A website aimed at identifying pedophiles shows how new media can enable citizens to get involved in vital social issues.
By RUTH EGLASH
At first glance, Tnu Ligdol Besheket (Let them grow in quiet) looks like your average community website intent on fighting some local cause or another.A quote from 16th-century British philosopher Francis Bacon pointing out that “knowledge is power” sits in a green-bordered box on the left-hand side of the home page, a short introduction highlights the goals of the site and a nearby menu offers up options such as “What does the law say?” and “Further links.”Upon closer inspection, however, and after clicking on an almost comical menu option entitled “Wall of Shame,” a controversial page opens up a spread of more than 80 thumbnail photographs of gruff-looking men who have either been convicted or suspected of sex crimes against children. As the mouse hovers over each picture, the name of the man appears and another click leads to a brief explanation of his crime, when he was released from prison and where he lives.“The argument is always that pedophiles need quiet and a chance to rehabilitate after they are released from prison, but we believe that it is the children that need quiet and should be protected, not the men,” says Debbie, one of the main people behind the website, which went live in November and has an accompanying Facebook group of the same name.“We want to create a public debate on this approach and, more importantly, we want there to be awareness,” she says.Herself a mother, Debbie says the idea was formed after she and some friends heard about a Bnei Brak rabbi who had been committing sexual acts against children for years but who was never brought to justice.“We are all private citizens who just realized there are a lot of shortcomings in the system. Of course most of these can be fixed quite easily and then our world would look very different, but nothing is being done,” she says, pointing out that there is no sex offenders’ registry here and there is no law similar to Megan’s Law in the US, where convicted child molesters are scrutinized more closely by the authorities and the public.Referring to a number of recent cases where sex offenders were released from jail and returned anonymously into the community or where known pedophiles were left unchecked, Debbie says that people “are really scared.” She gives the example of Adrian Schwartz “a very dangerous pedophile who was sent to jail for 20 years for raping a young girl. He was released in September and even though he has paid his dues to society and the authorities claim he is no longer a danger, his new neighbors are very worried.”Schwartz’s photograph is one of those that appear on the website, alongside mug shots of Naor and Adir Sodmi from Bnei Ayish, near Gedera. The twin brothers, who were already known to authorities after a series of sexual offenses and lewd acts against children, were convicted of molesting and murdering seven-year-old Leon Kalnatrov last January.“We believe that the government is simply not doing enough to protect our children and even though we are fearful of retribution, we believe wholly in what we are doing,” says Debbie.While many have lauded Tnu Ligdol Besheket for its attempts to tackle this issue, and many concerned citizens have shown their support by sending in information on suspected or convicted child molesters living and working in their area, there are some who argue that “naming and shaming” individuals before they are convicted is illegal and counterproductive.There are also fears that such an unregulated initiative not only absolves the government of fulfilling its responsibility, but will ultimately force child molesters and pedophiles underground or into weaker socioeconomic communities that do not have the tools and awareness to protect their children.And there are yet others who maintain that even after a molester is released from jail, websites such as this and all-revealing media reports are an attack on individual human rights and raise the question of society’s role in rehabilitating convicted felons.DR. YITZHAK Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child (NCC), is clearly concerned about such unregulated, grassroots initiatives aimed at taking on the hundreds of child molesters and pedophiles released from jail each year.“The bottom line is that parents in Israel cannot be relaxed in any way,” he says, highlighting that existing legislation fails in almost every way to adequately protect children. “The way the State of Israel deals with sexual abuse of children means that the safety net has more holes than netting.”“I realize there is a vacuum and understand that parents or other concerned adults feel the need to deal with it, but these creative ideas are not the way to go,” states Kadman, pointing out that it should be the responsibility of the government to tackle this issue. “The minute parents create such projects, they are letting the state off the hook.“No parent can solve these problems like they should be solved and ultimately it means that pedophiles end up moving to areas where community members are not well educated or aware of the problem.”According to the NCC’s annual report, more than 7,000 cases are opened by police each year involving sexual offenses against children committed both within and outside of the family structure. It is estimated that fewer than 700 people are actually convicted of sex crimes each year, with roughly 200 going to jail and the rest assigned to some kind of community service.Kadman estimates that there are around 1,000 child molesters currently in prisons and nearly 500 under the supervision of parole officers or social workers. The Tnu Ligdol Besheket website features some 700 alleged sex offenders, noting whether they are in jail or free.