Community's right to know of threat must come first

COMMENT

December 20, 1998|By Mike Burns

A SCHOOL BUDGET hearing rarely draws such a crowd. Even a controversial redistricting plan to send children to another school probably wouldn't prompt such a turnout. Curriculum revisions briefing? Not a chance.

But more than 100 angry parents showed up at Mount Airy Elementary School last Tuesday night at a hastily arranged meeting with authorities. The subject was sexual abuse of children: the recent alleged assaults on three elementary school girls, and the suspicion of further victims.

These parents were mad. They were frightened about their children falling prey to a sexual predator in the area. They wanted assurances from police and prosecutors and school officials that their children would be protected from his perverted predations.

Much of the anger and frustration erupted from the lack of notification and information about these crimes on children in the community, where two schools are located.

Rumors in Mount Airy

For weeks, rumors had flown from house to house in Mount Airy. The word-of-mouth stories changed in the retelling, but there was nothing to assuage the anxiety of these parents.

Sgt. Ronald S. Mosco, who heads the child abuse unit under the state police and state's attorney office, reported that his office had been swamped with calls from outraged parents who learned about the suspect's arrest from the news media.

Those callers presumably got more accurate information, but the answers to their gnawing questions were not all that comforting.

So, in an unusual move, he and other officials arranged a public meeting in the school cafeteria to set the record straight and answer parent questions directly.

Because of the legal implications for a possible trial of the suspect in all three cases, authorities sometimes evaded

questions. They didn't want the meeting to be prejudicial and compromise a prosecution. The chief investigator of the cases was absent for that reason. No children were permitted to attend, as a further precaution against tainting the process.

It was an honest attempt to respond to a nightmarish community concern -- something that law officials too often are loath to undertake. It is safer for them to talk about rights of the accused and to stonewall.

63-year-old suspect

One of the repeated questions at the meeting was why neighbors were not notified of the presence of a convicted sex criminal in their midst. The 63-year-old suspect in these cases had served jail time for child sex offenses in 1980.

That was prior to the 1995 legislation known as "Megan's Law" that established a required registry of child sexual offenders and community notification of an offender in the area. People with offenses before then are not required to register with police or the public safety department.

But Mount Airy families were not satisfied. Why didn't police -- or the schools -- tell them of the investigation and alert them to the potential danger to children, the residents asked last week. After all, the suspect quickly made $15,000 bail and was released after his arrest last month.

Notification would have jeopardized the investigation and the suspect might have fled, officials explained, pointing to Maryland law governing lawyers and trial publicity.

Weak excuse

And that weak excuse splashed cold water on the whole meeting.

What could possibly have been jeopardized by a community warning that child sex crimes had been reported in that neighborhood next to two public schools? No names, just a community alert to recurring crimes.

If a series of armed robberies is reported in a certain area, does alerting the public jeopardize a professional police investigation of the crimes? Of course not.

For an investigation to begin, there had to be a prior report of an offense. To place the suspect under police surveillance for at least a month (as was done) there had to be credible evidence that such crimes had occurred.

What was in jeopardy?

So what was in jeopardy, the chance for law officers to catch the pedophile suspect in the act of molesting another child? To build the legalistic case at the risk of a further offense?

Couldn't investigators question victims and witnesses, families and social agencies about the matter without tipping their hand to the suspect?

And don't law enforcement officers have the capability to apprehend a well-identified fugitive should he get wind of the inquiry? Those indicting questions of parents remain unanswered, despite the public gesture of openness by authorities.

If you doubt the lasting effect of these unspeakable crimes against the innocent, listen to the words of Sergeant Mosco: "Some children will show symptoms. Some show none. And some show up 10 years later."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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