Handle With Care

Sex offender David Rivera was willing to do almost anything to stay out of jail. Except masturbate.

The first time I saw David Rivera, he was standing behind the lipstick-smudged glass of a jail visiting room, head bowed as if in prayer. Guards had led the 38-year-old Fort Worth printer there from Tank 30, Unit 59D--better known as the "pervert pod."

Through the glass I noted Rivera's pitted face, his chin peppered with spiky whiskers, all of it framed by a nimbus of dense black hair. The thickened arms of a working man poked from his county-issued khakis as he took his seat in a narrow cubicle, lifted the phone receiver, and smiled.

He was immediately engaging, in a youthful sort of way. One of his ex-wives would later comment on that same sweet-talking charm: "Sugar wouldn't melt in his mouth."

Listening on the other end of the 5-foot phone line, I could barely hear him above a misfiring fire alarm and the rest of the Tarrant County Corrections Center's dissonant noise. It clanged about the brick cube from the street-level sally port to the ninth floor, where Rivera had lived since November 1995.

As his story came through the din, I decided that of all the tales of woe in jailhouses throughout the land, his deserved some type of prize.

Rivera, you see, refused to masturbate as part of his court-ordered sex-offender therapy. Absolutely refused--wouldn't think about it, wouldn't go there, wouldn't touch it. So a state district judge responded by sending him to the slammer for a long, long time.

"Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God," Rivera said, with studied piety, explaining the religious underpinnings of his refusal to participate in that part of his treatment. "That's First Corinthians, Chapter 2, Verse 5."

With a privately hired lawyer at his side, David Rivera pleaded guilty in November 1994 to seducing a 14-year-old girl in his east Fort Worth apartment. The girl had been staying the night with Rivera and his children because her family met him at church, and trusted him.

There were sins that night, by anyone's count. And the hypocrisy of a debaucher of 14-year-olds wrapping himself in the Bible today makes it difficult to call this a case of a good man wronged.

Still, Rivera's odd tale raises a question: Are his ideas about sin and redemption any less sound than what the guys in white coats had in store for him when he became a state-certified, scum-of-the-earth sex offender?

The "masturbation satiation" technique his Fort Worth therapist prescribed, which is in scattered use at the privately run sex-offender treatment clinics under contract to Dallas and Tarrant county state district courts, is as controversial as it is obscure.

There are legal questions about the treatment as well, involving Rivera's rights under a 1993 federal law aimed at freeing religious expression from government control. As he appeals his case to a higher court, Rivera, who claims he is a practicing Pentecostal Christian, hopes that issue will either win him a new trial or allow him a different type of treatment outside of jail.

After putting him on probation for assaulting the girl, state District Judge Sharen Wilson ordered Rivera into one of Tarrant County's eight sex-crime treatment clinics to begin his therapy early last year.

Rivera barely tolerated the indignity of the "plethysmograph assessment," a test in which a rubber ring is placed around the offender's penis while slides of nudes are flashed across a screen--in an effort to determine what flavor of aberrant sex turns him on. He could more or less handle the weekly group-therapy sessions in which his fellow sex criminals would go on about their obsessions with the genitals of some of their terribly young victims.

But when he found out about his homework--that he would have to pleasure himself for 20 hours in pursuit of "masturbation satiation"--Rivera says he drew the line. "It's ungodly," he says today. "It's totally against my beliefs."

When it came to jerking the gherkin, Rivera just said "no" in the name of God.

He met the girl at Cornerstone Evangelistic Ministries in Haltom City, a chicken-fried, mostly blue-collar suburb northeast of Fort Worth. The nondenominational Pentecostal congregation of 90 assembles behind the burglar-barred windows of a low-slung, brick sanctuary set on a rutted street lined with small cottages and aging parked cars.

Rivera joined Cornerstone in 1990 at the urging of his brother, Joel Rios, and was, by his family's recollections, "a real Bible-thumper." Rios says his brother was seldom without his brown, leather-bound Bible.

The girl's mother says she wasn't worried about having her daughter around Rivera because of his connection with the church. But others recall the girl as being beyond any parental control. "It might sound strange because of the age difference, but my brother and her were in love," says Rios, who describes the girl as wild, sexually wise, and well-developed. "It went on for a few months. Even our preacher said something to him about it."

The Rev. Crawford Sprabary recalls seeing Rivera and the girl sitting close together in a back pew during several Sunday services, a display that drew notice all around. "I brought David in the office, and I set him down and told him this didn't appear to be proper," Sprabary says. "David said he was just trying to help young people. He said nothing was going on."

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