New Measures from Child Abuse Committee

September 25, 2015 by The Royal Gazette

Measures to tackle child sex abuse could be put forward this year by the parliamentary group investigating how Bermuda deals with sex offenders.

Mandatory education and awareness training, child protection policies and bolstered laws on the reporting of sex offences are on the joint select committee's agenda, according to chairman Mark Pettingill.

The One Bermuda Alliance MP said discussions are ongoing about the creation of a sex offenders' registry — but cautioned about the need to differentiate between serious, prolific offenders and "Romeo and Juliet cases" involving young teenagers.

In an interview with The Royal Gazette, he said that, historically, a lot of sex offences against children happen "in what we often regard as being safe havens or in positions of trust".

The former attorney-general continued: "They may occur with close family members or with people that are in youth organisations or even schools, which is really terrible. Whilst it is obviously such a minority of people that are involved in those types of activities, that's where there tends to be a degree of prevalence.

"We don't want to make it difficult for all the wonderful people that come along and give up their time to children, but unfortunately this is where the prevalence tends to be."

The joint select committee on sex offenders was created last year to examine existing legislation surrounding a sex offenders' registry and other matters related to convicted sex offenders.

In recent weeks the issue has been in the spotlight again, after a former police officer was jailed for 15 years for the sexual exploitation of his daughter and incest. The media was unable to report the offender's name for legal reasons, prompting campaigner Sheelagh Cooper to repeat calls for a more open legal process and a sexual offenders' registry.

Mr Pettingill, a defence lawyer, said that while the idea of a registry is still on the agenda, the committee is still debating how to go about it.

"This has been a debate for some time. I have to say, I see both sides of the coin," he said.

He said that Bermuda has the ability to produce a list contained within its criminal code, but he believes it should be at the discretion of the attorney-general.

"In my view, there are certain types of criminals that commit these things that people should just be aware of who they are because it warrants that children and society deserve the protection from that type of individual.

"At the same time you have the Romeo and Juliet cases where you have, let's say, a 17-year-old boy who has a consensual sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl and he basically gets run in by her parents.

"I've seen those types of cases. Entirely consensual, but unlawful still — he's deemed over the line and she's still under it. Should he be put on a sexual offenders' registry as a sexual offender? I don't think so."

Mr Pettingill said a balance needs to be found between who should be on the register and how much of it is publicly available, with consideration given to the circumstances of the offence and how prolific it is.

He said prolific offenders that are deemed "to have a real risk", despite serving time in prison and undergoing treatment, should be on a public register.

"I think we can do better than what we have," he added.

Regarding the joint select committee's efforts, Mr Pettingill said: "You'd love to have everything done overnight — it just doesn't work that way.

"Conceptually, we are getting there. I am hoping this year that things will be moved along. Some things are low-hanging fruit that we need to get right on.

"We want to mandate education and awareness training about anyone that is an owner, manager, employee of any organisation that deals with children.

"I'm talking about an organisation like Scars, that teaches people on what to look for, how to deal with children and all those things."

He said he would also like to see certificates of satisfactory completion on the training.

"That would address anyone that has supervision, control or direct access to children.

"If you deal with a child, you have to have done this training to understand what the challenges are," he said.

Mr Pettingill said that the committee is considering mandating that organisations have child protection policies in place, "so you don't have a situation where you have one-on-one between adult supervisors and children, unless it can be something that is observable".

The committee also wants to consider the enforcement of laws requiring mandatory reporting of these types of offences.

He said: "It might be that we've got to consider bolstering that law, so that for some reason you don't have people deciding ‘oh, well, I'm going to proceed down the counselling road' rather than immediately reporting it to the authorities."