New laws on sexual offences welcome but ignores monitoring of sex offenders

In Blog by Denis Naughten

kids painting (3)The publication by 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.

In particular I welcome the provision to address the gender anomaly in the law on incest, which will bring into force a Private Members Bill that I had accepted by Dáil Eireann in 2014.

Another significant measure is the introduction of new provisions on the purchase of sexual services, which builds on the provision which I had accepted by Government in 2008 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 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 someone who has already built up trust with a child or indeed 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 1 in 10 of reported incidents involved strangers. Interestingly what the research showed was that about 1 in 3 involved close family members, in other words 6 out 10 involved someone other than a close family member.

The vast majority of this 60+% are known to the child and 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: friends, neighbours, new partners etc.

With that in mind I had the Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill 2012 accepted by Dáil Eireann, 2 years ago. The focus of my 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.

Government planned to incorporate the provisions of my law in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, but sadly on its publication all measures on the monitoring of sex offenders post their release were excluded.

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 8 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?
Denis Naughten’s law, the 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.