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How Should We Keep Our Children Safe from Abuse?

The Irish Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002 by Marie Keenan

Hounding convicted sex offenders out of their homes is not the answer to protecting children against possible sex abuse, argues psychotherapist Marie Keenan Many children aresuffering severely for the sins of their fathers, largely becausewe as a society do not know what to do

To look at ways of keeping children safe against the risk of sexual abuse, some statistics must be borne in mind. More than 85 men have been released from Irish prisons this year having served sentences for sexual offending. At the same time, more than 390 men remain in Irish prisons for these offences.

Given that many studies indicate that less than 10 per cent of all sexual offences are reported, and an even smaller number of these cases result in a sexual conviction, we have a considerable number of sexual offenders living among us, some known, many more unknown, and it is no mean task trying to put all children beyond risk.

Some of these men have volunteered for help. Many still have not. Turning our attention solely to one particular known offender and demanding that he wouldn't live in my particular area, understandable as this position might be, may not be the best way to go about protecting children.

In saying this, I am not criticising the mostly women and some men who demonstrated this week outside the Dublin apartment where it was believed Father Ivan Payne had been staying since his release from prison last month. Neither am I condoning their behaviour.

I see this protest as a statement on behalf of these people that they want their children safe. I suppose the protest was the only way this community felt their concerns could be heard. This is such a pity.

This story is being mirrored around the country with alarming regularity. A distraught 11-year-old child whose uncle had committed sexual offences was recently demeaned by an adult who ought to have known better, as being one of the "paedo families". In another case, the car of an elderly woman was sprayed with paint and a protest organised outside her home. Her crime? Her son has a sexual conviction. In another instance, the sister of a sex offender is so terrified that she brings her children to school 15 minutes late and collects them 15 minutes early, because she cannot face the intimidation that greets her.

And are children made safer by all of this behaviour? I would argue that, on the contrary, many, many children and innocent people are suffering severely for the sins of their fathers, largely because we as a society do not know what to do. In the meantime we target individuals and tell them, in the most violent tones, to move on.

We have a habit in this country of getting rid of problems by moving them on. But when it comes to sex offenders, moving people on is extremely negligent, an act not of community but of extreme individualism. I would argue much could be done to protect children and at the same time to integrate sexual offenders back into the community:

  • All men who commit a sexual offence should be mandated into treatment by the court, and prison programmes increased to fit all types of offender.
  • Community programmes must be expanded to provide therapy for those low- and medium-risk men who do not receive custodial sentences.
  • A man, on leaving prison, should enter post-release supervision with a competent therapist in the area of sexual offending. This is beginning to happen under the 2001 Sex Offenders Act.
  • A network of family and friends who know the man's history of offending and any potential signs of relapse should be established around him. This acts as his accountability network.
  • A system could be developed to notify victims of the release from prison of the man who has abused them. Victims' questions regarding the offender's therapeutic progress in prison could be addressed. Offenders entering therapeutic programmes would consent to this procedure, as part of the accountability contract with themselves and with society.
  • Like any citizen of the State, the man would be entitled to employment on the open market, obviously not with children. Tragically this is not the case. Men with a sexual conviction find it increasingly difficult to secure employment in any sector of the economy. This is soul-destroying. The increasing of powers, as suggested by the Equality Authority and the Review Group reviewing the Equality Employment Act, to include within its remit men with a previous conviction, is to be welcomed. Currently they are severely discriminated against. On the rare occasion when such a man secures employment, sooner or later some members of the press feel entitled to "out the offender", discrediting his personhood and challenging his bona fides. Invariably the jobs are lost.
  • A man leaving prison must be entitled to live in his home with his family or friends without fear of intimidation. Community meetings could be held in certain instances, to clarify issues and respond to concerns. In the US, where Megan's Law (i.e. community notification) is enforced, the police have become front-line educators. A significant amount of police time is spent educating the public regarding sexual offending, the different levels of risk and the responses to treatment. This is seen as necessary to prevent vigilantism. Perhaps this could be an additional function of the community Garda officer. I have no doubt that treatment providers in this country would assist the Garda in this task if required. Of course, we do not have Megan's Law in this jurisdiction, so mandatory community notification is not required. However, community gardaí could have this function, not just to police the crowd when they gather, but also to facilitate community meetings where concerns can be addressed.
  • Under the terms of the 2001 Sex Offenders Act, sexual offenders are now obliged to sign the sex offenders' register, so notifying the Garda of their address and any changes to that as they occur.
  • Perhaps when we are ready as a society we could also include a restorative justice approach within our repertoire. Through this process victims, offenders, the families of both and interested parties could meet to talk, for accountability and restoration where possible. Similar processes in New Zealand, Australia and Canada appear to work extremely well in putting children beyond risk and in bringing forth some measure of healing.
  • We have got to ask ourselves what kind of a society we want to live in. I know my choice, one in which all members are cherished. It is easy to love those who never err. The challenge of our humanity is to love those who we perceive as different from us.

Marie Keenan is a lecturer at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, UCD. She is also a registered psychotherapist