In more than 20 years of confinement for molesting young boys, Dennis R. Steiner has had 24 different therapists and has seen at least four clinical directors at the state sex offender treatment center in Moose Lake.

His testimony Tuesday in a St. Paul courtroom shone a new and unflattering light on the slow and labyrinthine process by which the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) treats people who have been civilly committed for sex offenses and explains why a group of those offenders are challenging its constitutionality in court.

Steiner, 65, testified that he was told by prosecutors and a judge that he would be released in “three to four years” — but was confined for 23 years because of frequent changes to the MSOP treatment program and behavioral rule violations. At times, he was held up for minor transgressions, such as overspending by 6 cents his account at the MSOP “canteen,” or client store at Moose Lake.

Steiner, the first sex offender to testify in the landmark federal trial, described a feeling of hopelessness common among many detainees at MSOP, which has provisionally discharged just three offenders in its 20-year history.

“Mr. Steiner, do you think you will ever get out?” asked attorney Dan Gustafson, the lead attorney representing a class of offenders suing the state.

“Not at its current rate, no,” Steiner, who appeared in court in a gray suit and tie, said.

“Why not?” Gustafson asked.

“Because nobody has and they don’t even have a release plan …,” Steiner said.

The testimony of Steiner, who faced three hours of intense questioning, highlights the complex and politically sensitive challenge of deciding when a sex offender has been successfully treated and can be released. Even offenders who have undergone years of therapy still have deviant urges.

In cross-examination Tuesday, Steiner admitted that he was still attracted to young boys and has taken the drug Zoloft for the past 20 years to control his sexual appetite.

“It’s an attraction and you don’t lose an attraction,” Steiner said. “I know I can’t be around them,” he said, referring to young boys.

In 1992, Steiner pleaded guilty to sexually abusing four teenage boys at his home in St. Paul and his cabin in Wisconsin.

In testimony Tuesday, Steiner said he used “toys” — such as boats and snowmobiles — to entice boys to his home and to give them work. Steiner has admitted to a total of 31 child victims, all between 8 and 16 years of age.

Asked to describe the nature of his attraction, Steiner shifted nervously in his chair before saying, “I can’t tell you. It’s just an attraction.”

Damning critique

Steiner is among six to eight sex offenders expected to testify during the trial that will last through February in St. Paul. The witnesses include Eric Terhaar, 24, who is among about 60 offenders confined at MSOP based solely on offenses they committed as juveniles. The offenders are expected to offer the public a rare view into the secretive inner workings and treatment program at a MSOP, which confines about 700 offenders indefinitely at high-security treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

Many of the offenders at the two facilities were interviewed last year by a panel of four court-appointed authorities on sex offender treatment. These experts, which included authorities from Florida, New York and Wisconsin, wrote a damning, 108-page critique of the program that described a climate of despair and hopelessness among staff and offenders at MSOP.

In testimony last Friday, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, whose agency oversees the MSOP, said the program has recently adopted a number of reforms recommended by outside authorities and is doing a better job of moving offenders through the phases of treatment and toward release.

In his testimony, Steiner, who has petitioned for provisional release three times without success, described his long odyssey through treatment with no emotion.

It began, he said, in the advanced phase of treatment when he was committed in 1992. However, each time the MSOP brought in a new clinical director, the treatment program changed and Steiner had to start over, he said. His primary therapist kept changing as well; and the lack of continuity impeded his progress. Today, he is still in phase two of the three-phase program.

“The changes kept coming and coming and coming …” he said. “And I just believe they were just to put down people.”

At the same time, he said he agreed that his treatment team was working “in good faith” to get him out of MSOP. When asked if he looked forward to moving to the final phase of treatment in St. Peter, he responded defeatedly, “I’m concerned it’s just another warehouse. The bottom line is, they don’t release anyone.”