Commentary: Protect children by speaking up about abuse

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Frank Thomson in the hall outside his Chestnut Hill Academy classroom in the mid-1970s. He is serving a one-year sentence for child sexual abuse.

It's crucial to bring to light the crimes of sexual predators at Chestnut Hill Academy (now Springside Chestnut Hill Academy) in Philadelphia, and Solebury School in Bucks County, and those perpetrated by an accused handyman in Bucks County who is thought to have molested children as young as 3 years of age for as long as 40 years.

These predators should receive the convictions and sentences they deserve. But equally as important is what happens afterward.

While our laws don't always protect the innocent, one very powerful measure gives victims a voice and helps to monitor serial sexual predators once released from jail to stop them from attacking anew.

I'm referring to the various incarnations of Megan's Law, which victims can deploy confidentially to ensure that predators are monitored correctly - oversight that sometimes can last an offender's lifetime.

Under Megan's Laws, a hearing is held after a conviction to decide upon the degree of monitoring and notification to the community in which the offender lives. Police and prosecutors evaluate an offender's risk by assessing as many as 13 factors, including the defendant's degree of violence, the age and number of victims, and the period of time over which the assaults occurred. In the end, a judge decides on the level of monitoring.

Tier One offenders - low-risk - generally have their whereabouts made known only to local police. For Tier Two medium risks, the word goes out not only to police, but also to civic groups, schools, day-care centers, and the like. In addition, Tier Two offenders may appear in a state's online sex-offender registry.

The worst of the worst, Tier Three offenders, are listed in the state registry. Notification is deep and wide - and could involve police knocking on doors for people living within a quarter-mile of the convicted person's residence. In some cases, the offender's home and computer can be searched periodically. When the offender moves, other towns and states may be notified.

Here is a key part of these laws for victims: they can come forward confidentially and work with law enforcement and prosecutors even when their victimization is beyond the statute of limitations or a crime apart from the offense for which the defendant was sentenced.

As we continue to read about serial sexual predators, whether in the Catholic Church, or New England prep schools, or in local institutions, it's clear we must do more to address this horrific problem.

In the case of predator Frank Thomson, who taught at Chestnut Hill Academy for 26 years, volunteered at the Boy Scouts, and lives three blocks from a family beach in Cape May, he might well be eligible for release to house arrest within weeks despite his recent nominal one-year sentence. Considering that the allegations against him go back 40 years, monitoring is critical.

There is still time to act. His Megan Law hearing will take place in about two months, and Dara Paley of the Cape May County's Prosecutor's Office is amassing testimony for that hearing. She can be reached at 609-465-1135.

Moreover, it is critical that our institutions - schools, churches, synagogues, and day-care centers - be proactive. Having policies in place for fresh complaints is not enough. Institutions must investigate allegations, new or old, and follow through to keep communities informed about predators, to make amends for the past, and to develop a process to help victims. These institutions must also inform law enforcement.

Too often, gatekeepers underestimate the willingness of people to digest and wrestle with complex and dark subjects. They may think they are protecting the reputation of the organizations by minimizing communication. Wrong. The number one goal of every organization involved with children must be their protection and safety. By being proactive and promoting justice for all children, leaders signal that this type of misconduct is unacceptable and that all resources will be brought to bear on violators.

Granted, these atrocities are tough to discuss and our culture tends to suppress this information. According to national statistics, one in four girls and one in six boys are assaulted before the age of 18, yet fewer than 10 percent of victims tell anyone what happened to them. And when victims finally do come forward, sometimes decades later, the statute of limitations has often expired.

There is nothing more important than standing up for innocent children, the disenfranchised, and others unable to speak up for themselves. But too often we let limited resources, short-term interests, rationalizations, and institutional constraints trump decisions that embody and advance our values.

Let us be guided by what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people."

Michael C. Hill is a 1980 graduate of Chestnut Hill Academy. mhillphil@gmail.com