Opinion Column

The duty of vigilance is ours

By Steve Burgess

This combo picture made of two undated images released by Interpol 07 October 2007 shows a man who it said had posted pictures on the Internet of himself raping young boys, with at (L) the original image digitally 'swirled' to disguise his face as it was posted on the web and at (R) the photo after a special crimes unit in Germany managed to produce. According to the police organization, some 200 photos have been circulating of the man assaulting 12 different young boys. (AFP/Getty Images)

This combo picture made of two undated images released by Interpol 07 October 2007 shows a man who it said had posted pictures on the Internet of himself raping young boys, with at (L) the original image digitally 'swirled' to disguise his face as it was posted on the web and at (R) the photo after a special crimes unit in Germany managed to produce. According to the police organization, some 200 photos have been circulating of the man assaulting 12 different young boys. (AFP/Getty Images)

Two-Face, the Riddler, Dr. Octopus—villain names are fun in comics.

But Swirl Face? Not so much. Maple Ridge man Christopher Neil earned the “Swirl Face” moniker in 2007 after Interpol decrypted a photo that he had attempted to disguise with a digital swirl effect. The photos recorded Neil sexually abusing underaged boys in Cambodia and sparked a manhunt that led to his arrest and imprisonment, first in Thailand and then here.

But Neil has served his time — or at least the legally-required fraction of it — and is now out of jail. He is still hemmed in by a cage of restrictions including a prohibition against possessing devices that could access the Internet and a ban on visiting playgrounds or parks.

Those legal trip-wires have a way of catching convicted pedophiles — Neil has already been jailed once before for having a prohibited laptop. For now though Neil is back in the community.

No type of offender is more despised than the pedophile, inside jails and out. They can inspire genuine sympathy — many are victims of abuse themselves, and many are filled with self-loathing over impulses they struggle to control. But any sympathy for pedophiles must always be secondary to the need to protect young victims.

And while some sexual offenders try to overcome their impulses, others seek only to indulge them. By this time it is generally accepted that those sexual impulses can never be erased — pedophiles can only attempt to control their behaviour. They can't stop wanting what they want.

That's why pedophiles represent perhaps the ultimate challenge to civil society, both the legal system and the community at large. A just legal system seeks to rehabilitate, and the intractability of pedophilia can seem like an unsolvable problem. How do you deal with someone whose fundamental urges drive them to abuse children?

As for the wider community, the fear that monsters roam unseen is powerful, and that fear in turn can unleash people's worst instincts. A widespread sense that the law is too lenient creates a threat of  vigilantism. More than any other crime, child abuse inspires the belief that people have a right to mete out their own justice.

It can't be that way. Personally, I doubt that Neil will remain free for very long, but that responsibility is in his own hands. The duty of vigilance is in ours.