MPs: Island must face the truth on sex abuse
Parents must get more comfortable talking about child sexual abuse and the wider community needs to “face up to the truth” that it is happening, MPs said yesterday.
The House of Assembly heard that the issue had been “hidden for far too long” in Bermuda.
Members passed the Child Safeguarding (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act 2019, which is designed to help protect minors from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Jamahl Simmons, the Minister without Portfolio, opened the debate on behalf of health minister Kim Wilson and said the Bill would bring the island under the “gold standard” of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
Mr Simmons told the House that existing legislation in Bermuda was “predominantly compliant”.
“These improvements will further strengthen child safeguarding, and modernise our approach to sexual offences in general,” he said.
Michael Scott, a Progressive Labour Party backbencher, feared some children would grow up thinking the issue of child sex abuse was one that affected only black families.
He provided statistics from a US study that showed a quarter of girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and said “only 10 per cent” of the children were abused by strangers.
Mr Scott added that he believed it was important for Bermuda to have more “explicit data”, including the proportion of incidents broken down by race.
He said: “In Bermuda, where there’s a 60 per cent black population, 40 per cent white, those distributions between our races, are completely even, but we don’t have the breakdown on race-based reporting.
“However, we all know that the cases that make the courts, hit the courts, are by and large reports of our black community.”
Mr Scott said he was concerned that the legislation would be perceived as a law that will be “seen primarily” as to be administered “in the courts where the victims are largely black or in a majority black”.
The veteran MP added: “I know, I repeat, that this kind of conduct of sexual abuse between siblings, between adults and trusted persons, is happening in the white community as well, but I think that the white society, and I speak frankly, the white society simply don’t turn their children in.
“Something happens, and we have this disparity where the black community, black families, no less traumatised than white families, find these matters advancing to the court,” Mr Scott explained. “And it sends a signal to the young black kids that are reading this in the paper, or watching it on television reporting, that black people only are experiencing this problem in their community, and it’s not good.”
The MP hoped more statistics for Bermuda could be gathered to generate a better understanding of the issue and help determine “how to eradicate it”.
Craig Cannonier, the Leader of the Opposition, responded that the issue was not about race.
He said: “If you are abusing a child you need to be dealt with.”
Mr Cannonier cited a figure relayed by Kelly Hunt, the executive director of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, who said in an opinion piece published in The Royal Gazette this week, that the Bermuda Police Service estimated 95 per cent of all cases of child abuse on the island are ignored, or not reported.
The One Bermuda Alliance leader said: “In Bermuda, we don’t want to face up to the truth.Bermudians are known for speaking their mind ... but, when it comes to this issue here of safeguarding our kids, we’re silent.”
Mr Cannonier, who was a member of the parliamentary joint select committee that published its report on matters related to sex offenders last year, said that children often learnt from family members, and were less likely to report abuse, if they saw their adult relatives keep quiet.
He added: “We have a fundamental problem in this island of speaking the truth to this issue, that has been hidden for far too long.”
Renee Ming, the Government backbencher from St George’s who chaired the JSC, said that “education, awareness and effective preventive measures” were key.
She explained: “The preventive measures mean we don’t even have to get into the other stuff, if we continue to educate ourselves, educate our children, be not afraid to talk about what makes us feel uncomfortable, because, that too is a problem within our communities.
“We are uncomfortable talking about this very topic.”
Ms Ming added: “We need to be saying to our parents that, you cannot be uncomfortable having this discussion with your children again, those days are done, over and dusted.
“You would need to start having these types of conversations, probably, like four or five years old.”
The Bill provides the Government with greater latitude for bringing offenders to justice, like in cases when residents commit sexual assaults against Bermudian-based children overseas.
“It also brings in gender neutrality, creating parity for offences regardless of gender, and updates “archaic” terminology from older legislation.
The sweeping Bill, which was passed by senators earlier this month, does away with the island’s last remaining statute of limitations for sexual offences, and adds aggravating factors that draw sharper penalties.
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