By Matt Vande Bunte
GRAND RAPIDS - Here's this week's question: “Given that a sex offender registry list does not give a lot of useful information about the individuals on the list and, in fact, may give false and misleading impressions about them, is it ethical to keep such a list and make it public?"
Rabbi David Krishef (Bio) consults an attorney in this week's column, then shares his thoughts along with the Rev. David Christian (Bio).
In the course of writing a 2-part column on the ethics of welcoming sex offenders into congregational worship, I learned a great deal from people who are on the Sex Offender Registry as well as professionals who work with sexual offenders. A number of people questioned whether a public sex offender registry is useful and ethical.
Given that the Public Sex Offender Registry is the law in Michigan, I consulted an attorney, Susan Gellman, who has experience working with sexual offenders and practicing in constitutional law. Here's her response:
"We don't have registries for arsonists, con men, thieves or even killers. Having them for sex offenders is based on pandering to people's emotional but irrational feelings, not facts or probabilities."
The Rev. David Christian, a pastor of Resurrection Life Church in Grandville, disagrees:
"Public safety is the first responsibility of government, and that's why all crimes are routinely published. It is further justifiable when the victims of adult crime are minors, who are by definition less able to defend themselves.
"One reason why the registry focuses on sexual offenses is that the rate of recidivism is
higherfor sex offenders, especially those who offend minors. A behavioral line is crossed against the conscience that offenders rarely overcome.
- Wrong! Sex offenders have the lowest recidivism (re-offense) rate of all other criminals, except murderers, and you would think a Pastor would do their homework before just throwing out some statement like this.
"All forms of adult-to-minor abuse occur during the formative years, so the harm is not just to the body, but also to the soul (mind, will and emotions). Healing for the lifelong effects is always available, but this grace is not widely known or taught.
- For some this may be true, but not for everyone. One of the admins on this blog was sexually abused as a child, and they are no longer a victim but a survivor, and it didn't emotionally damage them for life. As long as you and others see yourself as victims, you will always be a victim!
"In the light of the lasting harm from sexual abuse of minors, the registry is ethically justified. The fact that the record-keeping process is flawed doesn't mean we should abandon it, just improve it. One possible way is to add detail about the degree of the offense, currently lacking in Michigan law."
- The registry should be taken offline and used by police only. It's nothing more than an online phone book for vigilantes to use to hunt down and harass or kill ex-sex offenders, their families and children, and we have many examples of this, here.
I believe that, as it is currently written, the law creating a sex offender registry is unethical. Leviticus 19:16 says, “You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople.” Jewish ethics cautions us not to share even verifiably true information which might damage someone's reputation unless we have a compelling reason to do so. Gossip is lashon hara, evil speech.
If it is the case that a female friend is considering dating a guy that we know, from unimpeachable sources, has physically abused his last three girlfriends, we would be justified in sharing that information with her. However, sharing information that damages someone’s reputation without such a just cause is not ethical speech.
The Sex Offender Registry might be ethical if it only listed individuals who have been determined by a professional to constitute a high risk to society. Only a small percentage on the list (pedophiles) have a high recidivism rate. The vast majority, however, have a recidivism rate comparable to or less than that of other crimes.
The Sex Offender Registry, as currently constituted, lumps all sex offenders together as if they all pose the same risk. A sexual predator is placed alongside a 17-year-old who had consensual sexual relations with a 15-year-old. The average person who doesn't read the list carefully or understand the nature of the degrees of the offense is likely to think that everyone on the list is a danger to society. In this Internet era, the reputation of a person on the registry, even one who has served his time and properly repented, will be forever smirched. This is lashon hara, evil speech.
Ethics and Religion Talk is compiled and written by David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids. Krishef takes questions from readers and shares them with a panel of clergy, then provides the responses in collaboration with MLive.com reporter Matt Vande Bunte. The views expressed are those of the panelists and do not necessarily represent the official perspectives of their congregations or denominations. Please submit questions from your own day-to-day encounters to EthicsAndReligionTalk@gmail.com.