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THE UNSPEAKABLE SIN

Radical new therapy for fathers charged with incest means shame, anguish-and hope
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THE UNSPEAKABLE SIN

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Editor’s note: It is often said that you can’t talk about sex abuse without talking about sex. This is a story about sex abuse. It contains sexually explicit language that some may find offensive.

The reporter interviewed a number of admitted sex offenders, and participated in a ten-week therapy session only after the group voted him in. While the events described all happened, a few have been combined and the sequence changed. Some of the characters of the offenders have been combined also, and all of the names changed to preserve anonymity.

TERRY MURDOCK FIGHTS back his tears. The other nine members of his therapy group look on -some passive, some pleased. His tears rip at the secret he’s kept hidden in his gut; a twisted secret that torments him by the very thought of its disclosure. Terry Murdock has sexually abused his daughter Mandy for three years. He knows it. The group senses it.



INCEST HAS ALWAYS BEEN a forbidden fact of life, condemned by nearly every culture. With the advent of the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, and victims’ rights, society has finally given itself permission to talk about the “unspoken crime.” Today, for the first time in our history, the mental health professions and the criminal justice system are attempting to come to terms with a problem of frightening dimension.

Reports of child sex abuse are surfacing like never before. It is believed that one out of every four women experiences some form of sex abuse as a child. With more women in the workplace, the average family often delegates its childcare responsibilities to day-care centers, licensed strangers with whom the family had little contact. But the biggest threat to a child’s well-being doesn’t come from the outside-it comes from within the family itself.



TERRY MURDOCK LOOKS around the room, staring across a long conference table at the other group members. He never dreamed so many people shared his nightmare. At least nobody there was going to call him a pervert; somehow they understood. But admitting to the incest, to the crime, the universal taboo-that’s something Terry can’t bring himself to do.

Yet every Tuesday night, Terry takes his wife and daughter to the group therapy sessions administered by the Dallas County Incest Treatment Program under the legal umbrella of Child Welfare and the Texas Department of Human Resources. Mandy attends one of seven victims’ groups; Terry’s wife, Susan, one of seven mothers’ groups.

Week after week, Terry hears fathers graphically depict how they molested their daughters. Time after time, he hears the group’s therapist, Dr. Chester Grounds, espouse the therapeutic benefits to Terry’s entire family if he accepts complete responsibility for his impulsive behavior. This is Terry’s ninth week in therapy, and he hasn’t admitted to anything. If he doesn’t confess by the 10th week, he is out of the program. Child Welfare won’t go to bat for him with the district attorney. His chances of prison multiply. But something stops him. Maybe it’s the fear of losing his job, of losing his family and what’s left of his dignity. Terry regains his composure, rebuilding his defenses. There’ll be no telling tonight.



OPERATIONAL SINCE 1977, the Dallas County Incest Treatment Program is one of the nation’s pioneer programs in the area of clinical intervention in child sex abuse cases. Prior to the program there was little effort to understand the incest offender. Branded a child molester, he was categorically denounced as an animal who needed to be caged in prison for the rest of his unnatural life. But studies of sex offenders conducted by Dr. Nicolas Groth, director of the Sex Offender Program of the Connecticut Prison System, revealed two distinct types of offenders. The fixated offender is attracted to children and has been since puberty. He is the neighborhood molester, the one who picks up children in schoolyards, the random stranger. His primary targets are boys. If he ever marries, it’s for convenience or as a means of gaining access to children.

The regressed offender has a primary sexual orientation to adults. But because of some stress or life crisis, he turns to his daughter. “An incest offender does not commit a sexual offense primarily to satisfy a sexual need any more than an alcoholic drinks to quench his thirst,” explains Dr. Groth. “Ninety percent of all child sex offenders fall within this regressed category.” Unlike the fixated offender, the regressed offender responds well to therapy. “Much like the alcoholic,” says Groth, “the incest offender can never be cured. But with proper treatment, his behavior can be controlled.”

