On the chilly, wet morning of November 18, 1994, Dan Haley stood at the rear entrance of Kingston Penitentiary, gazing out over Lake Ontario. Although he’d never done time there, he’d seen his share of cells; with his mullet and thick moustache, he looked the part of a federal inmate. At sixteen, he ran away from his abusive father and the Exclusive Brethren church of Burlington, a cult-like Christian sect. He started drinking around the same time. He fought in bars and did drugs. He got married and had children but was an erratic father. Then he spent his thirtieth birthday in jail, which he took as a sign that he needed to turn his life around. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober; he started attending church in Peterborough. Later, he volunteered to host weekly AA meetings for inmates at Kingston Penitentiary, using his own road-to-redemption story as an example.

Redemption was what brought him to the prison that morning to wait for the release of a man he hardly knew: Wray Budreo, an alcoholic from Haley’s meetings and a convicted child molester. In 1988, Budreo sexually assaulted three boys in Brampton. He found them in a park and paid them to pretend to be patients while he played a Nazi doctor. He got six years for hurting those boys. That sentence was now over. In a few minutes, Budreo—a man with twenty-six sex crimes on his record—would leave prison with no official supervision.

The Canadian correctional system isn’t equipped to deal with people such as Budreo. Criminals are most likely to reoffend in the period immediately after they get out of prison. That means the first days, weeks, and months are the most dangerous—something as true for a habitual break-and-enter guy as it is for a serial child molester. Parole exists to supervise offenders during this period. Most navigate the transition from inside to outside relatively smoothly, and never commit another crime. Fewer than 20 percent of former federal inmates return to custody on new sentences within five years of release.

The transition is more difficult for child molesters. A disproportionate number of them assault family members and are naturally estranged from support. Most will never find work. But there’s another, more institutional reason. Because the correctional system handles “high-risk” offenders differently, many child molesters don’t get statutory release—legislated release before their sentence ends. The Correctional Service of Canada must grant a typical prisoner supervised release no later than two-thirds of the way through his or her sentence. But in 1985, a man named Allan Sweeney sexually assaulted and murdered a twenty-one-year-old woman while on parole. As a result, the government gave the parole board the option to deny graduated release to some high-risk offenders. Since then, the most dangerous child molesters often have been held in prison until the very last day of their sentences.

Budreo was one of the first sex offenders to be detained like this. Ironically, the decision made his eventual release even more dangerous. The correctional service’s legal authority over a prisoner ends the day his or her sentence expires. Once Budreo’s sentence was up, he left prison without parole or any other kind of supervision. That’s why Haley decided to help him. The plan was to drive him to Peterborough. They’d sneak past the angry crowd at the front gate. On the outside, Haley would be his sponsor. First and foremost, he’d keep him sober. He’d find a place for him to stay. He’d watch him.

It was a mad plan, but Haley’s instincts were on point. Budreo was always drunk when he hurt kids, so Haley was right in thinking that he would reoffend, and soon if he didn’t have help. Still, on the drive to the prison that morning, he’d had second thoughts. He’d watched for a sign from God—an accident, a flat tire, anything to tell him to stop the car and go home. For thirty years, Budreo had been in and out of prison for sexually assaulting children. Every time he got out, he got drunk and did it again. Besides, his case had become notorious, and his face was in the news. He’d never get a job, and he’d never make friends. Who was Haley to think he could help? He lived in a family neighbourhood. He had his own young sons at home. He had every reason to think Budreo would reoffend.

Then, standing outside the prison, Haley heard a guard shout. As he turned, the clouds broke, and an honest-to-God rainbow formed over the lake.

You can understand the mindset of a vigilante. Child molestation is the sort of crime held up as the purest distillation of human evil; vengeance feels like the only response. Pedophiles should pay for their crimes. They should be condemned, branded, driven out of our communities and away from our kids. But when someone takes the opposite approach, you pause. Although Haley had no way of knowing it, that morning, he set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the creation of one of the most successful reintegration programs in Canadian history: Circles of Support and Accountability.

