Good-faith efforts to expand safeguards against child sexual abuse have even some advocates wondering how far is too far when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable.
Meeting jointly with the board of selectmen for the second time this month, members of the town’s child sexual abuse advisory committee last week reviewed elements of a two-pronged approach to plug a legal loophole that could hinder criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse claims.
One element involves a bylaw amendment that would tweak the composition and scope of the seven-member child sexual abuse awareness committee, established in December 2013. Any such change, which also would reiterate the panel’s lack of investigatory powers, requires approval by voters at the May annual town meeting.
But more far-reaching, and sensitive, is a separate policy framework providing tools and guidance to help local police respond to predatory scenarios that cannot be prosecuted because they fall short of criminal conduct.
At present, the town requires all employees (which by definition includes youth sports coaches or others engaged in activities that utilize town facilities) to undergo awareness training and become “mandatory reporters” if alerted to suspicious activity related to sexual conduct.
The proposed policy, drafted with the assistance of Police Chief William Baker, addresses a gray area between suspicious or inappropriate behavior and that which meets the threshold of criminal activity under the law.
For example some behaviors, such as sexual predators using “grooming” techniques to gain the trust of young victims, fall short of criminal conduct and cannot be prosecuted.
Part of the policy framework would enable police to obtain a legal document known as serving a “letter of disinvite” to bar suspicious individuals from activities that utilize town-owned facilities — including schools, playgrounds and even conservation property.
But other parts of the framework go further, allowing authorities who are unable to bring criminal charges to inform private employers if one of their personnel was suspected of inappropriate behavior involving children.
And that goes too far, according to former selectman Lynda Walsh, who continues to serve on the child sexual abuse panel.
“I just think it’s pretty far-reaching,” said Walsh in explaining her discomfort with such action. “I get a little leery about that. It really opens up a gray area.”
Town Manager William Keegan said the proposed policy had been vetted by the town’s legal counsel and selectmen chairman Chris Mitchell reiterated his support for the measure — which could be adopted by a vote of the board of selectmen.
“I do think it’s needed,” Mitchell said. “I want everyone to adopt this policy and be fine with it.”
Joined last week by Rev. William Dudley, Nancy Stockwell and advisory panel Chairman Robert Correia, Walsh made clear that she did not speak for her colleagues — none of whom seemed to share Walsh’s squeamishness.
Rather, Dudley related an anecdote suggesting that child predators often relocate to new jobs in different areas after being identified or dismissed for suspicious behavior — but leaving no criminal trail behind.
This is precisely what authorities believe happened in the case of local schoolteacher, scoutmaster and swim instructor William Sheehan, whose crimes as a serial sex offender during the 1960s and ‘70s prompted criminal charges (never prosecuted) when they were disclosed in 2012.
Sheehan, who taught in Foxboro schools for two decades, relocated with his family to Ft. Myers, Florida in 1981, apparently still in good standing with the local school department. He was subsequently accused of abusing children at a Florida Boy Scout camp.
“Nine out of 10 predators are never arrested,” Dudley pointed out. “And that’s how they exploit kids.”
Not everyone was convinced, however. Kathy Brady of Cocasset Street, who has worked with the sexual abuse committee to administer the “Darkness to Light” curriculum to mandated reporters as part of the town awareness effort, shared Walsh’s concerns.
Rather than approaching private employers with suspicions, Brady said local police would do better simply monitoring predatory suspects in the same way they would monitor suspects of other crimes.
Selectman James DeVellis, who was instrumental in shaping the town’s early response to the Sheehan matter, framed the dilemma thusly:
“If you don’t bring it forward and something happens, you’d never forgive yourself,” DeVellis said. “If you bring it forward and nothing happened, you’ve ruined someone’s life.”
While committed to the policy proposal, selectmen seemed less enthusiastic about parts of the bylaw amendment which recommended replacing some members of the advisory panel with professionals who have expertise in child sexual abuse matters.
“They seem to have been doing quite well for the past five years,” Selectman David Feldman said of committee members. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”