Paedophilia: is name and shame the best solution?
Proposed legislation would open up the sex-offenders register. But experience in the US and the UK, which have enacted Megan’s Law and Sarah’s Law, suggests doing so may bring other problems and do little to curb child sexual abuse
Deterrent?: under Megan’s Law, US towns can put up signs about sex offenders. Photograph: Dith Pran/New York Times
Sarah’s Law: the UK legislation was prompted by the murder of Sarah Payne, a memorial plaque for whom was put up near where her body was found. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty
In Germany paedophiles can volunteer to be castrated. In the US their faces and personal details are disclosed on official websites, and towns signpost “pedophile free zones”. Protecting children from “stranger danger” has never been as political and, some argue, hysterical.
Here, new legislation on the existing sex-offenders register will be introduced by the end of the month, according to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. But he hasn’t yet said if he supports the principle behind the Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill, legislation proposed by the Independent TD Denis Naughten, which would give parents, schools and clubs access to the register. (What currently exists is a list of convicted sex offenders, people given certificates, either by the courts or by the Irish Prison Service, that require them to tell the Garda where they live. It is not officially called a sex-offenders register, but it is informally referred to as such.)
“I started working on the Bill a year and a half ago, when a garda who manages the sex-offenders register in my area told me he wanted to caution parents and the law did not permit that,” Naughten says.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties oppose public access to the personal details of the 1,303 sex offenders on the list. The trust warns that naming and shaming drives sex offenders underground and enables vigilantes.
“There’s a hysteria about child protection, and it is understandable, but the reality is that most sexual abuse is in families and danger from strangers is very limited,” says Liam Herrick, executive director of the trust.
“We need to empower and strengthen the police, improve their systems, give more resources to the Garda vetting office and leave it to the Garda and the Probation Service rather than putting members of the public in that position, giving a false sense of security,” he says.
Rape Crisis Network Ireland supports an Irish version of Sarah’s Law, which established the UK’s child sex offender disclosure scheme (see panel, right). The 2001 Act is outdated, according to Caroline Counihan, the network’s legal director. “The public don’t have confidence at the moment, which is why they are calling for a Megan’s Law,” she says, referring to the US legislation that allows information about sex offenders, including their photographs and addresses, to be published online (see panel). “We are trusting the sex offender to follow the guidelines and report to the local Garda, and it’s a misplaced trust. These are not trustworthy people.”