Every circle has the same basic structure. A group of about four volunteers is responsible for watching over one convicted sex offender. They all get together regularly. Between meetings, the volunteers meet with him one-on-one or talk to him on the phone. They keep an eye out for clues that he’s falling apart, looking to flee, or seeking new victims. They won’t hesitate to call the police, although that happens less frequently than you might think. Since the CoSA system started in southern Ontario twenty years ago, hundreds of convicted sex offenders have participated, and only a handful have ever reoffended.

The vast majority of child molesters eventually will get out of prison. Short of locking them all up for life—a measure that would be both economically unfeasible and morally untenable—CoSA is the best tool to stop them from hurting more children. That is the shared motive of the remarkable people who run these groups. But over the past eight months, the federal government has ceased almost all funding for the system. The program works. It’s been exported around the world. Now, for the first time, its future is uncertain.

Haley left Kingston Penitentiary with Budreo folded in the trunk of a friend’s Dodge four-door. The picketers looked on, oblivious. Once the two men hit the highway, they switched to Haley’s car. On the road, Budreo said he wanted steak and eggs for breakfast, Chinese for lunch, and Red Lobster for dinner.

Peterborough police caught up with them outside the Red Lobster. That evening, the cops announced that Budreo was in town, and someone tipped off reporters that he was with Haley. Early the next morning, a Saturday, television crews rushed to the house, a pale brick bungalow on a quiet street between the Otonabee River and the Trans-Canada Highway. Haley’s phone rang off the hook with threats against him and his young family. A crowd formed outside. When Haley’s wife came home, a neighbour shouted, “I hope someone does to your son what he did to those other kids.”

Budreo had been at the house for only a day, but already it was too much to bear. They decided he should check himself into a psychiatric hospital, so Haley drove him to Toronto, escorted by police. They arrived at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) on November 20, 1994—the day of the Santa Claus Parade. The streets were crowded with thousands of smiling, laughing children. But the doctors told Budreo he couldn’t stay, as he was not mentally ill. Haley didn’t know what to do. He called a friend, who booked Budreo a room in a dingy Scarborough motel under the name of a priest. Then he went home, leaving his charge behind.

The controversy stayed. The Toronto Star ran breathless pieces on Budreo, likening him, thanks to a TV interview in which he wore a balaclava, to “a terrorist disguised in a face mask.” Police arrested him, then released him on bail with strict conditions. He would have to report to police regularly, attend counselling, and avoid alcohol. But with his sponsor gone, he was likely to end up back in jail. He needed someone to volunteer as his surety.

Sitting in court the Tuesday morning after the parade, Hugh Kirkegaard didn’t expect to be that volunteer. Back then, he was Toronto’s community chaplain; he helped ex-prisoners adjust to life on the outside. He worked at the Keele Centre, a federal halfway house in the city’s west end. He’d heard about Budreo’s case through a friend, and he’d dealt with troubled, violent offenders before. So, that day, he signed as Budreo’s surety and drove him back to the motel.

Budreo made a terrible first impression. “He was irascible,” Kirkegaard says. Halfway houses, church groups, and charities declined to shelter such a notorious offender. But the chaplain was hatching a plan. He’d been speaking with a Mennonite minister in nearby Hamilton—Harry Nigh, a jovial man with a rolling laugh. Together, they got an idea.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

Nigh had been working with another serial child molester, Charlie Taylor, for five months. In appearance and manner, Taylor was Budreo’s opposite. The latter was short, frail, and looked old beyond his years; he was talkative and supremely self-centered. Taylor, on the other hand, was broad shouldered and hulking, with a sensitive, childlike personality. But the two men were the same on the one thing that mattered: both were pedophiles.

That means they had a genuine sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Not all child molesters are pedophiles—many are more properly called hebephiles or ephebophiles for their respective attractions to pubescent and post-pubescent minors. But the key point is that, according to current psychological consensus, their attraction to children is an intractable orientation. Managing the sexual urges of these men—practically all pedophiles are men—is the core challenge.

