Disclosing the identities of sex offenders: Promoting empowerment or vigilantism?

The public disclosure of information about sex offenders, especially child sexual abusers, has received high-profile political and media attention for many years. This controversial and emotive issue has been investigated by a researcher at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Following the rape and murder of Sarah Payne in July 2000, the tabloid newspaper News of the World campaigned for full public access to the details of known paedophiles – 'Sarah's Law'. Although there has been no implementation of such an unrestricted public disclosure policy in the UK, the Government has introduced in England, Scotland and Wales a limited, confidential disclosure scheme to primary carers via the police.

How has this been received?

Dr Kieran McCartan, of UWE Bristol's Department of Health and Social Sciences, has investigated the attitudes of relevant stakeholders. These included both professionals, such as probation officers, police, charities and NGOs, and a diverse spectrum of people from the wider public.

Community differences

The participants were drawn from local communities in Northern Ireland (Belfast) and Wales (Cardiff). Although similar in many respects, there are also significant differences between the two. Unlike Wales, Northern Ireland has a pronounced history of community action and vigilantism; also, the limited disclosure scheme has yet to be introduced there.

Dr McCartan found that the public would have preferred a more fully open disclosure system. The professionals, on the other hand, supported limited disclosure. The two groups also differed in their views of sexual offenders. For example, unlike the professionals, the public felt that child sexual abusers were always the worst kind of sexual offenders, regardless of the context or frequency of their offences.

There were some distinctive concerns among the participants in Northern Ireland, including the belief that those who obtained disclosures would release the information to local "hard men", disregarding the requirement for confidentiality. Both professionals and public agreed that the limited-disclosure scheme would be difficult to introduce there.

Engagement and implementation

Policy implementation needs to take into account regional differences, concludes Dr McCartan, and greater public discussion and partnership is needed. There is a particular need for broader engagement in Northern Ireland before contemplating implementation there.

Collaboration

During the project, which was supported by an Early Career Researcher Award from UWE Bristol, Dr McCartan formed research collaborations with a variety of organisations. These included national and regional criminal justice bodies such as Stop it Now, NSPCC, Circles of Support and Accountability, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, and also academic institutions (De Montfort University, Queens University Belfast, Cardiff University and the University of Ulster).

The project has enabled Dr McCartan to establish a national network of contacts amongst relevant practitioners and academics which has now led to the formation of an international ESRC-funded Knowledge Exchange network.. "I have come to a much better understanding of policy development and the relationship between policy and practice," he says, "as well as an effective way of linking the two".

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