Newspaper defends publicizing sex offenders’ names and photos

On Sept. 15, the Calgary Sun published a front-page story titled, “Hundreds of convicted predators among us.” The print edition cover featured pictures of 10 convicted sexual offenders released on parole.

Four of those 10 individuals were clients of a local support agency called Circles of Support and Accountability, or CoSA. The Calgary organization is dedicated to helping newly released sex offenders reintegrate into society and helping them from reoffending. At the time the article was published, all four had been out in the public for over a year without any violations, according to CoSA director, Jayson Besserer.

Tracy Robertson, a CoSA volunteer, said that during the first few days of the article’s release, some of the clients had received death threats. She said the men were worried about the reactions of their co-workers and employers.

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“Initially it was different levels of reaction but as time went on things kind of got worse, some of them even ended up losing jobs and stuff,” said Robertson.

Emergency meetings had to take place. At CoSA, Robertson said there was “lots of pulling together with all the guys and volunteers” dealing with the fallout.

Besserer confirmed the ensuing negative publicity left his organization in crisis mode, leading to emergency circle meetings with clients.

CoSA argues that the Sun coverage caused additional stress to their clients. When clients get stressed, he added, they are more likely to reoffend.

Besserer refused to comment any further on the story, citing fears that by talking about his clients, he would become caught in a “media war” — a war he said his organization couldn’t win.

The Calgary Sun’s rationale

Jose Rodriguez, editor-in-chief at the Calgary Sun, said the paper worked with the Calgary Police Service and the Alberta Solicitor General on the Sun’s list of offenders most likely to reoffend.

According to Rodriguez, the list of the 10 offenders came from the Calgary Police, as well as the Solicitor General. As well, the Parole Board of Canada listed the 10 men as high-risk offenders. The photos of the men used in the Sun’s front-page story were accessed from the Alberta Solicitor General website.

The photos of the men used in the Sun’s front-page story were accessed from the Alberta Solicitor General website.

Photo illustration by: James Paton

The hook for the article, as Rodriguez put it, was the B.C. abduction case involving Randall Peter Hopley, the man accused of abducting a three-year-old boy from his family home in early September. It was later found that Hopley had been convicted of sexual assault, and accused of “unlawful confinement and attempted abduction” of another child.

“He was a sex offender, and he was released and nobody knew about it,” said Rodriguez.

When asked about reception to the article Rodriguez said, “Overall, most of the comments were ‘thank yous’ instead of ‘oh nos.’”

Gordon Sand, John Howard Society

Gordon Sand is executive director at the John Howard Society, an organization that advocates restorative justice and crime prevention. Sand’s Calgary organization works closely with parolees attempting to reintegrate into society.

In commenting on the Sun coverage, Sand said the article hurt the efforts of groups such as CoSA.

“It’s a perfect example of what happens when there’s some kind of public notification about somebody who’s already out,” says Sand. “It has sent several of these individuals back to the beginning.”

“If they don’t succeed they can do terrible things to innocent people,” says Sgt.Rich Velhoen.“By putting out their picture what are you expecting people to do? What is it asking people to do? All it does if people do see the person, they can hassle them and so forth. It creates fear on the part of the individual because they think everybody knows who they are,” Sand says.

When asked whether the article served the public good, Sand accused the Sun of using scare tactics to bolster the bottom line.

“It sells papers. I think the people who write those articles don’t know who they’re talking about because they never met those individuals. They never talked to them. It’s irresponsible.”

“By putting out their picture what are you expecting people to do?” asks Gordon Sand of John Howard Society.

Photo illustration by: James Paton

“The people who write these articles tend to use names that are inflammatory, they use names like predator and slime ball. You’ll find this all the time in media, it’s meant to fuel the fire,” said Sand.

Sgt. Rich Veldhoen, High Risk Offender Program

Sergeant Rich Veldhoen of the Calgary Police Service High Risk Offender Program was interviewed for the Calgary Sun article. The unit has two main goals — reintegration of offenders and crime prevention, said Veldhoen.

“If they’re employed, it shows they’re less likely to commit an offence. When these guys are out in the community and they’re doing good honest work, there’s a positive side for everyone.”

Veldhoen was quoted by the Sun as saying, “it’s no longer just a wolf among the lambs,” referring to publicizing sexual offenders through public notifications via the Alberta government’s Solicitor General website. While Veldhoen wouldn’t comment on how he was portrayed in the Sun article, he emphasized his unit’s concern for offenders who lost their jobs.

“Our team, we want to see these guys succeed,” said Veldhoen. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that these guys succeed. Anything we can do to help them succeed is good news for everyone. Because if they don’t succeed they can do terrible things to innocent people.”

As for the four CoSA clients, Robertson confirmed some men were getting leads on new jobs, while others were continuing to avoid the public.

gwilliamson@cjournal.ca