To Abuse Is Human, To Repent Is Rare

VICTOR SALVA IS THE DIRECTOR OF A new Disney film, "Powder," about a telekinetic teenager with skin like baking powder. Salva, 37, is also a convicted child-molester. In 1988 he confessed to having had oral sex with 12-year-old Nathan Winters, who had acted in two of Salva's earlier films. Salva later served 15 months of a three-year prison term. "I paid for my mistakes, dearly," he says. But Winters, now 20, doesn't think Salva has paid nearly enough. Last week he picketed an industry screening of the $25 million film in Los Angeles, causing considerable embarrassment for Disney executives. As a result of the sexual abuse, Winters's mother claims, her son had been "suicidal." Nathan is adamant: "I don't think a year and one half [in prison] compares to my life sentence."

Salva has been off parole for almost four years-too short a time to know if his rehabilitation is permanent, but too long to deny him the fight to a new life. Or is it? When is enough enough?

The country is in a punishing mood-a pendulum swing of sorts away from decades of rationalizing criminals as victims of society. Now it's the victims of crime-whose voices were too long ignored--who are demanding to be heard. But what influence should they have-and for how long? There was a time when social norms were more stable. Banishment-literal or metaphorical - could be invoked when small, high-minded communities pulled together for the commonweal. But sometimes that was also a prescription for intolerance: get out of Massachusetts by nightfall, Roger Williams, and take your Baptist fellow travelers with you.

Such decrees are not possible anymore, or desirable. Or are they? Who wants a child-abuser for a neighbor? The implicit answer to that question is the impulse behind the so-called Megan's Laws, statutes that require state officials to announce the destination of released sex offenders. But does one wretched mistake disqualify a person from ever working again? Presumably Salva should not be hired to run overnight trips for teens. But should he be black-listed- forever-- from Hollywood?

Crime and punishment are one thing, repentance and forgiveness something else. The latter take time and require social contexts to make them happen. "The problem is that culturally we no longer have a way to talk about when or how repentance occurs or what it aims at," says Catholic theologian L. Gregory Jones, author of a recent book, "Embodying Forgiveness." Salva served his term in prison and so paid his debt to that abstract collective we call "society." But prisons are no longer called "penitentiaries" for good reason. Winters is unforgiving and seems to think that his offender should be stigmatized for life. What both men need is a reconciliation-difficult as that may be-without which there will be no balm of forgiveness.

Consider the case of Lawrence Phillips, the star junior tailback for the University of Nebraska football team. Seven weeks ago,Phillips broke into another player's apartment and beat up his former girlfriend, reportedly dragging her down three flights of stairs. Phillips, who lived in a group home from the age of 18, was immediately suspended from the team; a court convicted him of misdemeanor assault and trespassing. The university has allowed Phillips to continue as a student but has imposed certain sanctions: he must pay for damages to the apartment building and for his victim's medical expenses that are not covered by insurance. He must also attend counseling sessions in "anger control" three times a week and perform community service on campus for the remainder of the academic year. Last week coach Tom Osborne reinstated Phillips to the Huskers' team, saying that "Lawrence needs football" as a structure for his life. Had he not invited his star tailback, the coach added, Phillips would have headed for the pro-football draft and never completed his therapy.

At the age of 20, Phillips is an apprentice adult. At Nebraska, a sprawling campus of 25,000 students, he lives in an off-cam-pus apartment, a hired football hand. Therapy alone is unlikely to bring about the kind of personal transformation Phillips needs to behave like a responsible adult. Nor is winning a second national football championship for the Huskers.

Phillips is paying his debt to society; he's pleaded no contest in court. But is the university doing what it should to help him put his young life back together? Football seems to be Phillips's only community. The fellowship of other athletes, however, did not prevent him from assaulting his former girlfriend. Indeed, his privileged status may well have reinforced his assumptions about how to treat women. "The tragedy of Phillips," says Jones, "is that he is being used, and no one is providing the social context in which he can come to terms with what he did and so have renewed hope for the future."

In all our overheated public debates about crime and punishment, repentance and forgiveness have lost their place. "We simply do not value this rich notion of individual repentance the way we once did," says Jeffrie G. Murphy, professor of law and philosophy at Arizona State University, "and the world has suffered a loss thereby." Forgiveness is seldom easy, and often impossible when it's unsolicited. Even the prodigal son had to return home. His father could not seek him out.