“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, ‘Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent!’” – Acts 18:1 NLT
“Each of us bears his own hell.” – Virgil
In April of 2013, an article was posted on The Oakdale Chronicles titled “unspoken”. The article introduced a hypothetical speech that I would give to high school students if I were ever permitted to do so.
Recently, I was permitted to do just that.
On August 30, 2015, at the New Hope Church in Lorton, VA a speech taken from the original text was delivered to a small group of about 40 9th-12th grade students, and a couple of dozen adults. I was originally going to wait until they uploaded the video on the church website, but I decided I would go ahead and post the text of my part of the presentation.
You see, I was not alone on the stage that night. I was joined by my niece, Mariah. She is a very special, very brave woman with a story of her own that was told that night. I will not tell hers here, because she does a fine job herself. When the video is finally uploaded, I will put it here, and you all can see for yourselves. She is a small woman, but is a giant in my eyes. When you watch her, you will know why.
In the meantime, I am posting the text to my speech and I hope you all take the time to read it.
“Sharing Poor Choices”
My name is Tony Casson and I am 61 years old. In May of 2014 I was released from a federal prison where I had been incarcerated for a little over four years for possession of child pornography. I am a convicted felon. I am also a convicted sex offender, which means I have to register as such for at least 15 years. As a condition of my release, I will be under the supervision of a federal probation officer for the rest of my life. Furthermore, I will not be permitted to be around anyone under the age of 18 – including my own grandchildren – unless I am supervised.
Many people will look at me and see a monster. I will look in the mirror and see someone who is profoundly sorry for the poor choices he has made in life, but now realizes that we can never go back and undo what we have done.
We can only move forward, and allow God to show us how to use our past to try to light a better path to someone else’s future.
It is with that purpose in mind that I stand here today, reaching out to all of you who have your lives ahead of you. I would like to tell you all about some of the poor choices that I made, some of the reasons behind them, and the steps I could have taken to avoid them.
A big part of growing up is learning to make choices. It is very likely that most of you will make some poor choices. Most of those will have no major long-lasting impact and hopefully you will learn from them. Sometimes we fail to learn those lessons and that failure hurts us later on in life. I am here today to try to impress upon you that there are some choices you simply do not want to make at all. Sometimes that first-hand experience we all crave is not a good thing to have.
In some instances, it really is best to learn from the errors of others… so I will offer you mine.
The road to the place where I now stand was not one that I consciously selected when I was your age. I certainly didn’t set out in life with this destination in mind. But the very first steps taken in my long journey to federal prison were taken when I was not so very different from all of you.
Like all of you I, too, had my life stretching endlessly before me. Like many young people, I was adventurous, energetic, optimistic, invincible, and I thought I was indestructible. There was no past to be sorry for; only a vast sea of infinite possibilities before me. I had no sense of my own mortality because we simply don’t consider how a life will end at a time when it is just beginning to unfold.
I was blessed with intelligence and was always told that I could do anything I wanted to do; that I could be anything I wanted to be. I thought I had all the time in the world to figure out what I wanted out of life and all the time I needed to get it.
Ultimately, what I discovered is that life is a whole lot shorter than we think or care to admit.
By the time it dawned on me that I was out of time; by the time I woke up to the fact that I had committed grievous errors that could not be corrected; by the time I looked in the mirror and realized that the man I had once hoped to become was nowhere to be found; by the time I admitted to myself that I had failed as a husband, a father, a friend and as a member of society, I was 55 years old and I was hovering near death in the bathroom of a cheap motel in South Florida after trying to kill myself while the FBI was standing outside my door waiting to arrest me for possession of child pornography.
The FBI had taken my computer from me almost a year and a half prior to that day and I knew that they would one day return for me. That knowledge did nothing to lessen the shock of the reality that morning in August of 2009 when I stepped out of my motel room and saw the blue nylon windbreakers with the big yellow letters on the back that told me they had come.
They had gone to the office first, where I was supposed to be working. Moments before they arrived, I had walked to my room to get something, enabling me to see them before they saw me. I turned and darted back unnoticed into my room.
