A former child psychiatrist who was felled by his lust for child pornography and spent time in federal prison is seeking forgiveness from those he betrayed — and a second chance.
And some of the most respected mental-health professionals in the area are rallying behind Dr. James H. Peak, suggesting that the man who served the medical community for nearly two decades deserves redemption.
Peak has petitioned the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for reinstatement of his medical license. A decision may come as soon as September.
“He has struggled with accepting the humiliation of public disclosure, but mostly with the fact that he has let his patients down,” said Michael J. Ramirez, clinical coordinator for the Montana Professional Assistance Program. “I believe that his remorse is genuine and heartfelt. He has paid his debt to society.”
Peak, 51, served just under 10 months in a Seattle federal prison after pleading guilty in August 2011 to possessing child pornography. He had been a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Billings Clinic, the state’s largest hospital, since 1994.
Since his release from prison, Peak has been working to restore not only his medical license but also his reputation and the trust he lost when his double life was exposed.
He is volunteering 20 hours a week at the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center in Billings, where he is helping update policies and procedures. He has no contact with patients.
As conditions of his probation and his treatment from the state Professional Assistance Program, Peak attends two 12-step programs, one for sex addicts and one for alcoholics. He regularly sees a psychiatrist and a social worker and participates in group therapy. And he attends a peer support group, which includes other licensed medical professionals. He also participates weekly in the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Program.
The court has restricted his contact with children and his use of computers. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender and is subject to random urinalysis and polygraph tests.
Along with the support of the Professional Assistance Program, Peak also has the loyal support of his wife, who is a prominent Billings physician, and their teenage daughter, said Ramirez, the program’s coordinator. Peak’s wife declined to be interviewed for this story.
The assistance program is funded by medical licensing fees and helps physicians and dentists whose practices have been jeopardized by sexual misconduct, substance abuse, psychiatric illness or other issues.
Ramirez said 90 percent of medical professionals who work with MPAP successfully return to practice.
He has been working with Peak since Peak’s arrest in February 2011.
“This man has been to hell and back,” Ramirez said, recalling one of their first meetings when Peak lay in the fetal position on his office floor.
“He is an example of courage, resilience, compassion and strength that will serve him, his future colleagues and patients well,” Ramirez said. “The best disinfectant is sunlight. … He doesn’t have anything to hide. Not anymore.”
Top of the world
From the outside, Peak seemed to have it all. He had a thriving practice serving troubled young patients. Even after his arrest, the parents of several of his patients praised his work, some even saying that Peak’s therapy may have saved their child’s life.
But Peak was battling an escalating addiction to child pornography that he said stretched back 30 years. As early as his own adolescence, he said he recalls being sexually attracted to young boys.
That attraction, he insists, never reached beyond fantasy and child pornography. He said he’s only had sexual relations with two women, all the while knowing something about him was “off.”
“I knew there was something wrong with me,” he said. “And I knew I could never tell anyone.”
He said he was mostly able to keep his inappropriate desires in check until the advent of the Internet, where pornography is more accessible and abundant. After viewing the child pornography he collected, he said he would despise himself, sometimes to the point of throwing away his computer.
He’d then be fine for a three or four months, he said, before caving in again.
Investigators say they found no evidence that Peak ever viewed pornography at work, and polygraph results confirm his insistence that he never touched a child inappropriately.
“I felt the powerful paradox of being a really good doctor, wanting to help people — and wanting to protect children — and this darker part of me that I tried to keep walled off,” Peak said.
“It was incredibly painful to discover that I was utilizing pornography that took advantage of children,” he said. “To become the thing I didn’t want to be was extraordinarily painful.”
His secret life began to unravel when a pornographic advertisement featuring little boys arrived in his mailbox. He contacted an FBI agent he knew about the ad and was told to contact a U.S. postal inspector.
The ad, it turns out, was part of a federal investigation. Peak’s illicit Internet activities had apparently come to the attention of federal authorities.
When he was later confronted by authorities, he consented to a search of his home and, according to court testimony, was “extremely helpful” in collecting and identifying evidence, including credit card statements confirming his purchases of child pornography.
“I’d like to say I turned myself in,” Peak said. “I didn’t do that. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I had to get forced into it.”
Peak, who said he was once suicidal, sees that initial call to the FBI as a cry for help. Deep down, he wanted to be caught.
“I was miserable,” Peak said. “I couldn’t go on like this. I was drinking a lot. I was an alcoholic. I was trying to medicate the pain of this illness.”
The most difficult part of his conviction was not the nine months and 18 days he spent in prison, he said. It was all the people he let down. He had patients he cared about and had fostered relationships of trust with.
Then, one day he was gone. Literally.
“I fell off the face of the earth,” he said. “I can never apologize for that enough. I feel bad about that every day.”
Many of his young patients were in need of therapy because they had been betrayed by adults. He struggles with whether he, too, has become another adult who let them down.
“When I’m in a bad mood, when I’m in my bad place, I become another one of those people, which is very difficult,” he said.
The road back
Peak realizes he will never be able to work with children again, but said he still has much to contribute as a practicing psychiatrist.
Other mental-health professionals agree, including Barbara Mettler, executive director of the Mental Health Center, where Peak is volunteering to update policies.
“We are a mental-health center,” Mettler emphasized. “We believe that with help, people can recover and get better. If we don’t provide opportunities for people to do that, who’s going to? I implicitly believe him when he says he has never touched a child. I think that’s worth giving this man a chance.”
Another advocate and mentor is Dr. Thomas Van Dyk, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Mental Health Center who encouraged Peak’s volunteer work there.
Van Dyk has known Peak for 18 years and said that with the exception of his prison term, he has met with him every week since his arrest. He describes Peak as an “excellent” psychiatrist and hopes he can eventually join the staff at the Mental Health Center.
“I’m proud of him for coming forward and working to get himself back in order,” Van Dyk said.
Before entering federal prison in Seattle, Peak was referred for a comprehensive psychosexual evaluation and treatment at a Texas facility that specializes in treating health care professionals. Reports from his treatment team indicated that he was a model patient and extremely motivated for change.
Michael D. Sullivan is director of the Billings-based South Central Treatment Associates, which specializes in the evaluation and treatment of juvenile and adult sex offenders and victims. He said that while there is no one-size-fits-all treatment, sex offenders can be rehabilitated. Much depends on the nature of the individual’s problem, he said.
The success of rehabilitation depends on several factors that include the makeup of an individual’s personality, his or her adaptive skills, the nature of the problem, and what he has done in terms of getting treatment.
“There are a lot of offenders deemed low-risk who are treatable and go on to lead productive lives,” Sullivan said.
Research also shows that the rates of recidivism for online offenders are relatively low when compared with average rates of recidivism found for hands-on sexual offenders.
As Peak awaits a decision on the reinstatement of his license, he is aware he has critics. None will be harsher on him than he is on himself.
“Jim Peak is having a difficult time forgiving Jim Peak,” MPAP’s Ramirez said. “That’s the hardest lesson, and it’s taking some time.”