Saturday, 20 June 2009

On creating a sex offenders’ register

The main aim of creating a sex offenders’ register, such as being proposed by the Commissioner for Children, seems to be that of preventing convicted sex offenders from being employed at workplaces where children are involved. In itself, this is of course a most recommendable measure. The problem is that a sex offender’s register would not be able to attain such an objective.

Take the well-known MFA case. The employers knew that the prospective worker was a convicted sex offender, and yet they went on to employ him just the same. They even refused to send him away when the case was made public. In this case the employers were in possession of the workers’ propensity because they knew him personally. Alternatively, they could have acquired the same information from a register. This would not have prevented them from proceeding with the employment, and neither would it have obliged them to strike him off their books.

It is clear that what is needed is not a register but an edict prohibiting the employers from taking such a course of action. And only an amendment to the law to this effect can to that. A register would thus be redundant in the circumstances.

But how can an employer play safe without the existence of such a register? Normally any employer would demand a police criminal record before engaging a person at his or her workplace. This would include all serious convictions, including that of child molestation. So, again, a register is superfluous in such cases. What a register would include is already included in the criminal record.

So why create a paedophile register that is redundant in some cases and superfluous in the rest? The argument that such a register can have a preventive role does not hold water.

It must also be noted that, statistically speaking, the incidence of child abuse is not prevalent at places with regular employees. There are a thousand and one other places that are frequented by children, and here no register can protect them from sexual abuse. The same goes for households and family environments.

Having said this, it must seem evident that, first, a paedophile register emphasises one type of child abuse perhaps at the detriment of others. Most children are not victims of sexual abuse, but more of emotional, psychological and/or physical abuse. By highlighting only sexual abuse, the register may demote into the background these other types of abuse that are as serious, if sometimes not more, than the sexual type. This shift in emphasis does not serve children or society well.

Secondly, a paedophile register may act as a blanket proscription for convicted child offenders. I hope it is agreed that such persons should not be reduced to living a life of outcasts. We agree, I trust, that, though they should be prevented from having jobs that bring them in contact with children, they should not be prevented from exercising any other civil right as any other citizen.

Finally, I submit that such a register displaces the focal point of intervention in relation to convicted paedophiles. Save for the employment aspect, exclusion should not be the prevailing philosophy when dealing with such persons. On the contrary, inclusion should. But this will not be attained with the creation of a sex offenders’ register. First of all, if it be the case, convicted paedophiles should be given appropriate attention while in prison, something that is presently not done. And secondly, proper and apposite services should be made available to them to help them in their condition, provisions that, again, are practically non-existent today.

I fear that a paedophile register will create a persecution culture around convicted child sex offenders, and this is, I hope, the last thing anyone of us would want to do.

Of course, I am not against that we seriously discuss the whole matter in a mature, competent and responsible way. But already I see that such discussions do not include organisations like ours that seek to uphold the rights and dignity of convicted persons. It is important to protect children from any kind of abuse, undoubtedly. But it is equally important not to be trendy when proposing such delicate measures, and also to be cool-headed so as not to go overboard.

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