We can’t imagine how unsettling it must be to find photographs of your child posted online by a registered sex offender who took the pictures without permission. Nor can we imagine the frustration in discovering that it is perfectly legal.

But as the Legislature considers a solution to this upsetting situation, brought to light in the case of an Augusta man who was taking photos in public places around the capital city, it’s worth acknowledging where we are most vulnerable to sexual predation.

We don’t have to look far. Dominating news for the past week has been the trial of Larry Nassar, who was sentenced Wednesday to at least 40 years in prison for sexually abusing women and girls while working as a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. For more than 25 years, Nassar used the trust and authority afforded by his status to assault dozens upon dozens of victims, while many people in a position to stop him looked the other way at warning signs or flat-out ignored complaints from young athletes.

Time and time again, that is how sexual predators are allowed to upset lives. They’re in positions where trust, power and access are inherent – they are coaches, teachers, priests, family members. They take advantage of people’s tendency to yield to authority, their fear of making false accusations and – in the case of Nassar, Jerry Sandusky at Penn State or the Catholic Church – their unwillingness to look deeply into problems at profitable institutions.

Meanwhile, we have to settle for well-intentioned but flawed initiatives that don’t do much beyond making people feel safer.

The effectiveness of public sex offender registries, for instance, is highly questionable, with studies showing little impact on sex crimes or recidivism. Restricting where sex offenders can live also doesn’t do much for public safety; in fact, by hindering an offender’s ability to find housing, these laws make it more likely that someone will re-offend.


These laws are driven by a very understandable fear and a very reasonable need to do something. That’s also the impetus behind a bill from Rep. Matt Pouliot, an Augusta Republican. His constituents were among those infuriated by the recent case in which a convicted sex offender was found to have taken and posted on social media dozens of photos of local children.

The bill, which would bar sex offenders from taking photos of minors in public without parental permission, faces an uphill climb. Similar legislation in Wisconsin was ruled unconstitutional. Like the registries, it would target only the offenders who have been caught, doing nothing to stop those without a conviction from exploiting kids. And it is always tricky to fashion legislation in response to a single, seemingly isolated incident.

But if it ignites a discussion about how we can protect kids, then it is worth considering.

We’ve learned a little already about what can be done absent a new law. One parent said she was taking out a protection from harassment order, which would keep the offender away from her children. Individual stores have banned the perpetrator. Parents and police can contact social media sites and pressure them to act. Another central Maine parent said she had talked with her children about being aware of their surroundings and on the lookout for inappropriate behavior.

But experience also tells us that teaching kids about “stranger danger” is not enough. Parents and other adults in positions of power have to recognize the signs of abuse. They have to be prepared to believe children when they speak out, and to act on what they say, even when it’s uncomfortable.

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