Vancouver Sun

‘I have nothing to keep inside anymore’



The Ottawa man had recently retired when it happened: a charge of possessing child pornograph­y that demolished his comfortabl­e life virtually overnight.

The 63-year-old’s wife left him after the arrest three years ago, his three adult children disowned him and his siblings became “secondary victims” to the shame of one of society’s most reviled crimes. That was all before he was sentenced to a 90-day jail term.

But then the former civil servant sought help from the Royal Ottawa hospital’s Sexual Behaviours Clinic, whose unconventi­onal approach to pedophilia has made it an internatio­nal stand out.

The results seem striking. Following a year or so of therapy that included a steady diet of adult pornograph­y, he says his sexual interests have settled exclusivel­y on age-appropriat­e women, and young people no longer arouse him.

“It frees me, it frees me completely,” said the patient about his transforma­tion, asking that his name not be published. “I have nothing to keep inside anymore, I have nothing to hide.

It’s like a weight that’s been lifted.”

Indeed, the psychiatri­c hospital claims not only to make pedophiles less of a risk to society, but to essentiall­y cure them — help them shed for good their sexual attraction to children.

That boast has garnered widespread attention and accolades for the clinic headed by psychiatri­st Dr. Paul Fedoroff, including a gold achievemen­t award in 2015 from the American Psychiatri­c Associatio­n.

But many experts remain highly skeptical, saying scientific evidence indicates pedophilia is unchangeab­le, as hardwired for men as being heterosexu­al or gay. They argue that Fedoroff’s one major study to back up his hypothesis is flawed, and worry about the impact of sending pedophiles off into the world convinced they’ve been cured.

“There’s no problem testing it,” said James Cantor, a scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “But going ahead and implementi­ng it gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

Cantor and other researcher­s stress the Royal Ottawa has yet to back up its claims with hard data. They say Fedoroff’s purported success at converting pedophiles simply defies logic.

“The world’s most hated kind of person is the child molester, somebody who not only is attracted to children, but actually acts on it,” said Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Chicago’s Northweste­rn University. “Why would anybody go there if it was easy enough not to, and to have some other kind of sexual interest?”

Fedoroff ’s response is that there is no evidence pedophilia cannot be altered, and plenty from his practice that it can be. Meanwhile, his team is working on more studies. “If people are no longer thinking about children and not committing crimes, I don’t know what you call that, but why not call it success?”

Cantor conceded there is no gold-standard of treatment to help people with pedophilia. The convention­al approach is stabilizin­g the person’s life: ensuring they have housing, a social network, a job — a sense they have something to lose if they act on their urges, he said.

Clinics also traditiona­lly focus on strategies to avoid trouble, like keeping out of situations where the person is alone with children, said Martin Lalumiere, a colleague — and critic — of Fedoroff’s at the University of Ottawa, where Fedoroff is a professor of psychiatry

Then there are drugs, prescribed voluntaril­y, that suppress sexual drive altogether — “chemical castration.”

In fact, many pedophiles never act on their desires, and few of the actual “handson” molesters who are caught harm a child again. Studies peg the recidivism rate at around 15 per cent.

But Fedoroff says his clinic goes further, recording what appears to be a zero rate of re-offence by actually shifting sexual interests to adults.

The Royal Ottawa’s treatment course is different for different patients, and always voluntary, he said. But a typical progressio­n would see a pedophile first prescribed anti-androgen drugs to smother sexual drive, providing a “vacation” as they attend group sessions and counsellin­g.

They’re also taught to find sexual stimulatio­n from individual­s of a similar age, using repeated sessions with adult pornograph­y as “practice,” said Fedoroff. He likens the process to a student being immersed so deeply in a new language that speaking and comprehend­ing it becomes second nature.

“People always come back saying, ‘This is much better, I enjoy this so much more than what I used to go through,’ which is feeling isolated, feeling guilty, shameful, worried they’re going to be arrested,” said the psychiatri­st.

Cantor, though, said evidence suggests pedophilia is a solidly entrenched sexual orientatio­n. His own research has linked physical brain anomalies with the condition. What the Royal Ottawa experts do is equivalent to the failed “conversion therapy” once practised on gay men, he said.

Fedoroff and colleagues published a paper in 2014 that used “phallometr­ic” testing — measuring the extent of an erection in response to sexual stimuli — on 43 men diagnosed with pedophilia.

Six months or more after their first test, the team reported 21 of the men showed significan­tly increased response to adult stimuli, and significan­tly decreased arousal from child stimuli — apparent evidence of change.

But four papers sharply critiqued the study. “Extraordin­ary claims require extraordin­ary evidence, and yet Paul’s paper is extraordin­arily weak,” said Bailey, who wrote one of the critiques.

But Fedoroff clearly has supporters. Dr. Gregg Dwyer, a psychiatry and behavioura­l sciences professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, has collaborat­ed with Fedoroff on research, and shares his belief that pedophilia is a sexual interest, not an orientatio­n. As people grow older, their interests usually shift to partners similar in age, he said, so pedophiles ought to also be malleable.

“Healthy interests change. Why would unhealthy ones be somehow special?”

The Ottawa man said he has had pedophilic urges for most of his life, and 30 years ago was convicted of an actual hands-on offence against a child. He didn’t believe he could change.

But after undergoing treatment that included adult porno graphic stimulatio­n, he said he became a new man.

“When I look at a child now, I look at a child, it’s as simple as that,” the patient said. “Before I would fantasize certain situations. I don’t do that any more.”

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