Taylor was recently out of prison. He and Nigh had first met in the 1970s, when Nigh ran a one-on-one support program for offenders, called Men to Men, Women to Women. M2/W2 connected each offender with a volunteer, who would help him or her with day-to-day issues and talk them through their problems. If offenders had volunteers they could trust, the thinking went, they might turn to help instead of reoffending. But when Taylor called one on December 26, 1986, the volunteer didn’t pick up. Later that day, he lured an eight-year-old boy into his apartment in downtown Toronto and sexually assaulted him. He got seven years.

When Taylor was released, he, like Budreo, left prison unconditionally—no parole, no supervision. Nigh knew the one-on-one approach had failed the first time. He needed a more permanent solution, one that didn’t rely on a single relationship. He used to listen to CBC Radio’s Ideas while jogging near his home, and one evening he heard a former Massachusetts prison official named Jerome Miller discuss his work running the state’s juvenile detention centres. Miller had noticed that young offenders became much worse in the institutions, and any arrangement—no matter how last minute—that let the kids stay in the community invariably worked out better. Nigh was inspired. Coming home from his jog, he wondered if Taylor would have reoffended had others been there for him that Boxing Day. With enough people, there might have been a whole community to stop him.

Nigh hoped the Christian community in Hamilton would accept Taylor. But even as he assembled a group of volunteers, others protested. Neighbours made threats. The police tailed Taylor constantly. The local schools showed children pictures of him, and Nigh’s son recognized his face. When his teacher told the class to stay away from the man in the photo, the boy announced that Taylor had been over for dinner.

Still, something miraculous happened: Taylor didn’t reoffend. And so, when Budreo came to Toronto in November 1994 and the cycle of outrage began anew, Hugh Kirkegaard thought of Nigh.

Before Budreo came along, Nigh and the others hadn’t considered Taylor’s circle an experiment. It was simply a last-ditch effort to keep one man from hurting children. But now, with a second case study, they saw potential. Nigh and Kirkegaard asked for help from the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, the large regional charity that still runs CoSA in southern Ontario, and Kirkegaard assembled a team of volunteers.

Things didn’t start well. When Budreo moved into a downtown shelter, he told staff who he was and why he was in the news. He was perversely proud of the attention, and his notoriety put him at risk of violence from the other residents. Later, he told the circle he’d look for work, but the jobs he found were terribly inappropriate. He wanted to sell children’s books on the sidewalk. He wanted to work for Santa over Christmas.

Late one night, he called Kirkegaard, drunk. This was a violation of his bail conditions, and the circle told police, who arrested him. After that, he stayed mostly sober, though he never earned better than a one-year medal from AA. But, for all his troubles, he didn’t hurt any more children. As time passed, his success raised a compelling question: If circles could work in a hopeless case like his, could the format be used more widely? The two men took their idea to a federal official named Gerry Minard, at the time CSC’s corporate advisor for community corrections. It was eventually brought to Herb Gray, the solicitor general. The government had no legal responsibility to any offender whose sentence was up, but Gray was interested anyway. Even without a legal mandate, he said, the federal government had a “moral responsibility” to keep known molesters from preying on children.

In 1996, Nigh, Kirkegaard, and others created a working group that drew up a manual to help spread the idea. It set program rules that still apply today: the offender must want to join the circle; he and the volunteers must commit to at least a year together; the police must never be far away. At first, they called the system Circles of Support, but someone pointed out that “supporting” sex offenders would never sell, so they added “accountability” to the name.

The groups expanded throughout southern Ontario and, in 1997, across the country. Kirkegaard left Toronto and set up new projects in other towns, while Nigh took over his job as chaplain. As CoSA grew, Gray’s opinion became the precedent that justified new rounds of federal support. Minard remained a champion. But it never would have gotten that far had Taylor or Budreo reoffended. Their success was a billboard.

