Those advocating changes in the sex offenders’ registration law to better protect the interests of children and young people must have been both hopeful and upset by two recent developments.
A law just approved by parliament allows individuals to check whether their partner has a history of domestic abuse. Those in an intimate relationship who suspect their partner might become abusive or aggressive towards them can ask the Victim Support Agency to inquire whether they have ever been found guilty of domestic violence. This must have raised the hopes of those, among them the Lisa Maria Foundation, who have been calling for easier access to the sex offenders’ register introduced more than a decade ago.
Applications to access information on the register have to be filed in court through a lawyer and then processed by the attorney general before a judge decides whether or not to grant permission. In 2017, voluntary organisations were given the right to check the register to ensure none of their employees feature on it without having to pay the €500 access fee. The foundation, which works to protect children and young people from harm, feels the system in place makes it too onerous, costly and cumbersome for most stakeholders to use the register when carrying out due diligence before hiring employees. It is therefore insisting that institutions working among children get easier access to the register.
When commenting on the new domestic violence law, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri spoke about being proactive by helping victims. Those advocating for a more accessible sex offenders’ register must be wondering whether their prayers are finally about to be heard. But their enthusiasm was, no doubt, soon dampened by what happened in a Gozitan broadcasting station studio earlier this month.
A former priest who, in 2017, was convicted of violent indecent assault on a minor was filmed hosting a children’s radio programme at a parish radio station. Whether his name is on the sex offenders’ list is not known, although his lawyer did say the judgment had not precluded him from being in the presence of minors. Employed by Xagħra parish’s Radju Bambina as programmes manager, the former priest produced a religious programme aimed at children with the participation of young children and adolescents present with him in the studio. An adult woman was also there.
It would be better to see all those with the responsibility to keep fuel away from the fire do their duty
It may have been a one-off occasion, as his lawyer insisted, but his presence was certainly misplaced. It sends all the wrong messages, definitely not a “message of positivity”, which Gozo Bishop Anton Teuma had spoken about when he inaugurated the station’s overhauled studios two years ago. All the Gozo diocese would say about the incident when contacted is that the Safeguarding of Minors Gozo was informed and was verifying the information. An explanation and, perhaps, an apology would have been in order.
A subsequent letter sent to Times of Malta by the Diocese of Gozo insisted that the diocese “is continually striving to prevent any abuse of minors” and that it “acts immediately” when it is informed of any allegations of abuse. Such a response, however, did not change the nature of the Radju Bambina incident.
It would be tempting arguing that this episode proves beyond reasonable doubt that all children sex offenders should automatically be listed on the register and easier access to it allowed. However, it would be better first to see that all those with the responsibility to keep fuel away from the fire do their duty.
Prevention is not mainly about checking the names on the list but, more importantly, being vigilant and prudent.