Wherever he’s hiding these days, serial molester Graham James is surely reading about himself in the headlines, no doubt furious his predatory past is once again front-page news. The latest revelation—that the National Parole Board quietly pardoned the notorious pedophile hockey coach three years ago—has triggered as much outrage as the original charges, and exposed a long list of confusing truths about how our criminal justice system deals with dangerous sex offenders.
Thanks to Graham James, Canadians now know just how simple it is for a man who preys on teenage boys to have his criminal record wiped clean. Over the past two years, 1,554 sex offenders applied for a pardon; only 41 were rejected. Thanks to Graham James, Canadians also now know that a standard criminal background check doesn’t disclose the fact that a potential volunteer might be a pardoned predator. Those details only turn up in what’s known as a Vulnerable Sector Search (VSS), a much more exhaustive screening tool that requires fingerprints and weeks of waiting—and that many volunteer organizations don’t bother demanding.
The Harper government is already promising an overhaul. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has vowed to make it tougher for men like James to secure pardons, and his office is listening to suggestions that would ensure Boy Scout leaders and minor hockey coaches are thoroughly screened. But the James case has revealed another frightening loophole: pardoned sex offenders are automatically erased from the Ontario Sex Offender Registry.
“It is a matter of huge concern,” says Jim Stephenson, whose 11-year-old son Christopher was kidnapped and murdered by a known pedophile in 1988, and whose case sparked the creation of the Ontario registry. “Convicted sex offenders are being routinely erased because they get a pardon. They drop off the system—and out of sight.”
Launched in 2001, the Ontario database was the first registry of its kind in Canada. Every person in the province convicted of a sex crime is added to the system (12,905, at last count) and as soon as an offence is committed, the computer churns out a list of potential suspects who live in the area. But there’s a catch: if a rapist, pedophile or child pornographer is granted a pardon, he must be deleted. “It’s just mind-boggling,” says Det. Sgt. Rick Harrington, one of the Ontario Provincial Police officers who oversee the registry. “I call it the tsunami of pardons.”
And it’s growing bigger by the day. In 2007, 62 convicted sex offenders were pardoned and erased from the provincial database. In 2008, that figure nearly tripled to 158, and by the end of last year another 175 were spared the hassle of telling authorities where they live. All told, 433 names have been removed from the Ontario registry, and by the end of 2010 that number is projected to reach almost 700. The fear, of course, is that one of those pardoned deviants will strike again, and when the registry goes looking for suspects in the neighbourhood, his name will not show up. “Once you have a pardon on the file, it is completely evaporated,” Harrington says. “They will fall through the cracks. But just because they get a pardon doesn’t mean they’re not a person of interest to the police.”
The National Sex Offender Registry, created four years after the Ontario version, does not remove pardoned criminals from its database. But that doesn’t mean all those deleted convicts from Ontario remain on police radar. Inclusion on the national version is not automatic (a judge must order a person to comply) and thousands of Ontario residents who are listed on the provincial system are not on the federal one. So for them, a pardon still means no more registering. (James’s 1997 sexual abuse conviction predates both registries, so he is not on either one.)
A bill is now before Parliament that, if passed, will make drastic improvements to the national database, including mandatory registration. In the meantime, the OPP says it is working with the RCMP on ways to align both systems—and the pardon problem is part of those discussions. “We would support any legislative change that would make our communities safer,” says OPP Superintendent Dave Truax. Asked if our communities would be safer if pardoned sex offenders remained on the registry, he answered: “I don’t have any anecdotal data to state so, but my 20-plus years of being a police officer suggests that that may assist in making communities safer.”
Jim Stephenson has a simpler solution: don’t pardon sex offenders in the first place. “The research is in and the science is conclusive: a sex offender cannot be cured,” he says. “They are always going to have the capacity to reoffend. When you have a sexual assault on a child, that person should not be able to apply for a pardon with the same ease as a person convicted of break and enter.”