Untreated, sex abuse can recur within the same family for generations. It’s a vicious cycle, an unbroken chain linking 90 percent of all male abusers to their own history of being abused as children. Among the wives of sex abusers, an incredible 80 percent were themselves abused as children. To effectively treat this cycle of abuse, it became evident that all members of the family had to be involved in treatment. Punishment of the offender alone wasn’t enough.

The Incest Treatment Program puts the offender in a highly confrontational setting and leans heavily on him to take complete criminal as well as moral responsibility for his conduct. “Children blame themselves for their parents’ behavior,” says Loretta McCar-ty, founding director of the program. “They blame themselves for what’s happening in their families-even for the sex itself… There was a time when sex abuse meant pulling the child out of her home-the child thought she was being punished. Now we understand so much more.” One of the primary goals of treatment is to shift that blame to where it rightfully belongs-away from the child and onto the parent.



DR. GROUNDS SENSES THE emotional inroads he’s making with Terry. He knows Terry’s close to admitting. He doggedly pursues him, drawing out his guilt by confronting Terry with his daughter’s sworn statement to the Dallas Police. His daughter has alleged that Terry would sometimes come into her room at night when she was asleep, that he would fondle her breasts and vagina while he touched himself, that he would climb on top of her and they would have sexual intercourse. Dr. Grounds turns to Terry, asking the pointed question: Was he calling his daughter a liar?

Terry retreats to his usual line of defense. His daughter was mad at him because he was strict with her. Well, somebody had to discipline Mandy. With Susan working nights, she wasn’t about to do it. Mandy was only 13. Terry couldn’t let her run wild in the streets-not with that so-called boyfriend of hers and not with any of the company she kept. It was up to him to ground her, to discipline her, to take a strap to her. Terry knew how to handle the strap. When Terry was 10, his father would come home drunk and beat his mother into submission. When he was 11, his father gave up the bottle and found religion. He stopped beating his wife and started beating Terry.

But Dr. Grounds is unrelenting. He pressures Terry for an answer to his question. He repeats his question: Was Terry calling his daughter a liar? Terry hesitates. He shakes his head slowly from side to side, indicating no-no, his daughter wasn’t lying.

THE TREATMENT PROGRAM operates from the presumption that children seldom lie about sex abuse. This presumption is basic to the treatment philosophy, but the subject of considerable controversy. The ease with which children are influenced by adults, the paranoia created by intensive media exposure, the vicarious exposure of children to sex via television, their early loss of innocence-these and more are cited as reasons children should not be automatically believed.

The treatment argues that children do not make up stories outside the realm of their actual experience; that older children, particularly girls, are reluctant to reveal the details of sexual incidents. The program also believes that most children lack the emotional strength to endure the cruel ordeal of the criminal process. The child witness has historically been treated with skepticism; subjected to interrogation by police officers trying to evaluate the child’s worth as a witness.

“In 1970, nobody chose to believe the kids,” says Sgt. Maggie Carothers of the Mesquite Police Department. “Not the police, not the mothers. Like everybody else, many police officers had a hard time grasping that this family man, this reputable citizen, would do something like that to his own daughter. The girl had to be lying. Cases weren’t filed very often.”

“The Richardson Police Department until recently refused to acknowledge that they even had an incest problem,” says Dr. Grounds, who also maintains a private practice in Richardson. “We have come to learn that incest is equally distributed geographically within Dallas County. It cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries.”

Although Loretta McCarty is quick to point to a new understanding between the police and Child Welfare, caseworkers cite problems with both the Grand Prairie and Irving police departments. “Sometimes they say they don’t believe the girl; sometimes they say they want physical evidence to corroborate the abuse. Well, this is incest, not rape-it’s not a crime of violence.”

Whatever the attitude toward sex abuse, there is little therapeutic doubt that if a truthful child is not believed by the authorities, she will feel unprotected, helpless, and her victimization will be greatly compounded.

The responsibility of determining the child’s credibility initially falls upon the intake caseworker. When interviewing the child, the caseworker looks for factors remarkably common to all incest cases. Careful questioning will disclose that the abuse was more than one incident, often taking place over months or years. There is often a progression of sexual activity over this time period, beginning with exposure or voyeurism and progressing into masturbation, oral sex, and then finally to intercourse. There’s an understanding that all the activity should be kept secret. Subtle hints of pressure or coercion are applied; sometimes outright threats. There’s an explicitness of sexual detail in the interview, an accurate recall only possible because it was actually experienced.



