Pastor Offers Sex Offenders A 'Miracle': A New Start In rural Palm Beach County, Fla., pastor Dick Witherow ministers to a community he calls "modern-day lepers": convicted sex offenders. Witherow believes people can change. So while strict zoning laws elsewhere have left offenders homeless, his Miracle Park housing complex welcomes this population.
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Pastor Offers Sex Offenders A 'Miracle': A New Start

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Pastor Offers Sex Offenders A 'Miracle': A New Start

Pastor Offers Sex Offenders A 'Miracle': A New Start

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

More than 20 states limit where convicted sex offenders can live. They're kept away from schools, parks and other places where children congregate. In Miami, dozens of homeless sex offenders live under a bridge because there are few, if any, other options. But 90 miles away, there's a community dedicated to housing sex offenders. It's run by Dick Witherow. He's a controversial minister who has spent the better part of a decade taking in men most neighborhoods are trying to keep away.

NPR's Greg Allen has his story.

GREG ALLEN: It's Sunday morning at a little country church near Pahokee, Florida.

(Soundbite of choir)

ALLEN: About the only sign there's something unusual about this church comes when it's time for communion. Many of the men making their way to the altar are wearing ankle bracelets and electronic monitors on their belts. This is the church at Miracle Park, a community mostly made up of sex offenders. And Dick Witherow is their pastor.

Pastor DICK WITHEROW (Miracle Park Church): How many of you were looking for God when you got saved? How many of you were not looking for God and God visited you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pastor WITHEROW: Look around you. See? We didn't choose God. He chose us.

ALLEN: Witherow is a tall, spare man, 76 years old, a former private detective. Shortly after he entered the ministry some 30 years ago, he began working in prisons, holding prayer services, doing addiction counseling. Then, about a decade ago, he began focusing on sex offenders. After some horrific sex crimes involving children, Florida became one of the first states to pass laws restricting where sex offenders could live after they're released from prison, effectively banning them from some communities. Witherow began looking at places where he could open a residential program for sex offenders, often over the objections of nearby communities.

Pastor WITHEROW: I tell people I'm the most popular man in town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pastor WITHEROW: And of course I'm saying that facetiously.

ALLEN: Witherow believes people can change. At Miracle Park, those on probation attend weekly court-ordered sex therapy sessions. He also offers anger-management classes, sessions on relationships, inner healing and life skills. Witherow authored a book about sex offenders called �The Modern Day Leper.� He says he could've worn the same label as the men at Miracle Park.

He was 18 years old when he met his first wife. She was just 14, and before long, she was pregnant. A judge allowed them to get married, but told Witherow he could've been charged with statutory rape.

Pastor WITHEROW: If that would've happened in today's society, I would've been charged with sexual battery on a minor, been given anywhere from 10 to 25 years in prison, plus extended probation time after that and been labeled a sex offender.

ALLEN: And Witherow knows there are those who argue that's what should have happened.

(Soundbite of ATV)

ALLEN: It's after the church service, Witherow travels the grounds by ATV.

Pastor WITHEROW: We had been looking all around Florida for a facility that we could use.

ALLEN: Witherow once had a ranch for sex offenders in Okeechobee County, Florida. Zoning law changes forced that facility to close. His search for another spot brought him here to a small community he renamed Miracle Park. It's a collection of duplexes about three miles east of the town of Pahokee in rural Palm Beach County. It's surrounded on every side by sugarcane fields. About 40 of those living here now are sex offenders.

Pastor WITHEROW: It's open to everybody. However, the only ones that are really looking for - to be out here in the boondocks and pay $100 a week to live with somebody else, basically are those that don't have any place else to go, which are the sex offenders.

ALLEN: Witherow didn't have the $5.5 million the owner of the property wanted. So instead of buying it, he became the property manager. One of his first acts was to let families with children know that a community of sex offenders was moving in and that they might want to move out. Most of the families left. Several later sued, saying they were forced from their homes unfairly.

Mr. HENRY CRAWFORD (Vice Mayor, Pahokee County): The crowd was so loud, man. You could hear it all over town.

ALLEN: Henry Crawford is the vice mayor of Pahokee. On the western edge of Palm Beach County, it's a poor and mostly black community in one of the nation's wealthiest counties. Standing outside Pahokee's town hall, Crawford says because it's outside of the city limits, there wasn't much local officials could do about Miracle Park. He believes the sex offenders deserve a place to live. He just wishes it wasn't here.

Mr. CRAWFORD: I still say if this was in other parts of Palm Beach, I don't think this would occur. But I think the good reverend knew that it wouldn't be much pressure from rural Palm Beach County to pressure him not to do this. So the fight was easier here than it would be anywhere else. So, I think he chose his battleground real good.

ALLEN: Not all the people who'd been living here or moved out. Stroll through Miracle Park and you'll run into elderly residents who've lived here for years. Many are former sugar company workers or their relatives. When I met Barbara Haywood, she was sitting outside under a tree in her front yard, rocking her nine-month-old grandson. She says when she first heard sex offenders were moving in, she was scared. But now�

Mr. BARBARA HAYWOOD: That doesn't bother me. I don't scare of them anymore. I don't scared of them. For real. I don't know if I'm saying the right thing, but I don't scare any of them because everyone pass, they give me respect, you know?

ALLEN: Across the nation, communities are debating where sex offenders can live after they're released from prison. That includes Miami-Dade County, where a colony of sex offenders lives under a bridge on the causeway leading to Miami Beach. Dick Witherow believes shared living arrangements, like Miracle Park, offer a solution. He says he screens the sex offenders who want to live here. Repeated offenses, burglaries and violent crimes are all red flags. And he says, as a general rule, he won't accept pedophiles.

But these are still sex offenders, people who, in many cases, have done terrible things. Operations manager at Miracle Park is Pat Powers, an efficient, compact man in his '60s. Twenty years ago, he was a racquetball coach, who pleaded no contest to molesting 11 of his teen and pre-teen students.

Mr. PAT POWERS (Operations Manager, Miracle Park): I committed a sex offense. I was guilty as could be. Even to this day, there's times where I just feel like, you know, I let people down. But God has forgiven me now, and so now my life is changing.

ALLEN: Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, says it's possible that clustering so many sex offenders in one place could increase the risk for nearby communities, like Pahokee. But, she says, research shows there are also benefits from placing sex offenders in shared living situations like Miracle Park.

Professor JILL LEVENSON (Associate Professor, Lynn University): What happens there is that the sex offenders often begin to sort of police themselves. So, if somebody is doing something that's risky, the others will call him out on that or report that to authorities because in their mind, if one person goes on and re-offends, that's going to be problematic for everybody else who's living there.

ALLEN: It's been nearly a year now since Dick Witherow opened his community of sex offenders at Miracle Park. And financially things aren't going well. He used up $300,000 in savings and is running a deficit, in part, because many of the sex offenders have been unable to find work and pay their rent. Ever a man of faith, he says, God will provide.

But in the meantime, he's talking to corrections officials about a whole new group of sex offenders who need housing. There are senior citizens who've served their sentences and have Social Security, but need just one more thing, a place on the outside where they will be allowed to live.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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