Molester Registry Pleases No One

In Arizona, convicted child molesters are required by law to register with the local sheriff. The sheriffs then turn in the names to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which maintains a computerized registry of all convicted child molesters who live in Arizona--including people who were convicted in other states and then moved to Arizona.

But the list is secret: Members of the public are barred by law from seeing the DPS' child-molester roster, even parents who want to check out a neighbor, teacher or priest who seems just a little too interested in taking Junior skinny-dipping or on unsupervised camping trips. The so-called "sex-offender registry" law, which was successfully sponsored by Scottsdale Republican Jim Skelly in 1983, allows only a few people access to the list. These include local, state and national police, as well as employers researching the backgrounds of job applicants, like teachers, who will be working near children.

The secrecy of the sex-offender registry seems to baffle everyone--officials from the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the Arizona First Amendment Coalition, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, and Jim Skelly himself. "It's not public? I never knew it wasn't open to the public," says Skelly, who says the intent of his law is to aid law-enforcement authorities and the public.

The law also distresses a Scottsdale man whose fifteen-year-old son was molested by Roman Catholic priest George Bredemann. The priest is currently serving a year-long jail term for molesting the Scottsdale boy and two other youths. The fact that Father George, who will be out of jail next July, is registered on a list other parents can't see is almost too much for this Scottsdale father, who calls Skelly's law "silly and stupid." "Confidentiality for these guys when they committed a crime like that is ridiculous," he says. "If they made a law to protect the public, then why deny the public access to the information to protect it?"

Louis Rhodes, the executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, says the sex-offender registry law is a "miserable thing," and that he was opposed by his group from the start. "The law gives us a potential clash between the First Amendment and the privacy rights of the individual," he says. "So the ACLU has no official position on it. It's a very close call."

"This is the sign of a police state," growls Paul Eckstein, a Phoenix lawyer and member of the First Amendment Coalition, which assists the press in getting public information from reluctant government officials. "I'm not convinced that the registry itself serves any societal good, but if you're going to have a registry, why can't everyone see it?" he says. "How can the press watch what the government is doing if the law requires people to register for something and then prevents all but government officials to see the information?"

Even Terry Jennings, a prosecutor from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which can see the list whenever it wants, has trouble with the law. He says he recently attended a parent-teacher meeting in which parents were outraged to discover that for months a convicted child molester had lived in a house near a grade school. "You can see in a situation like that there might be some compelling need for parents to have the knowledge," he says. And, Jennings adds, the public has no way to check out swimming instructors, Boy Scout volunteers or countless other professionals who have access to kids.

Skelly says he couldn't agree more. "Why would we not make that information public?" he says. In the next legislative session, he says, he's "going to look into changing that baby.

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Terry Greene