Friday 30 September 2016

Protecting children from abusers must be State's priority

Denis Naughton

Published 08/10/2015 | 02:30

Sarah Payne was abducted and murdered by a convicted sex offender
Sarah Payne was abducted and murdered by a convicted sex offender

The publication by the Government of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 is a very welcome move to modernise and strengthen the law which is aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation, child pornography and online grooming.

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In particular, I welcome the provision to address the gender anomaly in the law on incest, which will bring into force a Private Member's Bill that I moved and which was accepted by Dáil Éireann in 2014.

Another significant measure is the introduction of new provisions on the purchase of sexual services from a trafficked person.

However, I'm deeply disappointed that additional powers have not been given to the gardaí for post-release supervision and monitoring of sex offenders, including electronic tagging, or, for the disclosure of information under certain circumstances, relating to an offender on the sex offenders' register.

Many parents will agree with my view on the lost opportunity in this new law, but, in my view, for the wrong reason.

Parents' disappointment is based on the fear of 'stranger danger' - the fear that someone could abduct and assault a vulnerable child.

However, the reality is that the majority of such offences are not carried out by a stranger but by someone who has already built up trust with a child or, in many cases, with the whole family.

Research on sexual abuse of children in Ireland shows that of the children who reported sexual violence, less than one in 10 of reported incidents involved strangers.

The research showed that about one in three involved close family members: in other words six out 10 involved someone other than a close family member.

The vast majority of these abusers, some 60pc or more, are known to the child.

And often the offender has built up a relationship through grooming - not just grooming of the child, but in some cases of the parents as well, by accessing the family circle of trust, including friends, neighbours and new partners.

The Government accepted my Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill two years ago.

The focus of that proposed law was to allow gardaí to disclose relevant and appropriate information on high-risk sex offenders to the parents of children and vulnerable adults if they believe that a child is at risk.

Those against this law say that it will undermine the human rights of individuals.

But we must remember that the human rights of innocent children have to be protected as well.

The Government planned to incorporate the provisions of my law in the new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015.

But sadly, all measures on the monitoring of sex offenders after their release were excluded on the Bill's publication.

I believe that the introduction of a law that allows for disclosure in limited circumstances will change the public attitude to reporting suspicious activity.

This will ensure that such suspicious activity is brought to the attention of the gardaí, thereby in some cases leading to further measures to protect children or prosecutions for breaches of sex offenders' release conditions.

The system is modelled on Sarah's Law, which operates in the UK through the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme.

Sarah's Law is so named after eight-year-old Sarah Payne, who was abducted and murdered in the UK in 2000 by a convicted sex offender.

While the law in the UK led to a limited number of disclosures, it did lead to some action being taken by authorities to protect children in over one-third of cases.

Surely, this is justification enough that we need to protect the vulnerable, not just the violators?

Independent TD Denis Naughten's Child Sex Offenders (Information And Monitoring) Bill 2012 was accepted by Government in October 2013 and is presently awaiting Committee Stage approval by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence & Equality

Irish Independent

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