Belfast Telegraph

Sarah's Law is no panacea for scourge of paedophilia

David Ford is right to resist calls to introduce the child abuse legislation here. It's a populist measure and deeply flawed in nature. The old traditions of vigilance and rehabilitation would serve our children better, writes Suzanne Breen.

Innocence lost: Schoolgirl Sarah Payne was abducted and murdered by Roy Whiting
Innocence lost: Schoolgirl Sarah Payne was abducted and murdered by Roy Whiting
82-year-old John Nolan leaves Downpatrick Court after pleading guilty to historical child sex abuse charges

Just look at the photo of Sarah Payne, bright-eyed and innocent in her red gingham dress and school sweater, and it's almost impossible to argue against the law named after her being introduced here.

Sarah's Law, which allows parents to find out if any adult in contact with their child has a record of sexual abuse, operates in every part of the UK bar Northern Ireland.

Eight-year-old Sarah was playing in a cornfield in Sussex when she was abducted and murdered by convicted paedophile Roy Whiting. That happened 15 years ago but, as the mother of two young daughters, it still haunts me today.

Sarah is every parent's worst nightmare. The lost child. We've all turned around in the park or supermarket to see the space where seconds earlier our child had occupied. It's a feeling of pure panic and terror - that some monster has snatched the most precious person in your life and nothing will ever be the same again.

Any law which would save another child from Sarah's fate is surely a no-brainer. Yet our Justice Minister, David Ford (below), is against introducing the legislation here. He fears it could lead to vigilante-type attacks.

That hasn't happened in Britain but then they don't have paramilitaries. Some people say sex offenders deserve all they get. Let loyalists burn them on top of bonfires. So what if dissident republicans blast them to death? Nobody cares about these vile creatures.

But Sarah's Law allows information to be given not just on those convicted of a sexual offence, but those against whom unproven allegations have been made. So a man who was the victim of a malicious lie could be named as a suspected rapist.

Another danger is that the sex offender register lists a 16-year-old, who had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend and who poses no threat to children, beside a predatory paedophile.

And we aren't a society famed for making subtle distinctions. Remember the Rev David Templeton, a Presbyterian minister, beaten to death by the UVF in 1997 for nothing other than being stopped at customs with a gay porn video?

But I've misgivings about Sarah's Law for reasons other than the risk of rough justice. It can give parents a false sense of security. Offenders who have never been caught (as most haven't) will get a clean bill of health. And if police say someone you suspected is 'safe' then you could fatally ignore your own intuition.

More importantly, Sarah's Law just feeds our mistaken prejudices about child abusers. Usually, we're wary of the wrong people. A mother checks if her new boyfriend poses any danger to her kids. But she never considers the risks that the children's father, uncles, or grandfathers might present.

Every statistic in the book shows that stranger danger isn't the greatest threat to our youngsters who are most at risk from their own parents and blood relations. Under Sarah's Law I foresee a flood of requests for information about the sad, lonely bachelor who lives in the most run-down house in the neighbourhood.

But no questions about the likes of John Nolan, a former director of the Ulster Museum, with his sharp suits and Malone Road mansion. Last year, he was convicted of a string of historic sex abuse crimes which began when his victim was seven.

And Sarah's Law offers no protection against the rapidly growing legion of paedophiles on social networking sites. Parents don't even know their kids are chatting to these guys. And the police certainly aren't on top of this scourge.

It's been left to online vigilantes, like the team 'Dark Justice'. Their actions led to the conviction of Roger Lee in January. Lee, who previously got a 12-year-old pregnant, thought he was chatting online to a teenager called Rebecca.

But when he arrived to meet her on Newcastle's Millennium Bridge, he was greeted by paedophile hunters with a video camera. 'Dark Justice' have secured seven arrests in four months. Such sting operations must be part of the future fight against paedophilia.

I'm sure they'll be queuing to give David Ford a political kicking at Stormont for opposing Sarah's Law. But this legislation is just an easy way for politicians to look tough on sex crime. To be seen to be doing something.

The scheme's name shouldn't guilt-trip us into supporting it. Bizarrely, it wouldn't have saved Sarah's life anyway. Her parents couldn't have asked police for information about Roy Whiting who lived hundreds of miles away and whom they didn't know.

What we need most at Stormont, and in society generally, is an open, honest debate about paedophilia. That mightn't be a vote-winner but it would be of lasting value. The judiciary must be held to account for the woefully inadequate sentences handed out for child abuse. There is a perception that children are valued less than property by the courts.

Those guilty of the most heinous acts, like Roy Whiting, should never be freed from jail. That he served only two years for abducting another eight-year-old girl, before he killed Sarah, is a damning indictment of judicial failures.

Most paedophiles are in denial. I wouldn't let even low-risk offenders out the gate unless they admitted their crime and genuinely committed to treatment programmes to change.

Yet much as we want to, we can't lock up all sex offenders forever - that's practically and financially impossible. So what should we do with them? How well does therapy work? We need to hear hard evidence from the experts.

The common view is that reoffending is inevitable. Yet statistics don't bear that out. Studies put general sex reoffending rates at around 16%. Females' sex reoffending rate is minuscule. And statistics show that men who abuse boys are over twice as likely to reoffend than those abusing girls.

Our gut instinct is to be repulsed by sex offenders. As a journalist, I've met paramilitaries involved in brutal killings, armed robbers, and those engaged in all sorts of crime.

Regardless of my views on what they've done, I've never had a problem relating to them as people. But it turns my stomach to set eyes on even the most low risk sex offender, let alone speak to him.

Yet the conundrum is that the sex offender most likely to reoffend is the one driven underground and isolated from society. That's not an argument for protecting perverts' rights, it's a cold fact.

I don't know the answers but I do know it's time we held our noses and dealt comprehensively with this issue. Because hysteria, ranting, or opting for gimmicks, does nothing to enhance child safety.

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