In 2001, Nigh’s father died. The chaplain realized Taylor was the first person he wanted to talk to about the loss. By then, the once-dangerous criminal had lost a leg to diabetes, and he used a wheelchair, although he was still a huge man. Nigh visited him in the hospital. “How’s your dad? ” Taylor asked. When Nigh told him the news, Taylor stuck his arms out for a hug, like a seated scarecrow.

When Taylor was three, provincial authorities labelled him mentally retarded and sent him to the Huronia Regional Centre, originally named the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. From age eight onward, older inmates sexually assaulted him. He continued to endure abuse at various training schools through his teenage years. He escaped periodically—once, he hitchhiked all the way to Sault Ste. Marie—but police returned him to the institutions every time.

Many sex offenders were themselves childhood victims of abuse. Although a pedophile’s desires aren’t learned—they’re biological—experiencing abuse at a young age can normalize such behaviour. Some men who would otherwise never act on their urges learn to see the abuse they faced as typical. Still, the question of whether these men are born or made is not the most pressing issue. Pedophiles who offend repeatedly and who prey on children outside of their families have among the highest recidivism rates of any sex offenders. Prison officials said Taylor had a 100 percent chance of reoffending when he was released. But with the support of his circle, he never did. On Christmas 2006, he died from a heart attack. The next morning, Nigh found him collapsed on the floor of his room. He turned the TV off and sat with the body for a while.

In some cases, drugs can eliminate a pedophile’s urges, but pharmaceuticals are no panacea. The hormone-suppressing drug Lupron can ravage an offender’s health in the high doses it takes to subdue his sex drive; in prison, Taylor developed near-fatal blood clots while taking the drug and had to stop the treatment. But Budreo continued to take it voluntarily. On the drug for almost fifteen years, he had debilitating osteoporosis. His volunteers worried as his health started to fail. They talked to him about going off the treatment before it killed him. He refused.

Budreo was selfish. He rarely thanked his volunteers when they bought him lunch. He loved attention and always spoke as if he were the reason for CoSA’s success. But, like many pedophiles, he was terrified of himself. “If I got those fantasies again,” he would say, “I couldn’t live with that.” Without help, a typical pedophile will stop taking Lupron; there are no laws to force anyone to take the drug. But Budreo didn’t stop. He died in Toronto on September 4, 2007, at sixty-three.

By then, CoSA had become a sensation. In 2000, Kirkegaard and others had exported the concept to the United Kingdom, where it flourished with considerable government investment. Copycat projects followed in the United States and then farther abroad. Today, there are some thirty projects worldwide, with new pilots underway in the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand. In every setting, the program seems to be remarkably effective. Four studies—two Canadian, one British, and one American—show that sex offenders in circles are less likely to reoffend sexually, violently, or in any other way. A 2009 Canadian quantitative study found that CoSA participants committed 83 percent fewer sex offences than a control group of other sex offenders. A 2012 US paper produced similar results using a randomized model—the strongest method available for this kind of study.

After the mid-’90s, Canadian courts began to use sentencing tools to close the gap in supervision that often follows the release of a sex offender. Judges are now able to mandate long-term supervision orders for high-risk cases, which append a period of community oversight—similar to parole—to the end of a prison term. As well, beginning in the late 1990s, crown attorneys started pursuing “dangerous offender” rulings more aggressively. A child molester with a D.O. label is unlikely ever to get out of prison. But such orders are assigned at sentencing, and many people still in prison were incarcerated prior to their increased use. That means the correctional service continues to release some child molesters without supervision—just as it released Taylor and Budreo. Indeed, about half of the former inmates in CoSA circles today first left prison without any federal conditions imposed on them. The gap is narrower than it was in 1994, but it is not closed.

Through the 2000s, the federal government continued to fund CoSA. In 2009, the National Crime Prevention Centre awarded CoSA groups $7.5 million to fund the circles at full capacity for five years. This led to another period of growth. Existing organizers hired paid staff. Groups started up in cities such as Halifax and Winnipeg, eventually reaching the current total of eighteen sites. In 2013, the final year of full funding under the pilot project, there were more than 125 offenders in active circles in Canada.