TERRY MURDOCK GRABS his forehead, using his hand to support the weight of his large head. Terry speaks, but his voice seems somewhat removed, separate from the rest of his body. He didn’t really think he was doing anything wrong. Terry knew it was illegal-but he never really hurt Mandy.

Billy Burgess looks up and takes notice. Not doing anything wrong? Didn’t that sound familiar? Those were his words of over a year ago-before he’d gotten probation, before his wife had filed for divorce, before the court conditioned his probation on staying away from his daughter.

Billy is your average big guy: 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, defensive-tackle type. Billy was always big. When he was in the first grade, the Garland Independent School District custom-built him an oversized desk to match his oversized frame. That desk followed him through the seventh grade-his own private piece of furniture. But for Billy, growing up a child in a man’s body had its limitations. At 8, Billy learned that life for him was a no-win proposition. If he got into a fight at school and won, he’d be ridiculed as a bully; if he lost the fight, the other kid became a hero for defeating a Goliath.

At 9, Billy was sexually abused by his uncle, who would masturbate his young nephew under the guise of sex education.

Varsity football gave Billy a forum where he could fight back without fear of rejection. But two scholarship offers fell by the wayside because of low grades and lower college entrance exam scores. The Marines wouldn’t take Billy because he weighed-in 20 pounds over regulation.

Billy never had a girlfriend in high school. He met his wife, Rhonda, while working on the freight docks. She was a secretary, recently separated, with two little girls, Becka and Lindy. On their first date, Billy told Rhonda they should get married. Until his wedding night, Billy was a virgin. Rhonda was quick to inform him that he was lousy in bed, a theme she repeated each time they tried to make love for the next eight years.

Billy would have done anything to please Rhonda, but Rhonda was decidedly unpleasant. She dominated Billy, dictating the terms of his life, treating him like a child. She kept an emotional distance from her own children, seldom hugging or kissing them. Although Billy adopted the girls, they were a constant source of strain on the marriage. Rhonda would pronounce all disciplinary decisions, and no matter now unreasonable, Billy would be forced to execute the punishment.

Becka looked to her new father for affection. They were very close. They used to love to wrestle with each other-wrestling was more a metaphor for their mutual struggle to be hugged.

When Billy lost his job of 10 years, Rhonda offered him no comfort. During a late-night wrestling match, while Rhonda was asleep, Billy brushed his hand across Becka’s breast. She was only 11, but she seemed to respond. During the next several months, the wrestling progressed to fondling, which progressed to mutual masturbation, which progressed to oral sex. But it didn’t seem harmful . It was caring and affectionate and loving-and dead wrong. Not until Lindy, his youngest, caught them in the act, did Billy fully realize how wrong it was.



THE INCEST OFFENDER seldom physically harms his daughter. But the emotional scars he inflicts seldom, if ever, heal. One of the very people who are supposed to love and protect the child causes her the deepest pain.

The child often feels like “damaged goods,” believing that she was physically harmed even if she wasn’t. People don’t know how to relate to the child. They often treat her as an adult because of her grownup experiences. She becomes a walking invitation to others who want to act out their fantasies. There is no positive status to this type of victimization. The child harbors strong feelings of guilt, seething with rage, hostility and anger. She carries her scars into other relationships, always blaming herself if they fail, always taking responsibility for other people’s unhappiness. She feels a certain amount of comfort in being a victim-helpless, dependent, acting out her role as a victim by marrying an abuser. She either hates sex, keeping her distance from any form of intimacy, or she becomes promiscuous, continually searching for love through sexual expression. She is often depressed and suicidal.



BILLY SHUDDERS AT the possibility that he may have turned his daughter into a prostitute-or worse, a carbon copy of his ex-wife. He focuses his considerable attention on Terry, as he prepares to level his accusations. What did Terry mean, he didn’t know it was wrong? Just because he didn’t beat up his daughter or hold a gun to her head? Didn’t he realize what he was doing? Didn’t he know the damage?

