Hunting grounds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2005, 12:00am

When the notorious American bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he famously said: 'Because that's where the money is.'

Likewise, criminal psychologists agree that paedophiles - sexual deviants who prey on children - will purposely find employment where children are: at schools, playgrounds, day-care centres and amusement parks.

Although police psychologists say that paedophiles can never be cured, after convicted sex offenders have served their sentences they are released back into the community. Each year in the US alone, more than 60,000 arrests are made for sex crimes against children. In many cases the same paedophiles are arrested repeatedly.

Public outcry over paedophiles surged the US after the 1994 rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her home. In the years that followed Megan's killing, various US states began to enact regulations requiring law enforcement authorities to identify convicted sex offenders to the public, either through the media, or the internet. These directives have been informally called Megan's Law.

This July, the US Department of Justice officially activated the first nationwide database of convicted sex offenders. The database provides names, addresses and photographs of convicted molesters. The National Sex Offender Public Registry ( now links the registries of 23 states and Washington DC; administrators hope that by December a single website will connect all 50 states.

While more than 550,000 sex offenders have been registered, it is believed that as many as a 100,000 paedophiles are missing or have no known current address.

Now, private companies and communities in the US are initiating more laws to protect children. Last May, Six Flags Great America, a publicly held New York-based corporation that owns 30 amusement parks in North America, announced that it was reserving the right to refuse entry to anyone convicted of a sex crime. The company spelled out the new policy on the back of season passes to all 30 of its parks. The move came five years after a 19-year-old ride operator at an Illinois Six Flags park was sentenced to four years in prison for molesting three girls while strapping them into Yogi Bear's Yahoo River boat ride. The arrest prompted a lawsuit that resulted in US$1.4 million payments to two of the victims.

Meanwhile, last month the town council of Lakewood, New Jersey, which is home to one of Six Flag's theme parks, passed an ordinance that legally restricts the access of known (registered) paedophiles from living within 2,500 feet of any school, park, playground or day-care centre in the township.

The world's most famous theme park operator, the Disney Company, has had a controversial history in dealing with this issue. According to the 1998 book Disney - The Mouse Betrayed - Greed, Corruption, and Children at Risk, by investigative journalist Peter Schweizer, Disney rarely, if ever, performed detailed background checks on its employees. Critics say the reason was cost. Disney employs about 100,000 people, and police checks can cost US$15 to US$20 per person.

As the book was about to be released, however, Disney apparently began to make background checks as part of its employment procedure. The company said at the time that the new policy had nothing to do with the book's release.

In Hong Kong, Priscilla Lui Tsang Sun-kai, director of Against Child Abuse, said that, compared with the US or Canada, there was less public awareness of the threat posed by paedophiles and that control measures were still lax. 'I would be concerned about whether [amusement park] personnel are subject to background checks and careful scrutiny as a prerequisite of their employment,' she said.

Hong Kong police said they maintained close liaison with their overseas counterparts in the exchange of information about crimes against children but did not keep statistics on those crimes.

A spokesman for Hong Kong Disney said background checks were not carried out on staff at the city's theme park because of Hong Kong's privacy laws. However, the company expected all staff to show integrity in performing their duties, he said.

When Mouse Betrayed was published, an ABC News team spent months probing allegations of lax hiring practices and paedophilia at Florida's theme parks, with a special focus on Disney, based largely on charges made in the book. But before the segment could be aired, ABC News - which the Disney Company had bought three years previously for US$19 billion - decided to kill it.

An ABC spokesman said that a revised version might be broadcast at a future date. But when producers - including noted ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross - submitted a second draft of the story to ABC News president David Westin a few weeks later, that version was also deemed to be unacceptable. The story has never been broadcast.

According to charges in the book from (then) police officials in Florida, Disney made little, if any, effort to screen its minimum-wage employees. One of the officials was Dan Rehman, who in the late 1990s worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A veteran police officer with nearly 20 years' experience, Mr Rehman was involved in teaching local companies procedures to prevent crimes against children.

These included the staff at Florida's Sea World and Universal Studios. In the book, he says that Disney flatly refused any government offers to train its staff, the only theme park to decline police assistance.

When the South China Morning Post contacted Mr Rehman, he stood by his comments in Mouse Betrayed.

Arguably the largest single employer in the state of Florida, it is hard to underestimate the political and economic weight Disney wields in the Sunshine State. According to a February 2004 edition of the Orlando Business Journal, within its theme park Disney has the legal power 'to do everything from policing and regulating alcoholic beverages, to collecting taxes, to building its own nuclear power plant'.

A former senior Florida-based police official explained how Disney became so powerful: 'Due to the stupidity and greed of Florida's government in the 1960s, Disney managed to create what is called Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). This was by an act of the Florida legislature as part of the incentive package given to Disney for creating Disney World.

'Today, Reedy Creek Improvement District is often referred to as Florida's 68th county because it has many of the same privileges afforded to a real county. Disney has nearly 100 per cent control of what goes on there. Because of this, if you call [emergency services number] 911 from Disney, you get Disney Security or the Reedy Creek Fire Department - not the Orange County Sheriff's Office or the Orange County Fire Department.

'Local judges have exempted Disney from Florida's public records law, thus allowing them to avoid outside scrutiny. And the company recently announced that they will begin encrypting communications, including the RCID Fire Department.

'At present, Disney and RCID communications are not encrypted - this means that the local media can monitor them. Once they turn on the encryption, however, no outsiders will be able to monitor them. Since the Disney 911 centre is not subject to public records review, monitoring Disney and RCID communications were the only means available to have an idea of what happens there.'

A locally based journalist told the South China Morning Post that Orange County sheriff's deputies were now allowed to patrol the Disney grounds, to supplement the company's own security staff; but Disney asks them to 'use the back entrance' when answering a call, so as not to draw attention. The firm is renowned for being hypersensitive about any crimes that take place on its properties.

Disney faced a public relations nightmare when photos taken of a sexually abused Russian-born 12-year-old girl, which turned up on the internet, were finally tracked down to a hotel in Disney's Florida theme park, and the unnamed child came to be called 'the Disney girl'.

The Pennsylvania-based paedophile, who had been posting the photos to fellow paedophiles for years, was 46-year-old Matthew Mancuso. The molester turned out to be the girl's adoptive father. He had been abusing her since she arrived at his home at the age of five.

Last month, Mancuso was convicted of child rape and sentenced to 15 year in federal prison, with additional sentences expected to follow.

A check of the Florida Sex Offenders' registry revealed that almost 1,000 registered sex offenders live around the city of Orlando, where Disney's park is located. Included in this number are numerous 'sexual predators' (the Florida classification for those who prey on those under the age of 12).

Unfortunately, the registry does not list where these people might work.