25 October 2006
"There is a cancer in society called sex offending. No part of society is free. It is everywhere - among solicitors, religious people, rich and poor.
"There is a huge portion that is benign and does not pose a risk, but there is some that is dangerous and risky, like malignant cancer."
William McAuley uses his sex offender/cancer analogy to drive home the reality that society will never be free from sex offenders.
But the Northern Ireland policy co-ordinator for the multi-agency MASRAM - which tracks and assesses sex offenders - also uses the comparison to offer reassurances that there are measures that can be taken to tackle the 'disease'.
"For those malignant offenders, just like malignant cancer, there are a whole range of treatments, including surgery, to remove a cancerous tumour.
"In some cases of sex offending you have to send the criminal justice system in and effectively use that surgery to remove the danger.
"But there are sex offenders that you cannot remove surgically and you have to deal with it on a basis of risk management."
Dangerous paedophile Paul Hunter Redpath was dealt with on the basis of risk management.
On his release from jail for having sex with a teenage girl, Redpath was moved into approved accommodation and placed under strict probation conditions.
Within hours of his release Redpath had disappeared. For three weeks he was on the loose, his movements and actions unknown.
He fled across the border and is currently living in Dublin where he is now subject to sex offender registration requirements in the Republic.
However, there has been outcry that the paedophile is not to be returned to the province to face punishment for breaking his probation conditions - an offence which can result in being sent back to jail.
In August Robert Simpson Wallace, a 77-year-old high risk sex offender, who "posed a serious risk to women and girls" also went on the run from his approved accommodation in Belfast and failed to sign the sex offenders' register. He was later arrested by police in Lurgan.
Redpath and Wallace are not the only sex offenders who have failed to comply with probation conditions, but in these cases police took the rare step of making completely public the offenders' details through the media.
To issue a public warning about a missing sex offender is a last resort and the decision is taken only after careful consideration by the assistant chief constable following an application for disclosure from MASRAM.
Full disclosure can only be made if it is in the public interest and it will not result in the offender being killed or seriously injured.
At lower levels, details about a sex offender can be disclosed on a need-to-know basis, when the ACC decides to make the disclosure to those people he/she would deem necessary, for example the victim, a partner or school principal.
"Around 97% of people required to notify police comply with requirements. Only a small percentage of people do not comply. That is when disclosure comes up. We have to protect everyone's human right not to be sexually assaulted or abducted," said Mr McAuley.
"The ACC has got to balance what is in the best public interest and what is going to impact on the individual's human rights."
The housing of sex offenders is one social issue that continues to spark heated public debates and at times can even trigger a level of public hysteria.
Mr McAuley is keen to dispel the myth that hostels are home to a large number of sex offenders who, if they haven't already, are just waiting to pounce on their next victim.
In fact, across the whole of Northern Ireland only 60 beds are available in hostel-type accommodation for people who have committed sexual offences.
The majority of sex offenders live in private accommodation.
Hostels - the proper term is supported accommodation - have restrictions on the number of sex offenders they house and the beds are allocated on a basis of need and assessment.
The decision of housing has nothing to do with police or MASRAM.
It is up to the sex offender to find appropriate accommodation which complies with any court restrictions or orders.
If no appropriate accommodation can be found the sex offender is sent straight back to prison.
"The offender is in breach of his licence if he does not live in approved accommodation. If their is no appropriate accommodation then he ends up back in prison.
"People have spent a long time in prison because they cannot find appropriate accommodation," said Mr McAuley.
While sex offenders come from all walks of life and can strike in any place, Belfast's 'Golden Mile', from Queen's University down towards the city centre, is the highest-risk sex offending area for adults in Northern Ireland according to Mr McAuley.
The majority of sex offences against adults in that area are not being carried out by convicted sex offenders but by offenders who have not yet been brought to the attention of the authorities.
Due to the number of bars, clubs, night spots and proximity to the university area, the 'Golden Mile' is a favoured area for teenagers, students and young adults and therefore it is a preferred haunt for sexual predators who are looking for vulnerable targets.
"Predatory sex offenders will target those areas where people are more vulnerable. The 'Golden Mile' does lend itself to a range of vulnerabilities through alcohol and late night venues," said Mr McAuley.
Different resident groups in south Belfast have often complained about sex offenders being housed in their area, saying that they do not feel safe letting their children walk along the streets.
"But when did they ever feel safe sending their kids down there?" asked Mr McAuley.
"By sending 10-year-old girls to walk down there by themselves is already increasing their vulnerability because everyone knows the majority of sex offences against adults occur down that golden mile," he added.
"Why send your children down the highest risk area of Northern Ireland? Sex predators are already there. The re-offending rate is very low. Most offences reported to police are new cases, they are new people."
When there are rumours of sex offenders being housed in an area it can lead to angry protests and even vigilante attacks. However, Mr McAuley said that people have to realise that sex offenders will always be there.
"I do not have the luxury of being able to choose whether you have sex offenders or you do not but a community can take steps to reduce their vulnerability and that's the message we need to get out.
"You do not go out and get drunk and separated from your friends and stagger down the road at 1.30am, because sex predators are out there and see that as an opportunity," he said.
And referring back to his favoured analogy, he added: "Just like with cancerous tumours you cannot remove them all. Over 9,000 people have convictions for sex offences.
"Where do you send them? There is no way you can surgically remove all of those.
"If you do you are only removing the tip of the iceberg, those that you know about.
"If the public thought we had removed all sex offenders then they are in an even more risky situation, because they would naively think the problem was solved."