A complex question steamrolled by hysteria


Panic about Larry Murphy masks the reality that rapists walk among us all the time, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

RECENTLY, AT the West Belfast festival, I took part in a Questions and Answers-style public forum. A woman whose daughter had been attacked by a sexual predator asked a question about the right of communities to be told about convicted sex offenders living in their midst.

Naomi Long, the very impressive Alliance MP for East Belfast, argued cogently (and in the circumstances quite bravely) that, unless sex offenders are to be locked up for life, they will eventually end up in the community. It is much less dangerous if they are supervised in a calm and dignified way, without the hysteria that follows public disclosure and forces them underground. Ian Paisley jnr argued, equally cogently, that a democracy could not deny parents the right to information that they believe they need in order to protect their children.

I agreed entirely with Naomi Long while she was speaking and almost equally with Ian Paisley. As it happened, time ran out before I could respond. This saved me from giving a stupid but honest answer: that I am against disclosure in every case except when the offender is living near me or my family.

It so happens that I have teenage nieces living in Baltinglass, where Larry Murphy lived. I can’t convince myself that they or their parents don’t have the right to know where he is. A man who is so incapable of compassion that he can plot the kidnap, humiliation, violation and murder of a fellow human being does not become less damaged or less dangerous after a decade in jail. I know that the evidence suggests that sex offenders are actually less likely to be charged with a repeat offence than other criminals. But I also know that many sex offenders are cunning, manipulative and often very good at not getting caught. And, given the very low rate of convictions for sex offences, how likely is an offender to be caught twice?

On the other hand, it is sadly naive to think that people – or at least all people – can be trusted with knowledge. Many will indeed use information about the whereabouts of a man like Murphy as a source of reassurance and calm. But others will use it stupidly, to set themselves up as swaggering avengers. And the stupid people have powerful allies in the tabloid press who warm their hands on the flames of hysterical cant. Many of us may have laughed bitterly a few years ago when, in the midst of one wave of moral panic about paedophiles, an English mob attacked the office of a paediatrician. We’ve now descended into that same idiocy.

The worst thing about this hysteria is that it steamrolls the genuine ambiguity of what is, in truth, a fiendishly difficult question. The issue is so difficult because it works a bit like the laws of physics. In physics, one set of laws works very well for the large scale of the universe and one works very well for the tiny scale of sub-atomic particles. But the two sets of laws don’t work together and sometimes they are actually in conflict. So it is with sex offenders. There’s a law for the large scale of things – anonymity helps offenders to reintegrate into society in the safest way. And there’s a law for the small scale – I want to know if a rapist is living next door. Each law is perfectly rational but they don’t work together.

As well as doing violence to this genuine complexity, the hysteria also profoundly misleads people about the real threat of sex crimes. The panic about the idea of rapists living among us masks the uncomfortable reality that they already do. By focusing on a figure like Murphy, we give ourselves a strange kind of reassurance. If only, we imagine, we know exactly what he’s up to, we will be safe from harm.

The brutal truth is that most sex offenders are sickeningly familiar. Most children who are sexually abused are assaulted by members of their own families. In many of the cases when they are assaulted by someone outside the family, the abuse is known to others. (Read the Murphy report on the Dublin diocese for examples.) In the case of adults, the recent Rape and Justicereport shows that 39 per cent of rapes are committed by friends or acquaintances and 18 per cent by current or former partners. In all, two-thirds of victims are raped by someone they know and the most common location is the victim’s own home.

And most rapists get away with it: around a third of adult rapes are not reported and just a quarter of reported rapes result in a prosecution. Rapists and child abusers walk among us all the time. We sit beside them on the bus, say hello to them in the shops, share jokes with them at work. Larry Murphy was once one of them. Is he really more dangerous as the infamous “sex beast” than he was as a quiet member of the community?

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