I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror with tears of hatred in my eyes, looking into the face of a man that I simply did not know. It seemed that as my age had climbed steadily higher, my morality, my honesty, my decency and my sense of humanity had descended lower and lower.
I then attempted to take my own life and was very close to death when I turned to God, whom I had rejected and ignored for almost forty years. I asked Him to forgive me and for reasons that could only have been a result of His intervention, the FBI agents decided to break into my room, enabling them to discover me and call for an ambulance.
So now I stand before all of you, obviously very much alive, and while the act of standing here and speaking of these things is embarrassing and indescribably difficult, I am grateful to God that I am able to do it and I pray that I can somehow reach a place inside some of you that will stir something that will enable you to avoid anything resembling a similar fate.
The question looms: How did I get to that point where I deemed death by my own hand to be the only solution to the problem I had created? After waking up in the hospital the day after my suicide attempt, I decided to turn my life over to God.
Over the course of the next 7 months my case proceeded through the criminal justice system until, on April 1, 2010, I voluntarily surrendered at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana. For my crimes against society, I had received a sentence of 57 months in prison. For my 40 years of sinful living and willful disobedience to God I received…..forgiveness.
I humbly accepted that forgiveness, thanking God for His mercy and grace and I resolved to use the time I would be incarcerated to look for answers that would help me understand what had gone wrong in my life while welcoming God into my life to help me learn how I should live upon my release.
While in prison, I discovered that the complexities which make up the later years of our lives begin to form during the seemingly simple act of growing up.
As very small children, when we cried out in pain or in need, there was usually someone close at hand to offer us comfort. When we skinned our knees or fell off our bikes, when a sibling hit us or called us a name, no matter the insult or the injury, most of us let the world know when we hurt and where we hurt. As we get older, we transition into private individuals who feel as if we need to deal with things ourselves. We still seek help with external injuries like cuts, bruises and broken bones. But many of us keep all to ourselves the pain from things that hurt inside – pain that can be much worse than that of the most severe physical injury that we can imagine.
We keep this internal pain hidden possibly because we feel that it is not “grown up” to do otherwise. Perhaps our silence grows out of embarrassment or a sense of shame. Sometimes we feel that we will be viewed as “babies” if we talk about things that hurt us inside, especially when we are male. And finally, we feel as if no adult could ever understand the pain of youth or that our friends and peers would just make fun of us or think us silly.
It never seems to occur to us that our friends may feel the same things or that our parents endured the same pain when they were young.
No matter. We do what we do because we are young and sometimes there simply is no explanation. Fortunately, most of the time the effects of keeping things inside do not have long-term or far-reaching consequences.
However, I am here to tell you that some pain, left unattended, can work silently within us, destroying the framework of our development, thereby crippling our ability to mature, to grow, to feel, and to love.
We have all heard the little rhyme that goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I have no idea what idiot came up with that but it certainly isn’t the message anyone should want their children to receive. While working on a book of Christian devotionals when I was in prison, I rewrote that rhyme to say:
“Sticks and stones can hurt someone, But words can do the same. People hurt deep down inside, When they are called a name.”
From the time I was 12, I experienced major rejection, and was the subject of intense name-calling which was degrading, demeaning, and humiliating. My self-esteem suffered major damage and I turned to alcohol at 14 and drugs at 16 to deaden the pain and make it easier to act like I enjoyed being made fun of.
Although I was raised in the Catholic Church at an early age, what I learned did not teach me to turn to Christ, in repentance and faith, in order to receive the love I sought and the strength I required to deal with the pain of growing up.
When I was 17, I finally found a friend in a young man named Tommy Meister and felt accepted just because I was me. When I was 18, my father died, and in a tragic accident several months later, Tommy Meister was killed after leaving a party at my house where we had been consuming drugs and alcohol.
It is always easy to blame God, and blame God I did. The deaths of my father and my best friend certainly severed whatever tenuous ties I had with Him and all but halted my growth as a person. From then on, although the years kept rolling by, I never really matured beyond that point. I simply got older. Not dealing with the pain inside of us allows that pain to take up residence and pain is a very selfish roommate. Pain wants all of the space inside us to itself, and when we are afraid and unable to tell anyone about that pain, it will eventually have all of that space.
