Mercy for the Unspeakable

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

Rod Dreher shared a terrible story on his blog yesterday. In Massachusetts, a 6-year-old boy was raped by a convicted sex offender in the public library. The boy's mother was nearby; the rapist lured the boy behind some shelves and he was too paralyzed by fear to cry for help. Here is more from the NY Times and AP.

When we see stories like this, the visceral reaction is usually to wish pain, suffering, and death on anyone who would do such things to a child. In the rush to condemn we sometimes forget that the offender is human, too. His name is Corey Saunders, and here is a bit of his background.

Court records show that Mr. Saunders’s mother left him when he was 9. At 14 he was found wandering the streets clutching a teddy bear and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a month...

Saunders, 26, was convicted in 2001 of indecent assault and battery and attempted rape on a child for attacking a 7-year-old boy in a foster home where he was placed. He was released about a year ago by a judge even though prosecutors and three psychologists said he was likely to strike again.

Bristol Superior Court Judge Richard Moses denied a motion by the district attorney's office to keep Saunders in custody under what is called a civil commitment... Moses cited Saunders' low IQ, his history of being sexually abused as a child and his lack of sexual offenses in prison as reasons to let him out. Also, a psychologist for the defense said Saunders was not likely to attack again.

Obviously the judge made a terrible mistake, but the rest of us have to share the blame. Such things are the inevitable result of the decision we as a society made back in the 1960s to "de-institutionalize" the mentally ill (which anyone who rapes a 6 year old clearly is, by definition). In most states it is practically impossible to force people like Saunders to accept any kind of treatment against their will unless they are "imminently" dangerous - which usually means gun in hand, finger on trigger. You have a constitutional right to be crazy in America.

A lot of these people would be fine if they just took medicine regularly. Instead of making them do so, we abandon them to their own private hell. They end up living on the streets, in prison, or dead. It is no accident that this crime happened where it did; in many cities public libraries have become de facto day care centers for homeless people, especially when it is cold outside. Since many homeless people are mentally ill, it should surprise no one if they commit crimes in libraries. It will continue to happen until we fix the mental health system.

Both Corey Saunders and society will finally get what they need now: separation. Hopefully he will get some effective treatment as well, but he sounds like a tough case. I would bet that his mother who abandoned him was herself mentally ill. There are strong genetic connections to these things.

I began this article with a verse from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. Does Corey Saunders deserve mercy? No, he doesn't. None of us do. Yet the Lord expects us to show mercy if we want to receive mercy ourselves. And mercy is something we will all need when we face Him in judgment.

This is a hard teaching to follow. We want vengeance against people who do these things. Yet vengeance has no place in the life of a Christian; God reserves that right to Himself. From us he expects mercy, and particularly toward the weak and helpless.

It is ironic that some Christian "pro-life" advocates turn so bloodthirsty in these situations. People with serious mental illness are not morally culpable for their actions, any more than the unborn babies we fight so hard to protect. The very concept of "punishing" such people ought to be repugnant to anyone who really cares about defending innocent life.

Yes, we need to protect society from such persons. Lock them up for life if necessary. But we owe them mercy at the same time. This is an area where we have failed miserably as a society. Men like Corey Saunders, and a little boy he met in the library, are both paying the price.

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