“There are sex offenders in every place in Israel,” notes Kadman. “They do not necessarily look dangerous and, contrary to popular belief, they are not drug addicts or homeless people. Instead they might be teachers of Talmud or sport or might help old woman to cross the street or simply live next door.”With regards to legislation, Kadman highlights that even though there are some laws designed to protect children, the problem lies with enforcement and prevention. “Take the Sex Offenders Monitoring Law [passed in 2006],” he observes. “That law has some lovely language, placing responsibility on the state to provide rehabilitative medical treatment, as well as supervision for those still considered dangerous to society after their release from jail.”However, Kadman points out that the medical treatment – which is known as “chemical castration” and includes hormone injections that inhibit testosterone production – is voluntary and must be purchased privately at a high expense by the sex offender. Research released last summer by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee shows that very few of those released from jail opt to take the shots.Other legislation that appears strong on paper but which is not adequately enforced is the law preventing the employment of child molesters in environments where there are children. As recently as last month, the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child heard how, since this law was passed in 2001, the police have initiated only four investigations against employers for taking on sex offenders and not one indictment has been filed.“We pass lovely laws in this country, but they do not seem to be working,” comments Kadman. “I have called on the police and the minister of internal security to enforce this law, but they respond that their job is to arrest someone after a crime has been committed and not before.”Attorney Lila Margalit of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who specializes in safeguarding human rights within the criminal justice system, agrees and argues further that naming and shaming websites such as Tnu Ligdol Besheket are a violation of human rights and solve little.She highlights a series of studies in the US assessing the effectiveness of the 16-year-old Megan’s Laws, which mandate the release of information about sex offenders to the public. One study – carried out in 2009 by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Rutgers University – suggested that the law did little to deter sex crimes and failed to reduce the number of victims, local US media reported.“I understand the desire of people to know such information from the point of view of protecting society from dangerous offenders, but on the other hand, we have to maintain a society that all of us would like to live in,” argues Margalit, pointing to other research refuting the notion that all sex offenders are repeat offenders. “For a person who has completed his prison sentence, it is the responsibility of society to help him rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community. [Such websites] are pushing offenders more into the margins of society, preventing them from finding a job or a place to live, and in that sense may actually make them more dangerous.”Moreover, Margalit points out that lists of child molesters can be misleading, if only for the potential offenders they may omit. “I think it can also create a false sense of security,” she theorizes. “I’m also a mother and of course want my children to grow up in safety, but unfortunately looking for easy solutions to complicated problems is not the way to achieve that.”Margalit maintains that an alternative approach should be to invest more in rehabilitation and social services, as well as better enforcement of existing laws.“There is nothing to indicate such community notification rules have any benefit, on other hand we know that they do cause damage,” she says, pointing out that most sexual abuse of children is committed by family members.EVEN AS human rights groups argue for the rights of a criminal who has paid his dues to society, Tnu Ligdol Besheket has garnered approval from a broad range of sources and in many ways fulfilled its role of bringing the debate into the public domain.MK Zevulun Orlev, a former minister of welfare and social services and currently chairman of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, says he is familiar with the site and “fully aware of the vulnerability of Israel’s children.”“I completely understand the concerns of parents,” he says, noting that his committee plans to discuss the issue in the coming weeks. “I recognize their sense that the authorities have let them down and are not doing enough to protect children from pedophiles.“Sometimes the rights of the criminals are put before the rights of children. But we plan to make sure this issue is advanced so that parents will feel their children are being protected like they are in other Western countries.”Hanita Zimrin, founder and chairperson of ELI, the Israel Association for Child Protection, sees the debate along similar lines.Regarding an official register for sex offenders, she says: “Of course it hurts the rights of a person who has committed a crime if he has paid his debt to society and is now a free man, but we also need to consider the human rights of children. If a person has committed a white-collar crime, sat in jail and finished his sentence, I will to accept he has the right to start again, but with a pedophile I can’t accept it because according to clinical information a pedophile cannot be cured.“If a pedophile can commit to taking the chemical medication and we know for sure he will not hurt another child then fine, but if we cannot be sure or if it is problematic for a person to commit to taking such medication, then we have an obligation to protect children first.“As parents, as a state and as a society, our responsibility must be toward children and to ensure they are not hurt by pedophiles. Pedophilia is an emotional situation that cannot be changed, and while I respect the argument that you cannot blame a person for something he has not yet done, the chance of a sex offender repeating the crime is very high.”Zimrin says that the state has a responsibility to tell families and others in the neighborhood if a pedophile is about to move in. “I would even be happy if there was some sort of list for employers, or the ability for them to verify information, but there is nothing,” she says.“We have to start somewhere and then hopefully we will eventually get to the point where there is more awareness and a registry...I just hope that such steps do not have to be prompted by the murder or molestation of judge’s or MK’s child first.”
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