About 18 months ago, the government’s announcement of legislation to introduce a Child Offenders’ Register was hailed as a significant step forward. Coincidentally, the news came the day after the Church’s Response Team had concluded that there was enough evidence for the long-standing case of victims of clerical abuse at St Joseph’s Home to be sent to the Holy See in Rome for adjudication.

Whether by coincidence or not, the decision to introduce a Bill to set up a Child Offenders’ Register of course went far wider than simply dealing with clerical abuse, although this most heinous of crimes had stirred public revulsion. The idea of having a paedophile register had in fact surfaced about four years earlier in the wake of another nasty controversy involving the Malta Football Association. The MFA had kept a 79-year-old convicted paedophile as a groundsman at a football ground that doubled up as a playing field for a nearby school.

Over the last five or six years, the legislative wheels have ground slowly forward to the point when, on January 20 this year, the Protection of Minors Act finally came into force.

The reason for having the offenders’ register, a concept implemented with success in several European countries, is to ensure that the names of people convicted of child abuse and sex crimes are made available to those agencies dealing with children. This would also apply to cases in which the courts would have ordered a ban on the publication of the name of the convicted person, as often happens here , usually to protect the victims,

Unfortunately, it now transpires that the Child Offenders’ Register, which forms an essential part of the law, and can serve as a very effective preventive tool, apparently contains not a single name on it almost five months after the law made this option available to judges and magistrates.

It has been explained that names are placed on the register at the court’s discretion after an accused has been found guilty of specific child-related crimes. These include defilement, rape, having sex with minors, child abduction, prostitution, pornography, trafficking in minors, harassment and neglect.

Moreover, the courts have discretion to order a person convicted of other crimes to be listed if they feel there is a threat to children.

Over the past nine years, almost 70 people were taken to court to face child pornography charges alone, just a small element in the horrible tapestry of crimes against children regularly coming before our courts both before and after January 20 this year.

One must, therefore, express some concern about the apparent disconnect between the enactment of a law the purpose of which is to safeguard children from abuse by enabling schools or other agencies dealing with children to view the register when screening prospective employees and its implementation in practice.

This is, of course, too serious a matter to be simply a fig leaf law meant only to give the impression of action having been taken while leaving children unprotected in practice.

For a start, it would be helpful if the Minister of Justice were to carry out an analysis of the cases that have involved child abuse under the Protection of Minors’ Act since January. This would allow him to assess whether the courts have actually acted within the requirements set down by the law. He would then be in a position to propose any changes that may be required to better achieve the prime objective: the protection of vulnerable children.

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