But Terry’s daughter liked the sex as much as he did. Terry never thought he was forcing her. She wanted it, asked for it. How many times did he tell her it was the last time? How many times did he try to stop but couldn’t? Maybe if his wife had been more responsive-but she was never around, always working nights and overtime. She was like a stranger to the family. But with Man-dy, it was all so comfortable. It was almost like they were living together. She’d get up in the morning, get her little sister off to school and fix Terry breakfast in bed. They’d get into bed together and talk about their day, what they were going to do. Sometimes they had sex in bed-sometimes in the shower. All wet in the shower, Mandy would even look like her mother. Why, she practically seduced him every time.



FORCE AND POWER are implicit in any father-figure relationship. Incest fathers exploit that position of power. Since physical force is seldom used, fathers often ration-alize their behavior, convincing themselves that their daughters freely consented or seduced them.

One of the many myths that must be destroyed in therapy is that a daughter can seduce her lather. A man finds himself in the hands of “little Lolita.” His sexual urges are ignited, his impulses out of control. He can’t help himself, so he helps himself to his daughter.

“The issue in therapy is not what the victim did, but how the offender behaved,” says Dr. Grounds. “The adult has a responsibility as a parent to discourage all inappropriate behavior.”

But some incest fathers eroticize the normal behavior of their children. A daughter’s scantily clad trip to the bathroom is fantasized into sexual innuendo. For some offenders, parental love somehow gets pushed into romantic love. The father becomes the jealous lover, all the time thinking about his daughter, infatuated with her, restricting her outside interests, her outside boyfriends. He regards her as an adult, not a child. He feels pleasure and safety when he’s with her.



DR. GROUNDS COMPLIMENTS Terry on the progress he’s making. But he undercuts the praise by accusing Terry of still holding his daughter partially responsible. Terry has got to take the entire blame. If he doesn’t, he can’t be helped-and neither can his daughter. She’ll never forgive him, never come to terms with her anger and hostility. Her bitterness will bleed down into every relationship she ever has.

Sam Radcliff listens intently but not without some cynicism. Isn’t that what he did? Didn’t Sam come forward and confess everything? He knew what had to be done- and where did it get him?

Sam’s memories of his father were clouded by time. He died when Sam was 6. He was a traveling Bible salesman who came home just long enough to sing in the church choir and father seven children. Sam was the youngest. When Sam was born, his mother almost died. She was 46. It had been nine years since the birth of her last child. Sam was unwanted. His mother sent him that message loud and clear, constantly reminding him of the time she almost let her sister raise Sam.

Sam had the run of the Georgia countryside. He could go and do as he pleased, never getting disciplined, never knowing his boundaries. He was cared for by his mother, but not cared about. She bought off her guilt by showering him with things: motorcycles, cars, anything but attention.

Sam was a natural in sports. He was all-conference in high school baseball for three years. Some people say he could have pitched in the major leagues. His mother never attended a game.

With two Southern Baptist preachers as uncles, and his mother’s religious beliefs bordering on zealotry, Sam set an early path for the ministry. The church gave his life some much-needed structure.

Sam always felt awkward around women, learning about them from the street or from the magazine rack at the 7-Eleven. He met his wife, Diane, at Bible college. Twice divorced, with one daughter, Michelle, Diane shared Sam’s spiritual concerns.

Diane encouraged open communication with Sam. But he found it uncomfortable and unfamiliar. When he didn’t say what she wanted to hear, she was openly hostile, often threatening to leave him. Sam was quick to abdicate power to Diane, who was all but ready to assume it. Although she set herself up as the boss, she would chastise her husband for his indecisiveness.

Strangely enough, Sam had no problem talking to his stepdaughter. They would sit and talk for hours at a time. She would actually take his advice, respecting his opinion. She only wanted to please him. He would tell her what to do, and it was done.

When Michelle was 13, Sam and Diane started to do missionary work. They also held part-time jobs. They seldom saw each other, losing what little intimacy they had known.

