Balance needs to be struck on sex offenders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2010, 12:00am

It can be difficult to strike a balance between protection of the community and the rights of sex offenders who have paid their debt to society. In Hong Kong, as in many parts of the world, it remains a contentious issue. Cases of repeat offences against children by people in positions of trust tend to inflame it. From time to time, even the courts have supported calls for a public register of offenders. However, such suggestions raise concerns about violation of the offender's rights to privacy, presumption of innocence, and rehabilitation. After all, under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance a convicted criminal is not obliged to disclose a criminal record once a sentence has been served. In the US and Britain, disclosure of names has led to discrimination and even violence against offenders - or even against innocent people mistaken for them.

A case that has just emerged has served to underline the conflict, even though it did not involve offences against children. A mathematics teacher left his position at a Tai Po secondary school in May last year after being convicted of using a mobile phone to take photographs up a woman's skirt at an MTR station. In July, he successfully applied for a position at a Pok Fu Lam college. The college principal did not learn of the case until informed by the Education Bureau in November. This has sparked a call by the head of the Council on Professional Conduct in Education for the bureau to screen out applicants for teaching positions who have been convicted of sex offences.

What sets this case apart is that the teacher, who remains registered by the bureau, has continued at the college under a contract that expires in August, and the principal says he has behaved well. On the face of it, a screening process, even if it did not infringe his rights, could have prejudiced a worthwhile chance of rehabilitation - the best possible outcome for society.

That said, it is important to strive for consensus on the right balance between individual rights and the public interest. We cannot condemn someone for one mistake, but there are some positions of trust - working with children prominent among them - where the community has a legitimate right to reassurance about the good character of people who occupy them.

Employers of registered teachers, child-minders and social workers are already able to initiate confidential background checks. The Law Reform Commission, which has been studying the wider issue of sex offences generally for more than three years, has suggested that as an interim measure this arrangement could be widened to include employers in child-related and handicapped services, such as tutoring and caring. But the records would not be open to the public, and the prospective employee would have to initiate the check. Understandably, to child-protection activists who want a sex offenders' register this seems a tame approach.

The best way forward may lie in the commission's ultimate aim to devise a scheme for the treatment, rehabilitation, risk assessment and management of sex offenders that would better protect the community without unjustifiably infringing their rights. Given the polarisation of community opinion, it is unlikely to make everyone happy. Sadly, in the past, the commission's reports have been more likely to gather dust than lead to any meaningful reform. Hopefully, in this case, the result will be informed community debate that will lead to a measure of consensus and prod the government and lawmakers into action.