According to Untouchable, there’s a reason most Americans think sex offenders, and pedophiles in particular, are incurable, and thus destined to relapse: 2002’s McKune v. Lile, in which Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion that there was a “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for such predators, and that “the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80%.” That statement has since been used in numerous legal verdicts as well as to support countless pieces of state and local legislation aimed at curbing the rights of those found guilty of crimes against kids. In doing so, it’s become de facto common wisdom, almost universally accepted as a bedrock truth about individuals who possess child pornography or abuse (or have improper relations with) a minor.
The problem? The sole piece of evidence that led Justice Kennedy to make such a bold claim came from a 1986 Psychology Today article written by Ronald Longo, a counselor who ran a treatment program in an Oregon prison—and there was absolutely no statistical basis for his “80%” assertion. Moreover, Longo himself has since rejected that figure.
Untouchable, a documentary about sex offenders written, directed and produced by David Feige—which arrives on home video and VOD on January 15, after winning the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival—doesn’t drop that bombshell revelation until after its midway point, which in journalistic terms is akin to burying the lede. Nonetheless, Feige’s delay does little to neuter its impact, given that he spends the early portions of his non-fiction film incisively investigating multiple sides of the sex-offender issue. From victims and perpetrators, to activists who want to throw the convicted away and lose the key, it’s an eye-opening look at a thorny topic that, on the face of it, probably doesn’t strike many as very complex or controversial at all.