The recent case of pedophile Dennis Ferguson raises important questions about the rights of criminals, and the rights of the rest of society. In this instance, the serial child sex offender is moved from one location to another – only to be discovered and hounded out of town.
It is the old NIMBY principle: not in my back yard. And fair enough. What parent would want a known sex offender living next door to one’s own children? I wouldn’t. Nor would most parents. So what is to be done?
Several general remarks can first be made. We live in an age which seems far too concerned about the rights of criminals, and far too little concerned about the rights of victims. The humanitarian view of justice – which I have written about before – tends to take personal responsibility away from criminals, and make excuses for criminal activity.
Also, in a democracy the rights of the majority always have to be balanced by the rights of the minority. And in a nation under the rule of law, criminals do have basic rights as well. But what about the general public? Do not innocent people have a right to be protected from repeat offenders?
In the US after several high-profile cases, action was quick in coming. In 1994 Megan’s Law was passed. Megan Kanka was a seven-year-old girl who was abducted and horribly tortured, raped and killed by a serial sex offender who lived across the street.
As one newspaper account explains, “Megan’s parents Richard and Maureen circulated a petition demanding immediate legislative action to ensure communities were warned about sex offenders in their areas, with the petition garnering more than 400,000 signatures. The law – which supporters argue gives parents the ability to protect their children by making them aware of the presence of convicted sex offenders – was enacted in an unprecedented 89 days.”
It continues, “Megan’s home state of New Jersey was the first to pass the law in 1994, with federal legislation following in 1995 requiring every state to develop a procedure for notifying the public when a person convicted of certain crimes is released near their homes. State laws now require people convicted of specified sex crimes to register as sex offenders with their local law enforcement agencies after release from jail or a mental hospital. The information is made public and can be accessed through local police and each state’s Megan’s Law website. More than 614,000 sex offenders are registered across the US.”
Australian QC Peter Faris has written a recent opinion piece on this issue. He argues that public concern about such criminals “is about protecting children from future assaults, not with punishing the paedophile. Parents do not want revenge on offenders for their past conduct: they want to be certain that paedophiles will not reoffend.”
Like many, he doubts whether real reform is possible for such offenders: “I have practised criminal law across the breadth of Australia for 45 years and I am strongly of the view that paedophiles are very likely to reoffend. That raises serious questions about how to deal with them.”
He examines some options: “First, there is the ‘warehousing’ solution – which would lock them up forever. Whilst this is appropriate for the very worst offenders, it cannot be used against most of them. Second, I do not believe that ‘counselling’ works. You cannot retrain paedophiles. Third, chemical castration has failed. Finally, supervision orders for a long period after jail release depend upon the paedophile obeying the rules. It is all very well having a rule that they cannot go within 500m of a school – but that cannot be enforced every day for every paedophile.”
He then offers Megan’s Law as the best solution: “What is Megan’s law? It is quite simple. It requires the authorities to keep a public register of serious sexual offenders, particularly paedophiles. Upon release from jail, the paedophile must register his address and notify of any change. Non-compliance is a criminal offence. The register is made public. A citizen can see the paedophile’s name, address, photograph and criminal history.”
But here the rights of the offender come up against the rights of the rest of the community. Asks Faris, “Is this fair to paedophiles? Probably not, but that is not the issue. Paedophiles are put on notice that the public believes their crimes to be so foul and the risk of reoffending so high that something must be done. If you do not want to be on the register then don’t do the crime. The protection of children outweighs the rights of paedophiles.”
I think most Australians would agree with him. I basically do. But there is one last consideration, and that involves Christian thought on the issue. What about grace? What about forgiveness? What about a second chance?
Those are all fair questions from a biblical point of view. All believers are simply forgiven sinners. And the saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” can be applied to all of us. All believers have been forgiven by a grace which none of us deserve. As we have been freely forgiven, we are to freely forgive.
So what does a believer make about the Ferguson case in particular, and Megan’s Law in general? These are complex issues which cannot be properly treated here. But a few generic remarks can be made. God has ordained the institution of the state to enforce justice and punish wrongdoers. Thus the state has divine sanction to do all it can to protect innocent citizens, ensure justice, and punish criminal activities.
The church is also a God-given institution. Whereas the state deals with crime, the church deals with sin. The two often overlap, but not always. And the church is in the business of extending grace and forgiveness to sinners. Of course it is not cheap grace, and commonsense approaches to various issues need to be followed.
For example, a local church which has caught one of its members involved in areas of sexual misconduct with children can show forgiveness, while at the same time wisely deciding to keep such a person out of the reach of children. If the person has repented and been forgiven, fine, but a church may still not imprudently put that person in charge of the children’s church department.
And individual believers must keep in mind their obligations as citizens of two kingdoms: the earthly and the heavenly. That is, we have biblical responsibilities to both the state and to the church. As citizens of an earthly realm, we may well want to see legislation like Megan’s Law passed.
But as an individual Christian, one may choose to forgive someone like Ferguson. One may even say, ‘By the grace of God, I am willing to let such a person live next door to me and my children’. But it seems this is an individual judgment call. Some believers may not want the offender anywhere near their kids.
It seems both responses can be acceptable for a believer. I am not now personally in that situation. If I were I would have to think long and hard about it. As a parent, I have a God-given responsibility to protect my children. I am also called to love and forgive my enemies. And I am also called to be wise, cautious and a good citizen.
I suspect I would not be too keen about having such a person live next door. But I have not been placed in that particular predicament as yet, so I have not given it due attention by means of prayer and biblical reflection.
Thus it is a tough case for believers, and here we have obligations which seem to run in several – and at times conflicting – directions. In the Bible grace is always freely available, but the justice of God is never compromised as it is dispensed. For those believers in Queensland right now trying to decide the right thing about all this, all I can do is offer my prayers and the above considerations. The decision still has to be made, nonetheless, and it won’t be easy.