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Senate tables child protection Bill

Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Minister of Legal Affairs (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Residents who commit sexual assaults against Bermudian-based children overseas could face prosecution on the island under legislation backed by senators yesterday.

Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, said the legislation was an “important component” of a wide-ranging Bill that was given unanimous backing by the Upper House.

Ms Simmons added: “An important component of this Bill is that it addresses the circumstances of child sexual abuse that could not be prosecuted due to jurisdictional issues.

“These usually entail evidence implicating local suspects having molested local children while overseas.

“Given the frequency of travel of our population to foreign jurisdictions, this issue is of particular concern. The Bill will amend the Criminal Code to allow prosecution in these particular circumstances.”

Ms Simmons said the Child Safeguarding (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act 2019 would bring Bermuda’s laws into line with an internationally recognised “gold standard” on child protection.

Ms Simmons explained the Bill included stricter penalties for offenders in child sex abuse cases with aggravating factors and the removal of a time bar for prosecution.

The legislation, which has 59 clauses and aims to amend six other pieces of Acts, would ensure that sexual offences against children are prioritised.

“It would also change the language of earlier laws to make them gender neutral and less “archaic”.

She said: “As a government and as a community, we are all concerned about the safeguarding of our children.

“The Government is committed to doing everything that we can to prevent the maltreatment of our children and to protect their right to grow and thrive in a safe environment.”

Ms Simmons explained: “In particular the Bill aims to prevent and combat sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children, protect the rights of child victims of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and promote national and international co-operation against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children.

“This Bill will bring Bermuda into compliance with the internationally recognised standards set by the Lanzarote Convention.”

Ms Simmons said: “Bermuda can take pride that while preparing for this extension, it was ascertained that Bermuda’s current legislation was predominantly compliant. The improvements we are seeking today with this Bill will further strengthen our child safeguarding regime and modernise our approach to sexual offences in general.”

As tabled, the Bill would amend the definition of “child” to mean someone under the age of 18 and update older legislation by removing terms now considered offensive or inaccurate.

Ms Simmons explained that aggravating factors, which would attract harsher penalties, included offences that seriously damaged the victim’s physical or mental health, or that included torture or violence.

Offenders who are related to, or share a home with, a victim could also be subject to tougher punishments.

Ms Simmons said the legislation would remove the sole remaining statute of limitations for any sexual offence that prevents reporting of an incident after a 12-month time bar has expired.

She added: “It is important to note that there are currently many criminal offences prescribed in law that can only be committed against a female child.

“That is to say, if the same acts were committed against a male child, they would not be prosecutable.

“This is a longstanding omission in our laws attributable to social values and perceptions that pertained at the time these laws were enacted which are not in alignment with current realities and sensibilities.

“The Bill ensures equal protection under the law for all children with increased penalties for the offenders.”

Ms Simmons added that the legislation would make sure courts treat all criminal proceedings for sexual offences against children as a “priority for case management purposes” and it encourages investigations and prosecutions to be completed “with as little delay as possible”.

It would also remove the need for corroboration for a child’s testimony and allow for cases to continue even if a child victim had withdrawn his or her statement and to update how evidence was given.

Ms Simmons said: “The Bill permits a child’s evidence to be pre-recorded in the absence of the jury and the accused, and that the recording may be accepted as evidence during court proceedings.

“By so doing, child victims will be afforded the protection of being heard in the courtroom without being present through the use of appropriate communication technologies.”

Ms Simmons added that “very importantly” the Bill would mean that the director of the Department of Child and Family Services will arrange “physical and psychosocial assistance” for a child who is either the victim or perpetrator of a sexual offence.

She added that the law would make sure that anyone on the Child Abuse Register or Sex Offender Register would be barred jobs in areas that involved regular contact with children, including healthcare, schools, counselling, social work, youth leaders and the clergy.

The legislation would also ensure that DNA profiles of convicted sex offenders were kept on the register.

Michelle Simmons, an independent senator, said: “Sometimes we tend to bury our heads in the sand, but this is not the time for that because we need to acknowledge as a community, that, on a regular basis in this community, in this wonderful paradise in which we live, we’re blessed to live here, children are being abused. They are being sexually abused, they’re being sexually exploited.”

The Bill will have to be debated and approved in the House of Assembly before it becomes law.