As with pain, problems left unattended only get worse over time as well, but it was impossible for me to see this. As a young person, I had not learned to respect myself so I was unable to use self-respect to motivate me to seek solutions to my problems. Nor had I learned to love myself, so I could not use that either.
When self-respect and self-love are missing, so is our ability to truly respect or love others. And when these things are missing from who we are, we can never hope to fully understand, enjoy, or appreciate all that life holds out to us.
By holding on to the pain of rejection, humiliation, loss, and guilt, and by seeking comfort and escape from that pain with drugs and alcohol, I essentially sentenced myself to prison almost 40 years before the cell door actually clanged shut behind me.
Pornography, like drugs and alcohol, soon became my friend. As I continued to pull further and further into myself, this seemed like a natural fit for me. After all, people argue with us; people hurt us; people disappoint us. Pictures do not.
The individuals who allowed themselves to be photographed alone, or with others, in sexual situations and scenarios were not real to me. When the pictures became boring, they could be replaced with new ones. There was never any complaint or argument about it and no one’s feelings were ever hurt.
Real-life people were much more complicated and harbored expectations of permanence. I had convinced myself that all relationships ended, and ended badly, and all relationships caused pain in one way or another.
With pornography, I could surround myself with friends and lovers who accepted me unconditionally, never disappointed me, and never caused me any pain.
Hopefully you can begin to see how the problems of my youth that were born with the simplicity of name-calling and rejection had now grown very complex.
I now had drugs, alcohol, and pornography as my most trusted friends and whenever REAL life got to be too demanding or posed too many problems, I could always surround myself with the safety, comfort, and pleasures that these friends offered.
So…here I was a young man who had never learned how to live one life in a normal, healthy manner, and now I seemed to be trying to live TWO. One of those lives would remain unfulfilled through the years and would overflow with pain and sadness. The other would slowly work to destroy everything good that entered the other one and would eventually make me want to take my own life.
When I was in my forties; when it was beyond comprehension that my life could become more complex or that I could find new and more destructive ways to live that life, along came the internet.
The day I slipped a “Try AOL Free” disc into my computer was the day I made that final wrong turn onto the road that almost delivered me to my death.
I had been divorced for the second time for about a year when this new ‘phenomenon’ swept the nation and captured the attention of millions of individuals like myself. We all flocked to AOL and many of us fell in love with AOL ‘chat rooms’.
My ‘relationship’ with those chat rooms quickly became an obsession. I had gone from being a single dad who pretty much stayed at home trying to be a good, attentive father to a boy of 9 or 10, to being someone who could ‘socialize’ with others from around the country, and ‘socialize’ I did.
I ‘met’ women from everywhere and fell in and out of ‘love’ with rapidly increasing frequency. I soon learned that the novelty of truthfulness wore off for many people quite quickly. Many found it much easier to be someone else rather than to simply be themselves, and truthfulness requires me to admit that I was one of them. After all, our profiles told people who we were, and we could write anything we wanted in them. We could all become more interesting, more attractive, and much more desirable than we actually were when we turned the computer off and had to resume the realities of our lives and face ourselves in the mirror.
Those online relationships soon became complicated and were invariably disappointing, even hurtful. As disillusionment set in, I turned instead to another ‘marvelous’ feature of AOL: Internet pornography. This ‘discovery’ led me into the world which would ultimately lead me to the behavior which then almost totally destroyed me. This behavior, of course, was my involvement with child pornography which grew out of my larger obsession with what is termed ‘adult’ pornography. It never was about children. It was just another way to validate the negative feelings I had nurtured about myself since I was young.
In a strange twist of fate, the thing that almost killed me actually saved my life. I can very honestly say that I am pleased with the new path that God has shown me, but it does not alter the fact that I wish I had arrived here in a less painful manner – less painful to myself and so many others.
Not all who travel the road I arrived here on wind up thankful for the way things turned out for them. I know this because I met many individuals while in prison whose stories have saddened me and made me more determined to use my poor choices as an example for others so they might avoid what we have gone through and what we must face in the future.
