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 The 2001 Act is outdated, according to Caroline Counihan, the network's legal director.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."
There is no evidence that Megan’s Law has worked, Counihan adds, but she supports Sarah’s Law, although “urges caution”. Parents, guardians and other people in charge of children should have access, but a publicly available list could give a “false sense of security” and distract the public from the many urgent reforms required to protect children.
For example, she says, "sentencing is too lenient. For a crime so grave, custodial sentences should be mandatory and open-ended. Child sex offenders should not be released unless they show remorse and are low risk. As a parent, I absolutely do not believe a high-risk offender should be released. If someone has sexually abused a child, they have taken away their own rights to liberty."
“The sex-offenders list is not a deterrent for sex offenders; prison is not a deterrent,” says a psychologist who has worked in the prison service’s voluntary rehabilitation programme for sex offenders. (Prison psychologists are prevented from speaking on the record.)
“You can follow these guys around, but the very nature of these crimes is that they are very underground and not opportunistic,” he says. “The sexual abuse of a child is very well planned. Young people are targeted and groomed over a long period of time. There is no cure or treatment for sex offenders. A very, very tiny proportion of offenders admit their crime and feel remorse.”
Sarah’s Law can also backfire. Offenders can be kept out of prison if information is divulged while the accused is awaiting trial, warns Counihan. “While it’s a travesty of justice, our justice system favours the defence.” Only 3 per cent of child-sex-abuse cases reported to Garda result in convictions.
Fiona Neary, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland , says: "The convicted sex offender is generally recognised in your community, Ireland being a small place, and may not be the risk. It may be the pillar of your community that is the most risk: the lovely charming family guy who is sexually abusing right under your nose. I understand why people want a Megan's Law or a Sarah's Law.
“We all want quick fixes when it comes to the sexual abuse and rape of children, and we’re appalled by what happened in Athlone [where two girls were lured from a birthday party to a stranger’s house and allegedly raped].”
But, Neary adds, that incident would not have been prevented by public access to a sex-offenders register.
“Even if you brought in the harshest version of a sex-offenders register, such as Megan’s Law, it would not protect children from the majority of sex offenders, because so few offences are reported and so few end in convictions . . .
“When you are chasing around after quick fixes, you are not managing the problem itself. Decades of governments have made noises, and we are still not doing enough. Children will be abused this weekend, next weekend, because we are not doing enough: fact.”
What would result in more detection would be better services for survivors, so that children and their parents would know they would get support when they came forward to disclose abuse, Neary says. "The urgent question is how can we increase cases coming before the courts," says Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Cari, a charity offering therapy and support to children affected by abuse. Although Flaherty supports a Sarah's Law, she says sex offenders will not be convicted in the first place unless detection is improved.
The lack of a national counselling service for child victims, and the six-month waiting list at Cari, which is based in Limerick and Dublin, means that by the time a child is seen, he or she may no longer have the will to talk about it, Flaherty says. The courts system needs to be child-friendly.
“When a case takes three years, that’s half a child’s life,” she adds. The families of offenders also need support.
“I don’t want to dismiss the sex-offenders register. From what I have heard, it has led the Garda to closely monitor predators, and I think Naughten’s Bill is good,” says Majella Ryan, a psychotherapist, who is clinical director of Cari.
“Lone parents and childminders can check the register, but the most effective solution would be for us to be more open in talking about child sexual abuse and building resiliency skills and self-esteem in children, so that they will tell us if they are sexually abused.”
But despite the shortcomings of such legislation, Counihan says, “If it helps one child, it’s worth the whole thing.”
If your child has been affected by child sexual abuse and you would like to raise issues addressed in this article, contact in confidence firstname.lastname@example.org