But all this came just as the federal Conservative government introduced sweeping reforms that pushed criminal justice away from rehabilitation and toward retribution. In the 2008 budget, it committed an unprecedented $478 million to tough-on-crime changes to the correctional system. In 2012, less than a year after winning their first majority, the Conservatives passed Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, popularly referred to as the “omnibus crime bill.” It increased mandatory minimum sentences, toughened rules for young criminals, and struck down alternative sentencing measures. The government also cut Lifeline, a peer-to-peer program for inmates on life sentences. Lifeline reduced reoffending rates for parolees and cost just $2 million annually.

Reaction from critics was severe. “Almost every inmate will re-enter society someday,” the Canadian Bar Association said in a statement. “Do we want them to come out as neighbours, or as predators hardened by their prison experience? ” But the Tories were unmoved. On August 29, 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced his government’s newest round of reforms at a press conference in Toronto. His words underscored how precarious CoSA’s position had become. “I cannot even begin to comprehend why those who sexually prey on children do the heinous things that they do,” he said. “But sadly, there are truly evil people out there. The fact is, we don’t understand them and we don’t particularly care to.” He drew out the syllables in particularly. “We understand only that they must be dealt with.”

On February 21, 2014, CSC abruptly cut its contracts with all eighteen CoSA groups across the country. The move ended nearly twenty years of federal support. “It has become recently clear that the present mandate of CSC will not support resourcing for CoSA in the present format,” an email to organizers read. The news arrived at 3:19 p.m. that Friday afternoon. It was a complete surprise.

CoSA leaders made the federal cut public on March 4. In interviews, they sounded shocked and defeated. So did the experts. “The decision is utterly breathtaking,” said Graham Stewart, retired executive director of the John Howard Society, the prisoners’ rights group. “Everyone agrees CoSA reduced sex offences in the community.” Steve Sullivan, Canada’s first federal ombudsman for victims of crime, called the decision “moronic.” Like many victims’ advocates, he has been on the opposite side of Stewart on many corrections issues. On this, though, the two men agreed. “To cut those supports to sex offenders puts the public at risk,” Sullivan said. “It puts our kids at risk.” Many said the decision made no sense, even as a financial move. For the cost of keeping around twenty inmates incarcerated for one year—$2.2 million—CoSA groups could officially monitor more than 100 sex offenders, and keep track of still more through ongoing informal relationships. No one in the government spoke publicly to defend the cut, and no one responded to repeated requests for comment.

Then the news took a turn for the bizarre. On March 6—just two days after the news broke—public safety minister Steven Blaney reversed the decision. Weeks passed and the media attention died down, but the reversal settled nothing. The reinstated money from the Correctional Service of Canada covered $650,000 for one year—only about a third of the total funding the government had given to CoSA groups the previous year. The rest would disappear on October 1, 2014, when the five-year project ended.

Finally, on January 26 of this year, corrections officials quietly confirmed that the cut would happen anyway. The original Toronto-area CoSA site has a separate contract with CSC, which expires in 2018. All other federal funding ended in March. “Our government believes that dangerous sex offenders belong behind bars,” a spokesperson wrote in response to emailed questions. “Funding for this particular program has run its course, but we are always interested in partnering with other programs in the future.”

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

It took Haley a long time to get to where he is now. There’s a divot on his chin from his drinking days; he fell down the stairs holding a beer bottle. “The bottle didn’t break,” he says. “I finished it in the ambulance.” He was illiterate when he started attending AA meetings; he remembers a prisoner once noticing that he faked reading a handout on the twelve steps. Ashamed, he learned to read and write, and he helped others do the same. Later, he wrote a memoir, A Brutal Way of Learning. In it, he recalls receiving an award from the Governor General for his literacy work and thinking, “What the heck am I doing here? Aren’t I a nobody or worse? I’ve got a criminal record. I used to be an alcoholic. At one time, I even beat my wife.”