One night, Michelle and Sam were in the middle of one of their talks. Michelle was having problems with a boy from school. He kept trying to kiss her. She was curious about kissing, but not with him. She wanted Sam to show her how to do it. He hesitated but rationalized away his doubts, thinking it was better for her to learn from her father than from some stranger. He kissed her with an open mouth. He could feel the right and wrong of it simultaneously.

The sexual activity between them became more frequent and involved, more obsessive, like an addiction. Michelle’s love was unconditional. Diane used sex as a weapon-a way to get her way. Sam was consumed by guilt. He left the ministry, convincing himself that even God would be forced to reject him now.

After 18 months of abuse, Sam confessed everything to his wife. Diane was angry, but angrier at herself. Michelle had told her what was going on months ago. She chose not to believe her. It was history repeating itself. Nobody believed Diane when she claimed her stepfather sexually assaulted her.

After some pastoral counseling, Sam agreed to turn himself in to Child Welfare. Appointments were immediately arranged with an intake worker. A police officer was in attendance. Sam signed a confession for the police. Diane was encouraged to press charges. No one prosecuted her stepfather when she was abused, and this was her chance to break the cycle.

Sam was told a warrant would be issued for his arrest. He would be charged with a second-degree felony. He could get up to 20 years in Huntsville. He should get a lawyer.

But since the abuse had stopped, since mother believed daughter, father confessed and the entire family was seeking treatment, Sam would be allowed to remain at home.

Why the grand jury refused to indict Sam for sex abuse still baffles him. Maybe it was that police officer who kept trying to get Diane to drop the charges. Maybe it was because Sam was still living at home or seeking treatment. Whatever the reason, Diane thought she wasn’t doing enough to protect her child. She kicked Sam out the same day the lawyer called with news of the dismissal. Sam saw it coming. Diane was being torn apart: feeling betrayed by both her husband and her child, having to protect her daughter as well as her husband’s lover, seeking treatment while demanding justice.

Sam always came up the loser. He’d accepted the blame, confessed to the police, was going to treatment-and he still lost his family. Sam called it God’s justice.



“OVER HALF OF our incest families stay together,” says Dr. Nadine Palau, coordinator for the Sexual Offense Program at the Dallas County Child Guidance Clinic. “There’s a powerful bond that develops between the abuser and his wife-and a tremendous resistance to sever that bond.” But it’s that same bond that contributes to the evolution of the incest, permitting it to breed and take root.

“With most incest families, you find extremely passive, submissive men attracted to overly domineering, aggressive women,” explains Dr. Palau. “Although opposites attract, these people are polar opposites.” The men are likable, warm, almost boyish in their charm. “They draw out the earth-mother in you.” But they are attracted to women who don’t know how to nurture, who, like their husbands, have both a fear of and a craving for intimacy. “Both the men and the women are afraid of getting what they want, so they go out of their way to see they never get it: They marry each other.”

The passive husband relates to his wife more as a child than as a marital partner. She makes all decisions, seizing most if not all the power in the family. This confirms the husband’s feelings that he is a victim, helpless, out of control, unable to cope with the stress of the real world.

With time, his wife becomes increasingly self-sufficient and less willing to attend to the insatiable needs of her husband. She turns to the outside, often committed more to her job than to her family. Her husband turns inward, looking to his daughter as a safe way of regaining control over his life, control he’s lost to his wife, control he’s never had. Adult relationships are too difficult to negotiate. His daughter takes care of him, prepares his meals, does his laundry. They spend time together. He soon sees his daughter as a surrogate wife.

The atmosphere for incest has been readied. With the addition of some outside stress, some precipitating event such as the loss of a job, the incest will soon begin to grow.

In a smaller percentage of cases, it’s the men who are dominant. They treat their passive wives as children, shattering their already fragile egos, keeping them so insecure that they can’t possibly meet their husband’s needs.

The incest father then turns to his otherwise obedient daughter. Not only does father raise his daughter to the status of wife, but daughter often becomes a source of nurtur-ance for her childlike mother. Sex completes their role reversal. Although it’s not always the case, the dominant father is more likely to threaten, bribe or intimidate the child into submitting to his sexual advances. He may use equally coercive measures to maintain the secrecy of his enterprise. His denial of abuse is often so massive he can pass a polygraph examination. He makes the more difficult candidate for effective group therapy.