For those who think that child pornography is something that is reserved for the exclusive viewing by a bunch of dirty old men, I am witness to the fact that this is simply not true. The longer I spent in prison, the more young men – men in their early and mid-twenties – entered the prison compound to pay the price for THEIR indiscretions.
Not everyone chooses to speak freely about their situation, but one young man in particular told me his story and I wish to share it with all of you. His name is Jason and he came from Florida. Jason was 20 years old when I met him and had been sentenced to 6 years for possession of child pornography.
But Jason’s story really began when he was just 8 years old. At that time, his brother, who was 12, started sexually molesting him. This continued until Jason was 13, at which time their activities were discovered and counseling was obtained for Jason’s brother. There was no money for counseling for Jason, however. As a result, he felt abandoned by not just his parents, but also by his brother. He had his own computer and the skills to use it, as do most young people in this day and age, so he turned to internet pornography for comfort, consolation, and companionship.
He rapidly shifted his focus to child pornography, but to someone 13 years old, this was more like ‘just hanging out with people my own age’, he said. When I asked how – at 13 – he even FOUND child pornography, he just looked at me and laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?” Of course. Silly me. It is frighteningly and readily available.
By the time he was arrested he was 19. The judge who sentenced him didn’t seem to be interested in how he came to be doing what he was doing. He was not interested in the fact that something was broken within Jason that prison was never going to fix. He seemed to be sending the message that this is how we deal with this problem, and that was the end of it.
There are almost 800,000 registered sex offenders in this country today and here is a fact that may shock many of you: according to a study in USA Today, almost 36% of them are juveniles. That is 288,000 minors. In 2010, Michigan’s youngest registered sex offender was 9 years old. The youngest I could find listed was a six year old in Idaho.
In many, many instances, pornography can be found as playing a big part in the circumstances leading up to the offense requiring registration. There are some basic facts about pornography that you all need to be made aware of, or reminded of:
- First, there is no such thing as ‘adult’ pornography. No matter what anyone tries to tell you, there is nothing mature or ‘adult’ about pornography. It serves no purpose beyond making money for those who do not have the intelligence, skills, or morality to make it any other way.
- Pornography contributes nothing positive to humanity, and is simply an immature, insensitive, and immoral display of the depths that people will go to degrade, diminish, demoralize, and demean humanity.
- In this country, pornography used to be classified as ‘obscene’ until our Supreme Court, in one of its more glaring examples of just how fallible it CAN be, declared that it was protected by our constitution as a form of ‘free speech’.
I am here to tell you all that if pornography is free speech, it is a conversation you do not need to be engaged in and do not want to have. It does not enhance your life at any age. It does not make you a grown up. It does not glorify the beauty of a relationship between two people. Instead, it demeans and degrades all involved, but women in particular, and it desensitizes us to the beauty that God intended for intimacy to hold. Looking at pornography not only does not make one more mature, it is actually a sign of immaturity to engage in it at all.
Besides all of that, no amount of glorification, or claims of freedom of speech or artistic expression can negate the fact that many, many of the ‘willing’ participants in the production of pornography are drug and alcohol dependent, many of the females in pornographic pictures and films are the victims of earlier child sexual abuse, and many of them are forced into it.
Something that stands out prominently from my youth is that I was always willing. I think being willing is one of the most important requirements in the process of growing up. Unfortunately, I was always willing to do the wrong things, to respond in the wrong way, and I was certainly willing to give people more power over me than they were entitled to have.
I was not willing to turn to friends, family, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, or God for help at a time in my young life when I needed it the most and when being willing to do just that could have altered the course of my future. I hope some of the things I have spoken about will guide you in avoiding the same poor choices.
I will pray that you are all willing to use your energy, your intelligence, your love for God, and your youth to create for yourselves better, happier lives than I created for myself and those around me.
I will pray that you are all willing to love and respect yourselves and others.
