An open letter to Pope Francis: Speak to the evils of public registration and perpetual punishment
By Robin Vanderwall . . . There is a great evil in our land that goes ignored: the public pillory of people who have been convicted of sexually-based offenses long after they have been released from lawful punishment.
Consequent to several pieces of national legislation going back to 1992, every state in the United States is required to publicize the names and addresses of individuals who were convicted of a sexually based offense, no matter how minor the offense may have been, and no matter how long ago the incident occurred.
In the majority of cases, the individuals—and families—who are affected have already satisfied the requirements of a legal punishment. However, they remain exposed to a multitude of dangers and deprivations resulting from the continuous publication of their sexual sins. Often times, restrictions imposed upon where they may live or work or attend school cause them to live as exiles within their own homeland.
To date, nearly 800,000 Americans are listed on state-maintained public sex offender registries. This globally accessible database of information creates the impression that such people are monstrous individuals who are a present and immediate danger to their communities and are highly likely to re-offend at any given moment.
Indeed, the constant, never-ending publication of their names, addresses, and criminal acts cleverly promotes the misapprehension that their crimes were recently committed…or that they are actually ongoing. And due to the ubiquitous nature of the internet (whereupon this pillory occurs), the pillory will continue for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years after their temporal lives are over.
After more than twenty years of collective data, there has been no reliable statistical evidence amassed to support the stated goals of policies related to public sex offender registries. And there is no credible evidence that the existence of such registries either protects the innocent or decreases the rate of new sexually-based offenses.
In fact, copious academic studies have demonstrated the exact opposite: public sex offender registries are harmful to the individuals who populate them and have not proven to be effective tools for creating safer communities. Empirical evidence is clear that, as an enhancement to public safety as well as to the successful rehabilitation of those who have sexually offended, the current system of public registration in America is a total and complete failure.
Yet, politicians in the United States do not have the moral courage to speak out against public sex offender registries for fear of electoral backlash. Unfortunately, this particular method of making people pay for their crimes satiates the human thirst for vengeance and moral aggrandizement. It satisfies their lust to see others suffer pain, torment, and defamation. Nobody wants to deprive the people of their proclivity for self-justification at the expense of human dignity.
What have public sex offender registries actually accomplished?
They have made registrants virtually unemployable;
They have made registrants who are also parents incapable of participating fully in the lives of their children;
They have made the children of registrants frequent targets of bullying and ridicule at school and at play;
They have ostracized registrants from their families, churches, synagogues, and religious communities;
They have broken up homes and destroyed marriages;
They have caused harassment and ridicule from the public at-large; and, in some cases,
They have led to the deaths of registrants as a result of vigilantism and, in at least a few cases, the deaths of a totally innocent people.
That’s quite a devilish legacy for laws that are ostensibly intended to protect the public and create safer communities, but do neither. Public sex offender registries violate the Moral Law against giving scandal to one’s neighbor [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 5th Commandment, 2284-2287], and they promote the sins of calumny and detraction [Catechism, 8th Commandment, 2477-2479]. Yet, the Church remains silent in the face of these licit, legislatively-enacted abrogations of God’s Law.
It is understandable, of course, that the Church suffers from a lack of moral resolve to confront this brand of evil. After all, given recent events, the Church can ill afford to appear soft when it comes to the sin of sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, with all the respect that’s due to you, Your Holiness, as Vicar of Christ and the apostolic successor to St. Peter, it is not sufficient for the Church to atone for its own moral failures (the priestly scandal) at the expense of sexual offenders as though they are deserving of a lesser measure of human dignity. And there are a great many men and women your predecessors have made into saints who, by their own confessions, would populate the sex offender registries of the United States.
Therefore, we are appealing to you as perhaps the only person on earth with the moral integrity and public affection to speak directly against the sinful use of public pillory as a tool for correcting societal ills. And we hope that you will prayerfully consider the matter during your visit to the United States.