One day soon, perhaps as early as next Saturday, convicted child molester Clarence Opheim will walk off the campus at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and into a cauldron of politics and community apprehension.

The first patient to be discharged from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in more than a decade, Opheim, 64, will take his first steps at an intensive St. Paul therapy program called Project Pathfinder.

Together, they will test whether Minnesota can navigate a historic turning point for the controversial sex offender program. Since it was created in 1994 to hold and treat dangerous offenders who had completed their prison sentences, death has been virtually the only way out. But with a population that has soared to 635 patients, annual costs in the millions of dollars, and looming court challenges filed by restive patients, the program faces mounting pressures to find an alternative to indefinite detention.

"Clarence knows there's a lot riding on him, the first guy out of the gate," said a former sex offender from Minneapolis who has volunteered to be one of Opheim's mentors. "Can he make it? Will he screw up? He's going to be a little nervous. And that's good."

Said Dennis Benson, who directs the MSOP: "We know people are nervous and will be watching closely. But we believe, as do the three judges who made the final decision, that the strength of the treatment and the strength of our continuing watchfulness will keep the risk low."

Pathfinder's executive director, Warren Maas, also knows much is riding on Opheim's success. His program is one of about 20 in Minnesota that treat sex offenders, and one of the most respected. It has a state contract to work with 10 patients now in their final stage of MSOP treatment.

Maas said 97 percent of Pathfinder's graduates who meet all 19 goals do not re-offend. "We think everyone can succeed here," he said. "But not everybody will. Some people just cannot, or will not, do the work."

Whether sex offenders can be "cured,'' and which therapy works best, has been a topic of study for decades. There is no clear answer, in part because the 50 states have so many different programs, each treating small populations of offenders, often over a period of years. But a large Canadian study published in 2002 found that recidivism rates -- the share of patients who re-offend within five years -- can be roughly cut in half by effective programs, from 18 percent to about 10 percent.

Opheim will face intense therapy for years, possibly the rest of his life. And he will be watched, tracked electronically and spied upon.

Already working the program

Opheim, who has been judged a psychopathic personality and who admitted to molesting 29 children, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison in 1988 for sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy. At his release, a judge placed him in MSOP.

On Feb. 12, a three-judge panel granted Opheim's request for provisional discharge from the program -- a sort of probation that will place him under close supervision and can be reversed if he doesn't succeed.

In fact, Opheim has been participating in Pathfinder therapy for most of the last three years -- a period when he's been in MSOP's Community Preparation Services, a reintegration phase of the program at St. Peter, Benson said.

Opheim and most of the others in that end stage of therapy are escorted weekly to St. Paul for sessions with Pathfinder therapists and with groups of other sex offenders. They also are taken to AA meetings, other therapy and volunteer activities away from the St. Peter campus.

The change when Opheim begins his provisional discharge is that he'll live in a St. Paul halfway house with constant monitoring instead of what amounts to a halfway house on the St. Peter campus.

Opheim will wear a GPS locator and face periodic drug and polygraph tests. He cannot be near children or use the Internet and will have an escort anytime he leaves the halfway house; he will be the only client of a full-time caseworker for at least a month and will be monitored by a state investigator.

"Will we have the same surveillance on the 100th person who is granted provisional discharge?'' said Benson. "I don't know. I want to believe we'll be every bit as careful, but I know we are taking every precaution with the first one."

Legislative probing

For Benson's program, Opheim's release comes at a pivotal moment.

Judicial commitments to the MSOP shot up in 2003, after widespread outrage following the kidnap and murder of Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender. Its population has climbed rapidly and its annual budget has quadrupled to $70 million. In the past two decades, only one other patient, Ray Hubbard, has won provisional discharge. His discharge in 2000 was revoked in 2003 after a series of problems, including leaving the state. He did not re-offend but was returned to St. Peter and died there in 2007 at age 45, apparently of a heart attack.

These developments have prompted some civil rights proponents to say that open-ended commitments are too draconian, and several MSOP residents have filed suit for their release, which eventually may provoke a legal test of the state's ability to hold offenders indefinitely.

In a recent letter to House GOP leaders, Gov. Mark Dayton wrote: "Under current state law, if someone is determined to have completed treatment and can be carefully supervised in a setting outside of an institution, he cannot be kept there for the rest of his life.''

At the same time, several Republican legislators have challenged the Dayton administration's decision to discharge Opheim, and at a hearing last week they spent two hours probing the reasoning of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

One of those critics, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the full House is likely to take up a proposal Monday to allow police to notify neighbors when MSOP patients move into the community from the St. Peter campus. DFLers probably will not oppose the measure, said Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

No easy path

Maas, an attorney who a few years ago was defending sex abusers, knows the eyes of the state will be on Pathfinder. But he says his program puts its clients through rugged emotional tests that typically last at least three years. He leads one of the 31 groups of abusers.

"We want the offenders to understand and take responsibility for the offense, and for how they got to this point in their lives," Maas said. "Then they need to figure out how to move on."

Maas declined to talk about Opheim specifically, but said he expects MSOP patients will succeed because they have had so much therapy and screening before their discharge.

"Despite some heinous crimes in their past, these guys should be far better prepared to reenter the community safely" than many other felons, Maas said.

Opheim's mentor, a former sex offender named Tommy who asked that his surname not be used, agreed:

"Clarence is ready for [Pathfinder]. But when he comes out, he's starting on goal one like everybody else. It's no easy path."

Some who emerge from the MSOP and enter community treatment may never live independently. Even those who eventually emerge from the program will carry the weight of their offenses for the rest of their lives, Maas said.

"As best you can, you take responsibility for all of it -- your offenses, the impact on yourself and others and how you got here, and without playing the role of a victim yourself,'' he said. "I tell the people in this program that I want them to learn to live honorably in a system that will not treat them with honor."

Librarian Sandy Date contributed to this story. Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253