Keeping Society Safe

Iobserve [Springfield MA]
Downloaded November 21, 2003

It was coincidental that the Diocese of Springfield announced the hiring of a priest monitor on the day a Boston media team publicized an expose of the state's sex offender monitoring program.

But the two events are directly related.

There are still some Catholics and non-Catholics in western Massachusetts who believe that the church should sever all its ties with priests who are suspected or confirmed sex offenders, especially one well-known priest who has been found guilty of a serious criminal charge.

This attitude is understandable, as disheartened Catholics want the church to move beyond the abuse crisis by "purifying" itself of its sinful members. But this opinion is not only bad theology. It's also an impediment to building a safer environment for children.

Our colleagues at the Boston Herald and Fox 25 television recently pored over the extensive public records that are supposed to track the state's 18,210 confirmed sex offenders. They found that 8,800 are not registered with the state or local police, as required by law.

They also found that many offenders are not classified into risk levels, a step which determines how widely information about their past is given to local police and the public, for months or even years after their release from prison. Worst of all, one-third of "Level 3" sex offenders registered with the state by March 20 gave incorrect addresses for their home or work to authorities.

Governor Mitt Romney and various state legislators are now scrambling to respond to the media's troubling revelations. There will likely be new laws, procedures and funding to better track offenders.

Lifetime parole for offenders would help. With proper funding and implementation, professional parole officers could regularly monitor the whereabouts and activities of offenders. That is much better than today's headline-grabbing but ineffective system which emphasizes the posting of a few mug shots on the Internet while most offenders avoid supervision. But lifetime parole cannot be constitutionally imposed retroactively on most past offenders.

For the moment, only the church is monitoring Father Richard Lavigne and other priests who have faced credible charges of abuse but have not been judged by the courts. It has hired a law enforcement professional as its clergy monitor to see to their needs, and to watch them. And as the new diocesan "Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth" makes clear, the bishop may withhold financial support from any priest who fails to cooperate with his clerical "probation officer."

Statewide, there may be a few hundred priests under some form of church monitoring. Let's hope the state can quickly develop its own system to monitor the other 12,000 offenders who remain largely unmonitored.


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