Untouchable (David Feige, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars.
Most human beings, I hope, can agree that the sexual abuse of children is a grievous wrong that should be punished to the full extent allowed by the courts. Beyond such a consensus, however, opinions and facts diverge as to what to do. Recidivism is a concern, and so we pass laws to effectively police convicted sex offenders for life, assuring ourselves that this keeps everyone safer. The fact that numerous scientific studies prove otherwise is trumped by our gut feelings that more restrictions are better. Once guilty, forever a threat, and may the righteous triumph over the sinners.
The full truth of the issue is a complicated one, and director David Feige, in his fascinating, disturbing and meticulously constructed debut feature-documentary – available starting today on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play – explores the variety of points of view on the subject. We meet parents of children who have been abused and abducted, lawmakers working to toughen existing regulations and add new ones, legal experts who view these laws with skepticism, as well as convicted sex offenders guilty of a wide range of crimes. Through this balanced approach, Feige offers us an even-handed picture of the tortured landscape that is our nation’s policy towards pedophiles.
It seems simple enough: crimes against children are bad, so lock up the perpetrators, and if we can’t throw away the key, then make them never able to repeat their crime by restricting their activities in perpetuity. If we applied this standard to any other situation, most people would balk, but because there is a mistaken notion, backed up by no science, that sex offenders are especially prone to recidivism, we accept laws that effectively punish people forever. Worse, we link all manners of crimes under one heading, so that a troubled young woman who once had sex with an underage boy while at a party is treated the same as a recurrently active pedophile; teenage sexters sending around nude selfies potentially suffer, as well. Blanket, one-size-fits-all legislation tends to do more harm than good, but fear is a powerful motivator, so good luck explaining nuance to those afraid of monsters.
At the heart of this fraught narrative is powerful Florida lobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren was serially abused, right in his own house, by the family’s nanny over 6 years. Hurt, embarrassed, concerned for his daughter’s well-being, and most of all very angry, Book has pushed some of the most restrictive legislation in the country, forcing convicted offenders to live in homeless encampments and suffer reincarceration for the mildest of probation infractions (one man we meet was sentenced to 4 years in prison after missing curfew by 8 minutes because of a late bus). Though we can certainly understand a father’s pain, Book has created more problems than solutions through his hardline approach. Even his daughter, over time, has grown more receptive to the science that shows that therapy is a better tool. But give a humiliated man with power and money a cause to make himself feel less guilty about not protecting his child, and he will seize that cause and run with it.
On the other side, we meet a number of convicted offenders, some of whom struggle to survive in a world that refuses them options. We meet other parents of child victims who, like Lauren Book, have softened their stance, read the science, and understand that draconian laws are not the answer. One of the most moving of the stories is that of Jacob Wetterling: his 1989 abduction led to the 1994 passage of legislation that created a national registry of sex offenders, which most experts agree is a very useful tool to help law enforcement track criminals. However, as Jacob’s mother Patty explains, that one very good result has been perverted by subsequent laws allowing public access to the same registries, leading to community witch hunts that prevent released offenders from any chance to function other than as fugitives. If such developments give the mother of an actual victim pause, perhaps we should look at the science, which shows a much lower recidivism rate than that touted by justice-seeking politicians. But who wants to hear inconvenient truths when it’s more fun to just be afraid?
Feige does an excellent job presenting the facts of who constitutes a threat and how little the self-proclaimed protectors of public safety pay attention to those facts. What matters is instinct, not science. Sadly, this means that the root causes – and real perpetrators – of the vast majority of sexual offenses in the country remain unaddressed. While we obsess over preventing convicted pedophiles from finding jobs or housing, the people who commit the most sex crimes – priests, male college students, powerful politicians and family members – usually get away with it. They are the true untouchables. Fortunately, we have Feige’s engaging, heartfelt work of investigative journalism to set the record straight. Watch and learn. Critical thinking is good for us all.