After leaving Budreo behind, back in 1994, he earned his diploma in social work from Sir Sandford Fleming College, in Peterborough. Building on his work with AA, he took a job as a chaplain, giving spiritual advice to former prisoners. Then in 1997, a local funeral director sexually abused a member of Haley’s family. He spent three years at the man’s trial.

In August 2000, as the trial was approaching the sentencing stage, the Mennonites running CoSA in Toronto and Hamilton were looking to expand. They offered Haley a job screening inmates. He said he didn’t want the gig. He told them about the trial. But they kept pressing him, and he relented. Midway through one of his first screening interviews after the trial, with a child molester in Warkworth prison, he walked away. “He’s telling me what he’s done and everything, and I thought, I’ve got to get the frig out of here or I’m going to kill him,” he says. On November 8, 2000, he watched the judge sentence the funeral director to just one year of house arrest. The man was wealthy, Haley says, explaining the leniency.

Most CoSA people, like Nigh and Kirkegaard, do their work for religious reasons, but Haley barely comes across as Christian. Although he’s Pentecostal, he says, “I bounce back and forth.” He explains his motivation differently. When he was still reeling from the trial, a friend told him that people who didn’t know about CoSA—people who might otherwise balk at the idea of coddling pedophiles—would respect the fact that he was related to a survivor of sexual abuse. “They’re going to listen to you,” the friend said.

And they do. Today, Haley heads Peterborough Community Chaplaincy, one of the best offenders’ non-profits in the country. Through PCC, he runs a transition house for newly released prisoners. He operates one of the only end-of-life care facilities in Canada for offenders with terminal illnesses. He also runs some twenty CoSA groups a year. All told, he’s handled about 100 circles without a single instance of sexual recidivism. Like most prisoners’ groups, PCC is almost entirely funded by taxpayers. Haley takes donations, but criminals are a tough sell.

Prior to the cuts, CoSA people were cautiously optimistic that they could convince the government to maintain their funding. That optimism is gone. “Our stats tell a great story,” Haley says. “Other countries are copying what started right here in Ontario, but the message from the federal government is, we don’t care.” Today, he’s trying to find a way to run his circles on a fraction of the more than $100,000 they cost in 2014, but it’s an impossible task—no one can keep this country’s most hated and dangerous men stable on less than $5,000 a month. The CoSA non-profits that are still open are operating on a trickle. The Halifax office recently closed. The English-speaking office in Montreal is now run entirely by volunteers. In Toronto, even with the separate contract, staff salaries have been cut by 20 percent. Many previously paid coordinators have lost their jobs. Some circles are talking about turning away new offenders altogether.

Although today Haley’s hair is shorter and his moustache is thinner, he’s still the same peer to prisoners that he was twenty years ago. Sitting in his office, he takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “Somebody needs to step up to the flipping plate and do this work,” he says, “because nobody else is going to do it.”

In the basement of a church in Toronto, the guys—the word seems like an inappropriately familiar label for a group of child molesters, but that’s what everyone calls them, just “guys”—stand awkwardly in three rows. Most of them are participants in circles. One wears an Italian soccer jacket. Another is severely obese and sits at the front while the others stand. Another wears a newsboy cap. His eighty-eight-year-old mother is in the back of the room, crying. They hadn’t spoken in years.

Harry Nigh introduces them all by name. He’s still a federal chaplain, though last year he worked largely without pay, thanks to the government cuts. From that work, and from running community dinners such as this one every month, he knows the guys’ stories and crimes in detail. And yet he smiles broadly as he hands each man a mesh baseball cap, which stands in for a mortarboard. Some of the guys fiddle with their caps, embarrassed. Some look proud. Finally, Nigh calls on the rest of the room to applaud their successes. Everyone stands in a circle. They hold hands, and they pray.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada supported the author of this story.

This appeared in the May 2015 issue.

Ed Tubb
Ed Tubb has written for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, among others.
Byron Eggenschwiler
Byron Eggenschwiler has done artwork for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and GQ.