independent

Friday 18 April 2014

An idea with good intentions, but mob justice isn't the answer

In the great and ever-expanding pantheon of terrible things that people can do to each other, violating a child remains the most unforgivable.

Of course, nobody wants to get into some weird Top Trumps; a perverted Maslow's hierarchy of misdeeds to argue which crime against which person is the more heinous. But by every accepted, civilised standard, violating a child is simply off the scale.

Society's stomach is rightly turned by such acts, even if the sentencing doesn't always seem commensurate with the crime that was committed. But no matter how repulsed we are by the perpetrators, the current piece of draft legislation, which proposes to alert the public about the location of a potentially high-risk sex offender, is something we should be concerned about.

In broad terms this is legislation similar to Megan's Law, which allowed American authorities alert people to the presence of a paedophile in their midst.

And, for many, that makes perfect sense.

If you have children, your first instinct is to be vigilant and aware of any potential threat. So, following that logic, it also seems reasonable to say that if you have been convicted of a sexual crime so heinous that the authorities have marked you down as a risk, then public identification is simply the price you have to pay.

And, on top of that, authorities have been quick to reassure civil-liberties activists that this would only be done in extreme circumstances and extreme cases.

That sounds reasonable and in a rational world would probably, probably work.

But we don't live in a rational world.

You need only look at any high-profile case involving the abuse of children to see people gathering outside a police station holding placards with slogans such as: "Bring back public hanging."

That's hardly rational, even if you can't help but suspect that the people calling for executions are often doing it to tell the world just how much more they care about children than everybody else.

But even if someone just likes to chant slogans or hold daft placards to gain the approval of their peers, the reality is that publication of an offender's address will inevitably lead to cases of mob justice.

And the mob tends to get things wrong.

We famously saw that in Wales, when Dr Yvette Cloete was forced to flee her home after some locals in Gwent confused 'paediatrician' with 'paedophile'.

During the now-defunct News Of The World's campaign to name and shame child abusers, numerous innocent families were also forced to flee after a family member was incorrectly identified as a paedophile.

More recently, the 'Letz Go Hunting' vigilante group came under fire for entrapping paedophiles online and then filming them.

Which may seem fine on an instinctive level, until you realise that at least one of their 'targets' committed suicide, despite never being found guilty of any crime.

In an information age, there is no way such a list could ever be kept under complete lock and key and, as we all know, nothing brings out the flaming torch-and- pitchfork brigade quite like the prospect of giving a nonce a kicking.

Having said that, I wouldn't have much regard for those who believe in rehabilitation and seem to operate under the wilfully misguided notion that serial abusers can be 'cured' and all they need is help and corrective therapy and understanding.

This witless idea has been consistently exposed as a nonsense by American author, criminologist and former prosecutor of child sex crimes, Andrew Vachss.

He knows more than most about the realities of the issue.

Apart from dedicating his life to working as an advocate for the 'children of the secret' as he calls them, his wife, Alice, was also the chief prosecutor for Special Victims Bureau – better known to TV fans as Law And Order: Special Victims Unit.

Vachss now divides his time between his writing and working as a private advocate for kids. His unflinchingly brutal 'Burke' series is about a 'family' of abuse victims who act as avenging angels who targets abusers, and is the hardest of hard-boiled New York crime fiction.

But when talking about alerting neighbours to a paedophile in their midst, he says: "Megan's Law is just another experiment being done on everybody's children. It is saying this to the public: 'There's a beast among you, one that we politicians never should have let out. But we did. So we'll make it up to you: here's his address, and we are sure he'll never dye his hair, grow a moustache, or move without telling us.'"

As ever, Vachss nails it – forget about liberal concerns for the human right to privacy of serial abusers, the simple truth is that alerting the public to their location will inevitably lead to them vanishing in the wind, free from any supervision or constraints.

The motivation behind this idea is well intentioned – Alan Shatter has always shown a reluctance to court something as vulgar as popularity – but the law of unintended, yet inevitable consequences says that is an idea that should be quietly parked and forgotten about.

Just as importantly, Vachss stresses: "This is not something to be left to internet wackos."

Even if they do like to call themselves 'concerned citizens'...

(On an entirely unrelated note, a production error on my end in Wednesday's column saw several words randomly appear in capital letters, prompting one reader to ask why I suddenly started shouting in the middle of a sentence. My bad.)

iodoherty@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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