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Limerick Law lecturer calls for removal of ‘stigma’ attached to sex offenders

A lecturer in law at University of Limerick, has controversially described “the unforgiving, stigmatising discourse surrounding sex offenders” as “profoundly unhelpful” and as something that needs to end.

Margaret Fitzgerald O’Reilly was writing  in the Irish Times in response to the announcement of new legislation to strengthen the management and monitoring of sex offenders in the community.

The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021 includes a number of amendments to the sex offenders register notification requirements, as well as providing for electronic tagging and for a prohibition on convicted sex offenders engaging in certain forms of employment.

While it was previously the case that such bans on working with children or vulnerable people have been made by the Courts, the new Bill will now provide an explicit power for prohibition.

According to Ms O’Reilly however, questions remain around whether or not such actions translate into making communities safer.
Ms O’Reilly writes:

“Measures such as electronic tagging, for example, are often sold as a “silver bullet” for tackling sexual offending but the lack of empirical data to support the effectiveness of such a measure is disheartening. Public knowledge of a sex offender’s whereabouts is another frequently demanded measure, but one which also fails to live up to expectation.”

It was further noted by Ms O’Reilly that “society would prefer not to view such offenders as human beings” and that “the stereotype of the “monstrous” anonymous sex predator is so ingrained in the public perception of sex offenders that any shift away from this narrative would be deeply uncomfortable.”

There is an urgent need, according to the University of Limerick law lecturer, for such a narrative “to be rewritten, beginning with a recognition of the offender as a person. Acknowledging that victims are most likely to be sexually abused by someone they know, and that women and minors can also be abusers, is likewise important in helping to reshape the construct of sex offenders as “monsters” and allowing the public to see the reality of who can cause this kind of harm.”

Ms O’Reilly accepts that “punishment and accountability are important if victims are to have any faith in the system and in order to encourage complainants to report abuse but she also added that “it is important to create a space for offenders to address their harmful behaviour and seek help to move away from the “sex offender” label.

However, arguments around the need to bring forward the new sex offender legislation were raised by Denis Naughten TD, who has advocated for more than a decade for reform of the sex offenders register and the legislation underpinning it.

Speaking earlier this week, the Roscommon-Galway TD put it to the Taoiseach that in 2009 the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform told the Dáil that the failure to modernise the law on the registration of sex offenders would lead to Ireland becoming a safe haven for convicted sex offenders.

According to Deputy Naughten, this has meant that “some 151 months later that gaping hole in our so-called sex offenders register has yet to be closed off. It is likely that some of the near-500 convicted rapists and paedophiles missing from the UK are residing here in Ireland, posing an unacceptable risk to women, children and vulnerable adults because of our outdated sex offenders register.”

The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021 is widely expected to become law in line with Programme for Government commitments in this area.

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