Prevent Violence Against Pedophiles

    September 2000

    How Lack of Vigilance Leads to Vigilantes
    Church Times

    Paedophilia has returned to prominence, prompted by the long hunt for Sarah Payne, and now for her murderer. Emotions are naturally high. At such times, the desire to see the perpetrator caught and punished can override the plodding thoroughness of a police investigation, leading to an outbreak of vigilantism and the possibility of serious error. In this instance, things have been made easier by the News of the World. Those who wish to take the law into their own hands need not wait for the Sussex police to find Sarah's attacker: the paper has provided them with the photographs and personal details of 49 convicted paedophiles. Predictably, a few hours after publication, large crowds gathered outside the house of an innocent man in Manchester who resembled one of those depicted.

    The incidence of violence against ex-offenders of any kind is evidence of a worrying lack of confidence in the judicial system. The tabloid-broadsheet split on the "naming and shaming" exercise suggests that the traditional working-class suspicion of the police and the courts persists, and with this goes the conviction that communities must protect themselves.

    Unfortunately, there is truth in this charge. The working of the Sex Offenders Register, started in 1997, depends in part on the police alerting responsible members of a community i.e. the social services, the priest, local school heads when a convicted sex-offender moves into their area. None of these people need act on the information, and the impression given to ordinary parents is one of cover-up, privilege and complicity. Last week's revelation that the new Archbishop of Westminster had quietly moved a known offender into another job supports this view. Even the guidelines to churches about accepting a convicted paedophile into the congregation, issued by the BSR in July last year, worked on the assumption that not everyone needed to be told. Yet events this week show that presumed under-reaction by those included in the loop can provoke an over-reaction from those kept out of it.

    The answer is more information, not less. Much of the popular over-reaction is based on fear, not fact. Yes, the repetitive, addictive nature of paedophilia needs to be stressed, but also the true incidence of re-offending. (Even the NoW figures suggest that one third of those convicted do not re-offend. Do we know why not?) Child-protection measures in our institutions, including churches, must be tightened up, however regrettable the consequences in terms of suspicion and restrictions. And all must be set in the context of a much more generous but also a more mature approach to rehabilitation.

    Reprinted with permission from the August 18 issue of the Church Times.

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