A case of ethical reporting

2016-07-20 06:00

SEX offenders, especially those who prey on children, deserve nothing less than to be strung up by their “you know whats”.

Have such indelicate thoughts ever crossed your mind?

I would go so far as to say that almost all parents will relate to such sentiments.

Society’s outrage and horror over sex crimes involving children is understandable and justified.

These are inexcusable crimes perpetrated on the most vulnerable and defenceless members of the community and their consequences are huge.

Abused children are known to often become future abusers and their experiences may haunt them and their future relationships forever.

The truth of this was highlighted in 2014, in a case where a Richmond primary school teacher, Robin Radley, pleaded guilty after 20 years to having sexually abused two pupils who had finally found the courage to report his crimes.

Speaking to The Witness at the time, on condition of anonymity, the victims described the shame that had prevented them from speaking out earlier.

One man said he finally “cracked” af-ter undergoing counselling but will carry the scars of his ordeal forever.

The other went on to sexually molest two young girls himself and it was only when undergoing therapy as part of his court sentence that his secret was brought into the open.

The public’s righteous indignation about incidents like this has led to calls for the media to “name and shame” sexual predators so that society can protect its offspring against such evil.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

There are two important considerations. Of paramount importance is the need to protect the victim from being identified and exposed to secondary trauma.

One must also guard against any possibility of labelling an innocent person a sexual predator.

In recent weeks, this type of offence has been very much in the public eye following the dramatic arrest, court appearance and bail application by a former guidance counsellor employed at a Pietermaritzburg primary school. The case sent shock waves through the local community and made headlines in The Witness, and has been reported on widely in online and print media.

While a certain local publication chose to publish a photograph of the counsellor (in my view purely for sensational reasons), The Witness took a firm stance not to compromise on its ethical duty to protect the alleged victims in the case — young children between the ages of four years and 10 years.

To ensure their anonymity, the name of the man accused of raping and sexually abusing at least four children at his former school has not been published in The Witness. The editor has further stipulated that the man’s name and that of the school may never be published if this is what it takes to protect the children. The same principle is routinely applied in all cases where a rapist or sexual offender is related to the victim and the publication of his or her name will inevitably reveal the identity of the victim.

It is, in any case, breaking the law to name an accused person in a sexual case before he or she has formally pleaded to the charge. Section 154 (2) (b) of the Criminal Procedure Act prohibits the publication of the name of an accused in a sexually related case before he or she has pleaded. Section 154 (5) makes it an offence to do so.

The seriousness and heinous nature of the charges against the counsellor in this matter cannot be downplayed.

Nor can the legitimate anguish and anger felt by parents and grandparents of the children who have reported abuse, allegedly at his hands.

At the same time, however, the media and the public have a duty not to lose sight of the fact that in terms of our Constitution, every person (even an alleged child rapist) has the right to a fair trial and to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Cool heads are called for so that ultimately the truth will prevail.

This applies too to the former colleagues of the counsellor. Parents and family members of pupils who have said they were abused by him were outraged when a group of teachers attended the case and appeared to be openly siding with the counsellor. While loyalty to friends is an admirable trait, in a case as sensitive as this I venture to suggest that extreme circumspection is called for by all concerned. The teaching staff cannot know what evidence the police and prosecution have which led to the arrest of the counsellor and it would be wise for them to reserve their judgment, more especially as they are entrusted with the care of the very children who are the alleged victims in the matter.

It should also be borne in mind that teachers are among a group of professional people for whom the reporting of suspected physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect of children in their care is mandatory in terms of Section 110 of the Children’s Amendment Act. This is according to the South African Medical Journal website. The website states that the reporting (to child protection organisations, provincial Department of Social Development or the police) must be done “as soon as the suspicion is formed on reasonable grounds”.

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