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Tuesday, 15 August, 2000, 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK
Vigilantes target innocent people
The News of the World
The News of the World carried out a two-week campaign
A BBC debate on sex offenders has heard that at least 55 innocent people have been attacked by anti-paedophile protesters in the past few years.

The two-hour debate on BBC Radio Five Live, hosted by Nicholas Witchell, came in the wake of the murder of the eight-year-old schoolgirl Sarah Payne.

The programme explored the implications of Sarah's Law, which would give parents controlled access to the details of paedophiles living in their area.

It would also give the courts more power to hand out harsher penalties to convicted sex offenders.

The debate, broadcast from Nottingham on Tuesday evening, focused on the numerous vigilante demonstrations which had taken place around the country, and in particular in Portsmouth, since the News of the World launched its "naming and shaming" of paedophiles campaign.

Sarah Payne
Sarah Payne was murdered in July
The newspaper, which had originally vowed to "out" 110,000 convicted paedophiles, called a halt to its campaign after mass criticism from the police and children's charities.

Therapist Ray Wyre, who works with paedophiles, told the live debate that he knew of at least 55 innocent people who had been attacked during the past three or four years since the debate began over the introduction of the sex offenders' register.

Call for life sentences

He said: "If we as a community could be vigilant, if we could be aware and use the information in order to protect our children then the whole community could be involved in child protection.

"If, however, the community cannot hold the information without intimidation, without threat, without attack, then you create an environment where the authorities are not going to disclose information."

Mr Wyre called on the government to implement a proper programme to educate people on the different types of paedophile and concentrate more on prevention rather than cure.

George Belmont, a convicted paedophile, who was named and shamed in the News of the World warned that vigilante action could drive paedophiles underground.

Mr Belmont, who has convictions dating back to the 1960s and who has been out of prison since 1998, said: "When people are frightened they become dangerous.

"People are less likely to offend if they are allowed to live quietly and peacefully than if they are hassled and harrassed. It takes a long time for an ex-offender to be rehabilitated and it doesn't help if they are going to be hounded."

Shadow Home Office spokesman, John Bercow, called on the government to look at introducing life sentences, bans on offenders living near their victims and lengthier tagging schemes.

'Listen to the children'

Home Office minister Lord Bassam said the government was looking towards toughening up the law on sexual offences but said there were grave misgivings about the widespread publication of the names and addresses of sex offenders.

He said: "We cannot tolerate the descent into mob rule and we must go on looking for ways that we can minimise the risk to our children that sex offenders pose."

The programme also heard that the majority of sex offences on children occur within the home and most offenders were never convicted.

Chris Hollis from Childline said the most important point was to keep listening to children involved in the abuse.

"We still live in an environment where it is very difficult for children to talk to adults about things going on in their lives," he said.

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