There are better systems in place to protect money than to watch out for children in Malta, according to lobbyists campaigning for the introduction of better controls against sex offenders.

The authorities left no stone unturned when vetting those interested in operating in the financial services industry – and the same should be true of those wishing to work with children, Winston J. Zahra of the Lisa Maria Foundation yesterday told Times of Malta.

“The whole country should get behind changes to improve this system,” he said.  

The foundation was reacting to objections which he said had been made to its calls to simplify and facilitate the use of the sexual offenders' register.

The foundation is calling for the register, currently administered by the courts, to be accessible online by authorised persons involved in sensitive workplaces where employees have a duty of care towards children. 

“The process we are recommending does not in any way impinge on data protection rights. And, in any case, should we put the data protection of sexual offenders above the safety of our own children? For us the answer is clear: our children’s safety must come first,” he said.

The controls in place on sexual offenders have been thrust into the national spotlight in recent days by Andrew Azzopardi, the man in charge of investigating abuse by priests.

He told The Sunday Times of Malta that most of the victims he saw were reluctant to involve the police or the courts, fearing the embarrassment of their ordeal becoming public.

This, Mr Azzopardi said, was resulting in potential offenders remaining in contact with children, because they were not put on the register, which bars people from working with children. 

In any case, should we put the data protection of sex offenders above the safety of our own children?

Mr Azzopardi’s solution is the introduction of a new authority that would deal with complaints from victims and different entities working in the field.

It would administer the register, removing the need for victims to go to court and hopefully result in more offenders being removed from contact with children.

To Mr Zahra the suggestion is ad-mirable but may pose some difficulties.

“As a foundation, we are not sure that the solution to the problem is taking the matter out of the courts and the processes involved there. It makes some people a bit nervous,” he said, adding that in no way did the foundation think it was a bad suggestion, but that there were dilemmas.

They are dilemmas the government will likely have to grapple with as Cabinet debates how to tackle the issue in the coming weeks.

Government sources yesterday said different ministries were torn over the matter and the problems the creation of a new authority could create.

“There are some authorities in certain ministries that see the need for this change. But then there are others that are obviously going to resist taking this matter out of the courts’ hands,” the sources said.

To Mr Zahra, a more immediate solution could be the improvement of the existing system.

“We have to make victims of abuse, especially children, feel comfortable to make use of the system that is there to protect them. They cannot feel inhibited or intimidated. The system has to offer a safe haven which they are free and comfortable to refer to. Can we achieve this within our court process?” he asked.

He said he could not believe it was still not mandatory for businesses or entities involved in caring for children to check staff and volunteers against the register.

Equally baffling was the level of magisterial discretion in deciding who appears on the list.

“At the moment we have a situation where someone can be found guilty but doesn’t get put on the list. It should be automatic,” said Joe Borg, the foundation CEO, who sat beside Mr Zahra. The latter added that the issue of child protection was complicated and one which the foundation had long been discussing with the government.

It has drafted a number of proposals that formed the basis of a White Paper on the matter during the last legislature, and several legal changes have already been introduced on the back of a number of the foundation’s proposals.

The sex offender register in brief

Forty-four people appeared on the sex offender register last year.

Among those on the list were men convicted of raping their own daughters, others who were found guilty of the possession of child pornographic material and others convicted of defiling minors.

Sources said there was one man listed twice after two separate convictions – one for defiling a boy and the other for engaging in sexual activities with two young boys.

The idea of introducing the register was suggested in mid-2006 in the wake of a controversy involving the Malta Football Association, which had kept a 79-year-old convicted paedophile as a groundsman at the Pace Grasso Ground in Paola, which doubles as a playing field for a nearby school.

It was only in January 2012 that it became law, when the Protection of Minors’ Act came into force.

The law is not retroactive, so a person on the register has to be convicted after it was introduced. Convictions that could lead to inclusion include rape, having sex with minors, child abduction, prostitution, pornography, trafficking in minors, harassment and neglect.

Once listed, a person is not able to work or hold any position within an organisation involved in the education, care, custody and welfare of minors.

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