J.D. JONES KNOWS all about denial. He denied his way right into the penitentiary. Since his parole, he’s gone back to group, often counseling other group members headed in that direction. Terry Murdock listens carefully.

Ten weeks of group, and J.D. refused to admit anything. He denied it all. J.D was guilty, all right-guilty of hiring a lawyer who was too much the advocate and too suspicious of treatment alternatives. His lawyer told him there was no confidentiality. Everything J.D. said could be used against him in court. He was handing them the nails to hammer into his coffin.

Suddenly, J.D.’s case was set for trial. J.D. couldn’t call his family without being accused of witness tampering. The prosecutor wanted J.D. to cop out to seven years in the pen-he wouldn’t even consider probation. J.D.’s lawyer wouldn’t consider anything but.

A jury was selected, and J.D.’s 8-year-old, Brenda, took the witness stand against him. It was J.D.’s right to be confronted by his accuser and the jury’s right to see if she was telling the truth. J.D. hated it; Brenda was badgered by all those questions. A public spectacle was made of J.D.’s abuse of power, of his secrecy, her victimization. The jury’s verdict was five years imprisonment. J.D. made parole in 27 months.

While he was in prison, J.D. got a letter from his cousin. J.D.’s wife had committed Brenda to a psychiatric hospital-she was involved with drugs and was a runaway. Later, J.D. asked his wife about it. She wouldn’t tell him anything about it. He was under a court order to go nowhere near his daughter. If the district attorney had offered J.D. seven years today, there’d be no question he’d take it.

J.D. managed in prison. He just kept to himself and did his time. He wouldn’t dare tell anybody what he was in for. There’s no lower status in the prison hierarchy than that of a child molester. Guards single you out for the hardest labor. You’re the target of stab-bings and rapes by fellow inmates. There are no treatment facilities for the sex offender and no group therapy-no way for J.D. to deal with his recurring fantasies about his daughter. That’s why J.D. came back to group: He wanted to stay with his wife. He could not let it happen again. Next time, he would be tagged a habitual offender-and that could mean up to life imprisonment.



BECAUSE OF ITS adversarial nature, the criminal justice system often finds itself at odds with the incest treatment program. Although both disciplines have a vested concern in stopping the cycle of incest, there has been little attempt to work together.

There are some defense attorneys who, by advising their clients to plead not guilty, have seriously undermined the treatment goals of the program. They are just doing their job, zealously representing their clients within the ethical bounds of their profession. These lawyers are suspicious of any government agency with the stated goal of coercing confessions out of their clients. They are fearful that words said in treatment may come back to haunt them in court.

There are some Dallas prosecutors who lump all child molesters into one category, unaware or insensitive to the distinctions between fixated and regressed offenders. If these prosecutors know about the incest treatment program, they see its work not so much as an alternative to incarceration, but rather as a means of gathering incriminating evidence. With a confession, they’ve got an airtight case.

There are some Dallas judges who feel more responsive to a public outraged by the magnitude of a problem they scarcely knew existed. These judges punish out of a sense of public retribution-punishment for punishment’s sake. Unfortunately, consideration may be given to the offender’s cooperation, but it appears self-serving and seldom controls their judgment.

“But punishment without treatment is useless,” warns Dr. Palau. “Since there are no treatment facilities in the Texas prison system, the offender hasn’t learned how to control his behavior-so he’s destined to repeat it, this time possibly with a new family.” The incest treatment program claims only eight reported cases of recidivism out of the several thousand families they’ve treated. Since they have no way of monitoring families once they leave treatment, their optimism is somewhat guarded.



TERRY CRIES UNCONTROLLABLY. He cries for himself and his fear of prison, for his daughter and the pain he’s inflicted, for his wife and the chance she’ll leave him. Between all his sobbing, the group hears Terry admit, taking all the blame-undeniably, unequivocally. As Terry hears his own words, the reality makes him double over in pain.

But he’s taken the first step. Now he can learn to understand his behavior, to condemn and control a problem that has plagued his family for generations.

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