Sunday, September 18, 2011

IRELAND - Child law must keep vigilantes off streets

Original Article


But under the new bill who will be able to decide on identifying a released sex offender, asks Emer O'Kelly

THERE is a lot of speculation about what the specific terms will be when the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter finally introduces the bill designed to protect children. Mr Shatter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald are talking a lot; in fact, they're talking so much that one has the nasty suspicion that there may be a lot of indecision within their departments, and possibly even a disinclination at Cabinet, to grasp the nettle.

Last week it emerged that maybe there will be a provision for gardai to inform parents when a convicted child molester moves into their neighbourhood. The department said that it's planned that "legitimate interests should receive appropriate information and if there is a danger to the public, the gardai should be able to make the identity of the sex offender known".

Except who decides the definition of a "legitimate interest?" As things stand, according to the Sex Offenders Act of 2001, the people subject to its requirements (ie those registered as sex offenders) are not subject to being identified because of the provisions of the Data Protection Act. Which seems to make the whole thing a bit pointless.

So what will constitute a "legitimate interest" in Mr Shatter's new legislation? One imagines that most parents will consider themselves as having one. And if the legislation disagrees, it's easy to imagine an immediate constitutional challenge which could go on for years, to the detriment and damage of children it's designed to protect.

Minister Fitzgerald was last week "shocked" by the audits of child protection services, when it emerged through the annual report of One in Four that only 10 per cent of the cases of historic suspected/ alleged abuse that they reported to the HSE had been investigated. Minister Fitzgerald may have been "shocked." She can hardly have been surprised; the rest of us have had a fair idea for years.

You have only to look at the weak-kneed terms provided by the State for "Citizens' Information" concerning the monitoring of convicted sex offenders under the 2001 Act. They're so hedged with conditions that they read as a charter that's dependent on honour and responsible behaviour . . . by sex offenders.

Nor is Mr Shatter helping us to trust his determination to improve things. He said recently that the issue of the "seal of the Confessional" as to mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of children is a "red herring". But it was he who first introduced it a number of months ago. Just as his department has said that the new legislation will put on a "statutory basis" the requirement for the gardai to make known the identity of a released sex offender "if there is a danger to the public". Who decides? Will the legislation spell it out, or will it be left to an individual garda superintendent to make the ghastly decision as to publish the criminal's presence and identity, and then, having decided against in order to protect public order, have to live with the horror if the rapist goes on to repeat his earlier crime, particularly if it is the rape of a child? Because there have been many international incidents where even the psychological services have declared a sex criminal to be no longer dangerous, only to have him go on to commit hideous crimes.

Many lobby groups believe that publishing addresses and names of released child-molesters and other sex offenders could be counter-productive, and serve only to drive offenders underground.

But not if we ensure under legislation that even convicted child rapists, once they leave jail, are given adequate protection under law; a law that has priorities. The safety of children must come first. But driving a criminal to desperation isn't going to protect our children; probably the opposite.

The way we justify limiting the rights of the convicted sex criminal is by keeping the lid on the lunatics with the burning torches. If we turn a blind eye to vigilantism because "we can understand how parents feel", there is damn all difference between our society and that of Nazi-Germany or pre-Civil Rights American southern states with their live man-hunts.
- Amen, and vigilantism in the US is a growing problem, see here and here.

We must not permit the right to protest to turn into the right to hunt someone as though he were an animal, no matter how sub-human we believe his urges to be. Primeval hatred and blood-lust is not part of loving or responsible parenthood.

Incidentally, we haven't seen baying mobs with placards threatening fire-bombs outside the homes of Catholic clergy convicted of frequently appalling crimes against children; or for that matter outside the homes of the men who protected them.

If we want to keep tabs on serious sex offenders, even for the rest of their lives -- and I favour the idea -- we have to ensure that we protect them from harm. That means 24-hour monitoring for their protection and that of potential victims. And on the other side we must outlaw, and get tough with so-called "legitimate protests" that are merely excuses for mob violence.

Last spring, the Supreme Court in Britain endorsed a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the right to privacy. Her Majesty's lordships said it meant that a sex offender can apply to be removed from the Register of Sex Offenders "if they can prove they are no longer a threat to children". The case was brought by a teen, who raped a six year old when he himself was only 11. He served 30 months. The reason he wanted his name removed from the register, it was stated in court, was so he could holiday abroad.

The Prime Minister David Cameron said in the House of Commons that he was "appalled" by the ruling, and the Home Secretary Theresa May promptly announced new restrictions on the movements of registered sex offenders. Both Mr Cameron and Ms May said it was time to make it clear who ruled Britain and it wasn't the judges. But judges merely interpret the law, in Britain as here. We need Alan Shatter to move as fast as Theresa May on legislation to protect children, now, and make sure the facilities and personnel are in place to enforce the legislation.

We don't need any more pie in the sky, and we don't need sloppy legislation that leaves gaping loopholes which will give mob violence a spurious legitimacy. Because if we do that, not merely do we lose the moral high ground which is probably quite rightly of little interest to parents who feel their children may be threatened, we also let loose a backlash of idiotic woolly thinking which prioritises the rights of perverted adult criminals over those of children.