If you can each be willing, then you will be able to stand up, not just for yourselves, but for each other. You will be able to reach out for help to stop someone from abusing you physically, sexually, or emotionally. You have to be willing now to have the courage to face those who would deprive you of your youth, thereby condemning your adulthood to being something less than God intended it to be. You have to be willing to fix little things that are broken before they grow into bigger things that steal your identity and your ability to be you.
You must be willing to think before you act, because decisions that we make can – in a fraction of a second – completely change the direction of our lives. Take a moment to think about what you are about to do so you don’t need to spend the rest of your life trying to forget what it was you did.
Ask God for the strength to resist temptation rather than asking his forgiveness for succumbing to it.
I will pray that you will be better than those who have come before you. Be willing to be better than me, and millions like me, and use the power of the internet to develop a social conscience and then resolve to act positively upon that conscience.
Distinguish yourselves by being willing to use the internet to help humanity rather than hurt each other; to use it to contribute to the greatness of mankind rather than to use it to degrade, diminish, and demean it.
Make a resolution with yourselves, and with each other, to be willing to use the technology that is available today, and that which will be available tomorrow, in a mature, responsible manner that enhances your life and contributes to your growth rather than in a manner that causes you, or those you know, unnecessary pain, a broken heart, or much, much worse.
Work to replace society’s growing obsession with recording, and sharing, images of our bodies and our most intimate sexual acts with the world, with a reclaimed morality and sense of decency, distinguishing yourselves from previous generations by proving that you are better, and not just different. Rediscover the words ‘integrity’, ‘decency’, and ‘honor’.
I will pray that you are all willing to do all of those things, and to protect yourselves and those around you by being responsible in the way you treat others, and that you all stand up for your right to distinguish your generation as the best of all generations.
For my role in the degradation of the human spirit and the corrosion of human dignity, I am profoundly sorry. For my irresponsible and thoughtless contribution to the loss of innocence of children everywhere through my inexcusable and reprehensible willingness to allow child pornography to enter my life, I will be haunted for the remainder of my days.
I cannot go back and make the experience of being married to me a better one for the mothers of my children. I cannot go back and be for my children all of the things that I should have been as a father while they were growing up. I cannot undo the pain I have caused for myself and those around me.
I cannot change who I was.
These are things that I accept as unchangeable, and we must all accept those things we cannot change. God helps us to do that, but He also can create in us a new person that is more of what He had in mind when we were born.
What is not unchangeable are the things that stand in the way of young people everywhere that would deprive them of the adventure, pleasure, and rite of passage that all young people have a right to expect as a part of growing up. Nor will I accept as unchangeable the things that trouble many of you today. These things can be changed, and I will pray that those who are troubled will be willing to seek assistance now, rather than suffer the inevitable consequences that neglecting them will definitely impose later in life.
I cannot change my past, but I can seek God’s help to use what is left of my future to put to work the lessons I have finally learned and try to give others examples of the kinds of choices that they should avoid making.
It is important to know that it is never too late to fix broken things. It is, however, much easier, and better for all concerned to attend to problems when they are small, and not give them a chance to grow into something that consumes you and makes you become a person you do not recognize when you look in a mirror, or worse – to turn you into someone you despise when you look there.
For me, each new day is a gift from God that I am grateful for. It is another day of life that I tried to steal from myself and from those who did, and still do, love me.
I cannot, and will not, waste a moment thinking about how wonderful things could have been had I turned to God for help in fixing the things that were broken when I was your age.
But you can, and I pray that you are all willing to do just that.
I thank God, I thank Rusty, and I thank Tommy for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences. I must inform all of you, however, that I cannot be someone you can use as a resource or turn to for direct help with a specific problem. If there is something troubling you; if someone is hurting you; if you have a problem dealing with temptation in one form or another, I urge you to seek help from your parents, from your pastors, from your small group leaders, from the police, or from your friends.
Ask God for His strength and His guidance in making the right choices now, so you do not have to live with the consequences of making the wrong ones later.
Thank you, God bless you, and good luck to all of you.
Well, there you have it. I believe we gave glory to God that night, my niece and I. It was not an easy thing for either of us, but God helped us do what we felt He expected of us.
Stay tuned. Film at 11.