Joe Paterno, meet J.J. Abrams
Are there child molesters lurking among us? That’s the impression one could get from two sensational recent news stories, one at Penn State University and the other right here in Hollywood. These two cautionary tales point out a right way and a wrong way to deal with individuals who might pose a risk to children: Director J.J. Abrams did it right, college football coach Joe Paterno did it wrong. Also on the list of those doing it the wrong way, unfortunately, are the people of California.
Few things terrify parents as much as the notion that their child’s innocence could be stolen by a predatory adult, so it’s no wonder that incidents such as the scandal at Penn State — where Paterno and other officials allegedly failed to alert law enforcement authorities after a retired football coach was reported to be molesting children on campus — raise collective shudders. The problem is that the reaction often takes the form of crusades targeting convicted sex offenders, resulting in laws that cast too wide a net and thus violate ex-felons’ civil rights or that defeat the purpose they were meant to serve.
We’re not talking about the law that prohibits sex offenders whose victims were under 16 from working directly and in an unaccompanied setting with kids. Jason James Murphy may have violated that law by working as a casting director screening children for film roles. When Abrams discovered that Murphy, who cast children for Abrams’ recent film “Super 8,” was a convicted child molester (Murphy did time 15 years ago for kidnapping and molesting an 8-year-old boy), he informed Paramount Pictures, which quickly notified the police. If Paterno, who reportedly told university higher-ups about the alleged molestations in 2002 but then ignored their failure to act for nearly a decade, had been equally conscientious, his reputation and job would remain intact.
Much more problematic are state and local statutes passed in recent years such as Jessica’s Law. Until parts of it were found unconstitutional last year, the 2006 voter initiative prevented registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, park or play area — rules that proved so restrictive they rendered thousands of offenders homeless, thus destabilizing their lives and increasing the risk that they would commit more crimes. Meanwhile, under the false assumption that child molesters are particularly active on Halloween, the state rounds up transient sex offenders on Oct. 31 and orders those with homes to stay inside with their lights off, despite the extreme rarity of attacks on trick-or-treaters and the fact that many of those in the sex offender database did their time long ago for crimes that had nothing to do with assaulting children.
Notifying authorities when known child molesters are working directly with children is wise. Unfairly targeting everybody ever convicted of a sex crime, no matter how minor, is the opposite.
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