leave room for atonement and forgiveness. People coming out of prison have paid their debt, and it’s crucial for us to make room for those people in society, not to shun them.”

The best way for society to reduce the chance of repeat crime, both authors say, is to work closely with offenders after they get out and offer them support while continuing to hold them accountable.

At 83, Callahan, who lives at Salem’s Capitol Manor, still meets weekly with offenders at Oregon State Correctional Institution, conducting 3 – 90-minute sessions each Thursday. Her positive impact is reflected by the several times inmates have invited her and other Capitol Manor residents to a dinner they pay for themselves.

“The burden of sex abuse has long been shouldered by the victim, the offender, the court system, and corrections,” she writes in the book’s Introduction. “For too long, the public has been involved only as a spectator. Paraphrasing my father; ‘being ignorant doesn’t make the problem disappear.’”

SO, The New Scarlett Letters exposes the world of sex offenses to a broader audience and broader cultural understanding. 

The book is available from Amazon, or from the publisher, Glass Spider Publishing.

Additionally, the authors will speak at Book Bin in downtown Salem on Friday, April 6th at 7 p.m.