The criminal, on the eve of sentencing, received as heartfelt a display of support as I’ve ever read about. More than fifty people filled the courtroom to plead for leniency. It happened in Rhode Island, but such things happen in courtrooms everywhere. This man, the supporters said, does not deserve jail. They called him an asset to society. Many, with tears in their eyes, spoke of how they’d known him through Alcoholics Anonymous, of his struggle to get sober, and please, they said, he has suffered enough. There is no reason to put him behind bars. The name of the defendant was Leo Langlais. Actually, defendant is the wrong word; criminal is correct. He admitted to the charges of sexual molestation.

After reading of all these souls who gave all this effort to speak in behalf of this man, I could not believe when I read the age of the victim. She is now 16—but during the time Langlais molested her, she was between three and thirteen. For so many to turn out to plead for leniency, I figured there had to be circumstances showing the crime was not that bad. So I called the prosecutor and asked: as these things go, was this a minor form of abuse? No, he said. Langlais admitted to having oral sex with the girl, forcing her to have oral sex with him, and actual rape: intercourse. I asked how often it happened. On and off throughout this ten-year period, he said. How did Langlais know the girl? A close family friend. “You’re not saying he did some of these things when she was age three?” I asked. Yes, the prosecutor said, the first complaint of oral sex was at that age.

I told the prosecutor that Langlais’s supporters say he has reformed. What they said, he corrected, is that he’d gotten sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. “But he has yet to look himself in the eye and say, ‘I am a child abuser,'” he added. But this nuance didn’t occur to those who filled the courtroom. They insisted on seeing the accused as victim. There was even a local school committeewoman who spoke for Langlais. She said he has already served his own private hell, so we should have sympathy.

But I’d like to ask: did any of those fifty people in the courtroom think of the other private hell being endured in this case? Speak with any expert on child molestation and they will tell you there are few things that damage a psyche more. They will tell you it leaves scars that can ruin a child’s chance of ever leading a happy and adjusted life. It is a crime, one victim told me, that strips a woman’s soul. And the damage is even greater when the molester is someone the child trusts. It is the ultimate betrayal.

So why would the courtroom fill with supporters of the accused? Why is there an instinct to protect those we’ve befriended despite evidence showing they are criminals? We perhaps see that instinct most blatantly when politicians are prosecuted. Almost always, the faithful insist their transgressions should be forgiven. They insist the accused are in fact victims—usually of political vendetta. I think of Marion Barry of Washington, and of another Rhode Island case: only months ago, the mayor of the state’s second largest city pleaded guilty to extorting up to $1 million in kickbacks from contractors. But when one lone contractor—a landscape designer—went public disclosing it, he was vilified on radio talk shows. The crooked mayor was painted as victim. Several callers echoed a disturbing theme: even if he’s guilty, he’s done a good job—he’s a nice man—so why pick on him?

And so it was with the Rhode Island molester. Even after he’d pleaded guilty, his lawyer kept calling him a victim—a victim who was struggling nobly to overcome an unhappy upbringing. He sexually assaulted a three year old, but because he had a tough childhood, and was burdened by alcoholism, he’s supposedly the real victim. This was what his supporters said in the courtroom. Because they knew him, and liked him, his past evil was called irrelevant—not his true character. The real Leo Langlais, they insisted, was the nice guy at the AA meetings. But they failed to see a truth about most criminals: that their real nature lies not in the face they put on but in the wrong they have done.

It is a truth for judges, above all others, to ponder. And perhaps they might also ponder this: what message would it give to other molesters, other criminals, to allow the accused to walk free simply because friends have expressed their support? Perhaps this message: if you can find a few naive souls to testify that you’re a likable, struggling soul today, then you don’t have to pay for the evil you did yesterday.

The supporters of the Rhode Island molester insisted he get no jail. The prosecution asked for 12 years, but the judge—apparently affected by the character witnesses—gave him six. Not enough, judge. Not enough.