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NEWS | Sunday, 27 April 2008

Condemned to shame

In response to the ban on publication of the name of a former religion teacher found guilty of sending lewd SMS messages to his students, some people took the law into their own hands by a chain e-mail naming and shaming the man: but does this tactic act as an effective deterrent? By MATTHEW VELLA

“This is not a joke – make sure you read especially if you have kids”, the email implored, going on to reveal the identity and telephone number of the offender who had just been given a two-year prison sentence suspended for four years, including pictures of him. One blogger dedicated more than one entry on her blog to oust the man who pleaded guilty to soliciting sex from his underage students.
Do we want to name and shame perverts and sex offenders, when outing such individuals can lead to potential attacks on the perpetrators?
Parents feel they are justified: “what if it was my kid?” they ask themselves, demanding to know whether their children are at risk in their schools and outside their homes.
The widespread practice of the law courts so far has been to conceal identities of offenders, ostensibly to protect the identity of minors or victims who are family members. Still, the general public bays for blood, and asks whether real justice is being meted out to sex offenders.
What is disquieting in the case of the religion teacher is that the man enjoyed a position of trust which he abused. His suspended sentence effectively sets him “free”.
But to this the general public has responded by taking the law in their hands, outing him with pictures he himself pasted on his Facebook profile (which has since been removed). His supposed freedom now looks little more than a free pass into hell: it is a sentencing to public humiliation via the most sophisticated grapevine ever, the Internet.
Court bans on the publication of identities are difficult to explain and understand. This recent outburst seems to illustrate people’s anger at the bans, and explain why they resort to the Internet to bypass the print and audiovisual media that gets straitjacketed into not publishing the names by court order.
Whether or not the ban on the teacher’s name was justified or not, this was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the arbitrariness of the justice system which angers people, because for years the courts have protected the identity of select individuals, not just sex offenders, without any clear justification.
The public has now responded by sentencing the offender to his ruination: employment opportunities will be curtailed, friendships cut off, a normal social life made horribly difficult to maintain. It serves as a general deterrent for would-be offenders.
But while naming and shaming sounds justifiable to outraged people, the enthusiastic disclosure of the former teacher’s identity can invite the possibility of vigilante attacks. Such was the case in the aftermath of the Sarah Payne murder in 2000, when the tabloid News of the World named and shamed convicted paedophiles on its front page, setting the stage for violent outbursts against their homes and property. Is this the way a responsible society should behave?
Lenient courts
The Maltese justice system opens itself up to criticism on two fronts: lax sentencing of sex offenders, and arbitrary bans on the publication of their names.
On the first charge, the general public feels cheated when sex offenders are spared proper jail time, although it also fails to understand the varying degrees of sex offences. It is one thing to own a cache of child porn; another to actually commit an abusive act on children. It is for this reason that certain offenders are spared jail: a fate that leaves paedophiles exposed to further violence inside prison, where child abusers are considered the ‘lowest of the low’ in the hierarchy of criminals.
In 2005, three out of every four arraignments for sexual harassment and corruption of minors resulted in judges meting out suspended sentences to perpetrators found guilty of abusing children as young as 10.
In nine out of 12 cases involving sexual harassment, corruption of minors, and violent and indecent assault, the Maltese justice system “let off” the accused with suspended sentences, or supervision under a probation officer. In the case of the corruption of a minor of 10, the offender was handed a two-year prison sentence suspended for four years. Another accused of violent and indecent assault on an 11-year-old got a six-month probation sentence. In the corruption of two minors aged 14 and 17, the offender was sentenced to a four-year suspended sentence under the supervision of a probation officer. Another found guilty of corrupting a 17-year-old was sentenced to three years under probation. Such sentencing seems to justify people’s umbrage.
In 2006, a Madliena man admitted to the possession of child pornography, but was given a six-month jail term suspended for a year, and fined a paltry Lm100. We are left to wonder whether the possession of child porn, which effectively condones the subjugation of children to lewd acts, should have been punished more harshly; or whether the sentence is just because the man after all did not himself commit any improper act on children.
What angers people more is the arbitrary ban on publication of this man’s identity, because in this case, the children filmed performing sex acts could not be identified anyway. It’s this arbitrariness that many find disturbing, and it informs the perception that certain people’s connections wins them protection from the courts when they shouldn’t be enjoying it.
It’s for this reason that specific guidelines or rules are needed, so that tge courts apply such bans in a regulated and uniform manner, even for the general public to understand when a ban on the identity of offenders is there to truly protect the victim’s identity.
An offenders’ register
The Nationalist Party proposed in its 2008 manifesto to set up a sexual offenders and paedophile register that would only be accessible to law enforcement officials and official institutions. It’s a measure that can go same way towards reassuring parents that no convicted sex offenders are working with their children.
In America, the government gives the public access to its register. The UK government has resisted such a move, saying the risk to the public is increased if public attention forces offenders underground.
But critics argue that since paedophiles often target victims in their own family, the victims do not report their abusers for fear of shame if their names are broadcast: which is why the protection of their identity is sought in court cases.
That’s the kind of shame that those who so vaingloriously name sex offenders know nothing about.

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