Jake Goldenflame remembers exactly when he realized he couldn't escape his past. It was 1996, and he was working as a clerk at a hotel in Jerusalem, where backpackers would chat with him into the wee hours. "A gal in her 20s was talking to me about her childhood, and all of a sudden her eyes filled with tears," says Goldenflame. "She said, 'How am I ever going to love my father? He molested me when I was young.' I just stopped. I knew wherever I went there would always be another girl like this. It was time to come back."

He returned knowing that people might consider him every parent's nightmare. A child molester who served five years in prison for sexually abusing his daughter, Goldenflame, 65, has emerged instead as an unlikely spokesman for Megan's Law, the controversial 1996 federal statute that requires sex offenders to register with local authorities. On March 5 the Supreme Court rejected two challenges to the law—a judgment Goldenflame wholeheartedly supports. "The court did its job," he says. "The public has a right to know who I am, and every time I register, I am forced to remember who I have been."

Critics say the law—named for Megan Kanka, a New Jersey 7-year-old murdered by a convicted child molester who lived across the street—invades the privacy of those who have paid their social debt. "It isolates offenders and does not prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place," says Fran Henry of Stop It Now!, a group that combats child sexual abuse. Goldenflame disagrees: "The only reason for a sex offender to want privacy is to go back to being a sex offender." Megan Kanka's mother, Maureen, who has never met Goldenflame, is surprised but glad for the support. "He has found that being under Megan's Law keeps him on the up-and-up," says Kanka. "It's wonderful."

Supported by a small inheritance, Goldenflame runs a Web site (calsex offenders.net) from his two-room San Francisco apartment that is devoted to helping sex offenders understand Megan's Law and what they need to do to conform to it. He has had no contact with his daughter, now 22, since his 1985 arrest, nor is he in touch with three ex-wives or four sons. Ever since his incarceration he has avoided children, believing that sexual obsessions, like any addiction, "can't be cured but can be controlled."

To keep himself on the right path, Goldenflame, a lay Buddhist monk, counsels offenders who seek him out via his Web site and apologizes to victims on behalf of those who have hurt them. "When he said, 'I'm sorry,' I just started crying," says Lillyth Keogh, 25, a San Francisco homemaker who met Goldenflame when he spoke to her rape survivors' group. "It was wonderful to hear somebody taking responsibility for what he had done."

Adopted in infancy and raised as Robert Gold (he changed his name in 1978), Goldenflame grew up feeling alienated from his parents, Seymour, a prominent attorney, and Susan, a homemaker. After an older male schoolmate molested him at 13, he says, he developed a lifelong attraction to adolescent boys. Although his sons testified at his sentencing that he had never molested them, Goldenflame did begin seeking out boys for sex during his first marriage. After a short second marriage—which produced a fourth son—ended in 1977, Goldenflame, who has a law degree but never took the bar exam, began working as an investigator at a legal clinic. While there he married his third wife, a 22-year-old colleague. The marriage lasted on and off for four years, and the pair then shared custody of a daughter.

Depressed and lonely, Goldenflame says he began molesting the child when she was a toddler. "I loved her very much. And I found myself beginning to emotionally have a love affair with my daughter," he says. "That's incest. That's how it is. I was horrified. But I felt imprisoned. I couldn't stop." When his ex-wife confronted him, he readily confessed. "She said, 'Is this true?' " he recalls. "I said, 'Yes, it is. Thank God, it's over.' "

Released on parole in 1991, halfway through his 10-year sentence, Goldenflame later drifted around the world, hiding from his past before his encounter with the backpacker brought him home. He doesn't expect forgiveness from his daughter and others he abused, but he will spend the rest of his days trying to make amends. "The person I was, he was a shell," he says. "It's not me now."

J.D. Heyman
Vickie Bane in San Francisco

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