TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, Dale Bickerstaff did a horrible thing. He was strung out on crack, so he's sketchy on the details. But he admits he had sex with a female acquaintance whose apartment he broke into, with a friend, to steal a TV.

Bickerstaff maintains that the sex he had with the acquaintance, who was at home, was consensual. The victim and the court disagreed, and he went to jail in 1985 for rape. He was released from prison in 2001 eager for a fresh start.

But a fresh start, he has learned, is often impossible once potential employers learn that you've been imprisoned for a sex crime.

"They say, 'You can't work here; you're a rapist,' " says Bickerstaff, 52, who was recently offered good custodial jobs by two employers — including the Philadelphia International Airport — that then canceled the offers once his long-ago conviction came to light. "No one takes the time to know you. They see you on the Internet [sex-offender registry] and they slam the door."

I won't lie. When Bickerstaff asked me to tell his story, I flinched. What employer in his right mind, I wondered, would knowingly hire a convicted rapist? If something terrible happened, the employer would be held liable for a negligent hiring. And I can't imagine many employees would happily work alongside Bickerstaff once they learned of his past.

Then again, the rape was in 1985, Bickerstaff did his time, and he hasn't had a single infraction since leaving prison 12 years ago. So he has more than paid his debt to society.

He has also married a good woman whose five grown children and grandchildren have provided him a level of stability and support he says he has never known.

What more does he need to convince an employer that he's worth a chance?

"Honestly, there's no easy answer," says William Hart, director of the city's Re-Integration Services for Ex-offenders (RISE). The program helps newly released inmates who are most likely to re-offend (overwhelmingly, young men) find community and social supports to prevent them from re-terrorizing the public.

But RISE doesn't work with either sex offenders or arsonists because the program hasn't the professional staff to deal with clinical issues specific to those offenders. Still, Hart believes that Bickerstaff's conviction, as time goes on, will play less and less a role in his employment.

Megan Dade, director of the Pennsylvania Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, is not so sure.

"The problem is that many people still believe that 'once a sex offender, always a sex offender,' even though new research shows that for many people that is just not the case," says Dade, whose board evaluates sex offenders for the courts.

Her organization is working to refine the state's classification of sex offenders to distinguish those likely to re-offend from those who probably won't. But she knows that, no matter the classification, sex offenders face huge employment hurdles.

"It's not easy for any former inmate to find work, especially in this economy," she says. "For a sex offender, it's doubly hard."

Ironically, Bickerstaff hasn't had much trouble finding employment since 2001. But keeping it has been an issue.

For example, his neighborhood church, whose leaders knew of his past, hired him as a custodian after his release from prison, and he held the job for nearly five years. A new pastor, though, terminated Bickerstaff after finding his name on a sex-offender registry.

He then got hired as a custodian at the Marriott, but had to leave once his record became known there. Still, good reviews from his boss landed him work with CleanTech, a company that provides custodial services to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and 30th Street Station.

"He was reliable and dependable," says Marian Stroup, Bickerstaff's former boss at the museum.

When Bickerstaff's record became known to some employees, who balked, CleanTech moved him to a supervisory position at 30th Street, where he was known as a strict and meticulous boss.

After a run-in with a higher-up, he says he was wrongfully terminated from CleanTech, accepted a settlement and has been looking for work ever since. In every case in which he's gotten close to being hired, he says, his long-ago conviction became a deal-breaker for employers.

"People see you on the Internet, they think you're a child molester," he says. "I never touched a child. I had one incident, with a woman who was older than me. I wish I could take it back. I can't. I did my time. How long do I have to pay for a mistake I did so long ago?" n

Contact Call 215-854-2217. Blog: Twitter: @RonniePhilly.