NewsCrime Desk

Parents kept in the dark about secret probation scheme for sex offenders

Crime DeskBy Patrick O'Connell
Gerard Cleere wasn't part of the CoSA programme
Gerard Cleere wasn't part of the CoSA programme

DANGEROUS sex offenders are being secretly placed back within communities in Dublin as part of a trial funded by the Probation Service – without parents being informed of their past.

The Sunday World has learned the so-called ‘Circles of Support and Accountability’ (CoSA) trial, costing an estimated €215,000, has seen paedophiles described as “medium-to-high risk” placed in community settings.

The convicted sex attackers are then monitored by groups of between five to six volunteers as they rejoin society in a bid to “reduce” their risk of re-offending.

The inner circle of volunteers facilitate the paedophiles’ practical needs by helping them access employment and housing.

Parents are not warned that the person introduced into the community is a convicted paedophile, for fear of a public backlash.

Last night, the scheme was blasted by parents in Redcross, Co. Wicklow, where notorious child rapist Gerard Cleere joined the local church while concealing his past from parents– three years prior to the trial commencing.

Repeat sex-offender Cleere – who was freed from prison in 2011 – set up home in Laragh, Co. Wicklow, in 2012 and began attending services at Redcross Church.

The church’s pastor Roland Heaney this week told the Sunday World that after he learned of Cleere’s conviction for child rape he put steps in place to monitor him – but parents of children in the congregation were not made aware of his past.

Worryingly, two separate members of the congregation this week claimed that, within months of joining the church, Cleere was seen “placing his hands on a child” outside the church, while he also attended the home of another parishioner to give guitar lessons to his son.

One parent told the Sunday World: “I am very worried about the manner in which Gerard Cleere entered our church and parents weren’t told when authorities here found out who he was.

“After we found out who Cleere was we learned a number of people in the church had been monitoring him.

“We did some research and found out that this is something that happens as part of a programme run all over the world called CoSA.

“We were told Cleere wasn’t part of a CoSA programme, but the circumstances were very similar.

“Parents needs to be warned if a sex offender is living in the area.”

The CoSA scheme – which is already in practice in countries such as Canada, England, Wales, The Netherlands and Belgium – has been credited with reducing re-offending behaviour by researchers.

It was previously piloted by the HSE in the north-west, where a sex offender was placed within a ‘circle of trust’ involving a priest and four community activists who co-ordinated work for him that involved gardening and cleaning gravestones.

Local parents were not told of their new neighbour’s sick past, with the scheme relying on self-disclosure to keep the offender in check.

Last night, a Justice Department spokesman admitted the under-the-radar scheme had been in operation for more than a year.

“The Probation Service in partnership with a Community Based Organisation is piloting the use of CoSA with suitable individuals who have been convicted for sexual offences and are under court ordered supervision to the Probation Service. The pilot commenced in early 2015 and is for a two-year period, at which stage an evaluation will be completed,” they said.

According to supporters, the scheme aims to reduce the social isolation felt by medium-to-high risk offenders, thereby reducing the risk of re-offending. However, a similar scheme run by experts following the release of Gerard Cleere ended in disaster because local parents were not kept in the loop.

Sex offender Cleere’s attempts to re-integrate were abruptly ended when he was assaulted outside his Laragh home by the parent of the child he allegedly placed his hands on outside Redcross Church.

The assault led to local pastor Roland Heaney calling a meeting of the congregation two nights later, which was also attended by Philip Larragy – a chaplain at Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin who is now CEO of the organisation Prison Release Partnership Ltd.

In a previous interview, Mr Larragy explained how he has helped reintegrate convicted sex offenders into society through local organisations, using methods similar to the Circles of Support and Accountability scheme.

“Since we started, we have supported nine people following their release from prison,” he said. 

“Five of those have settled into churches. The good news is that none of those people have re-offended.  That is a significant statistic.

“Churches have a responsibility to protect people within the church, especially children,” he continued.

“If an offender poses a risk, there needs to be an appropriate amount of risk management. We use a contact and arrange for the person to have a mentor within the church.”

However, he continued, this does not mean that the ex-offender is “named and shamed”. 

“All of us come to church with our sin, none of us are made to stand up and publicly confess what we have done,” he emphasised.

Mr Larragy this week declined to comment on Cleere’s case and referred our queries on to Redcross Church.

Pastor of the Redcross Church Roland Heaney confirmed to the Sunday World that Cleere had attended the church, but said it had not been part of a pre-arranged placement.

“I’m not part of any CoSA scheme, I’m nothing to do with that at all,” Pastor Heaney said.

“Our church is open on Sunday morning and anyone can walk in through that church door.

“We cannot stand at that front door and say, ‘sorry, you cannot come in this morning’.

“That person was in our church and he arrived in our church before any discussions had taken place.

“What we did do was we put [monitoring] measures in place when we found out. He came to live in the area and he came to the church building and that’s how it was.

“It wasn’t a placement, there was no contract, we didn’t enter into a scheme with anybody.

“After I found out who he was and that Philip was in some way on board, I then turned to Philip and that’s how it happened.”

The man who assaulted Cleere this week told the Sunday World he has no regrets that his actions forced the child rapist out of the church and out of Laragh.

 “He [Cleere] approached my eight-year-old son outside the church,” he told the Sunday World.

“And on another occasion he knelt down in front of my other child outside the church and he ended up cowering behind his mother to get away from him.

“I made it my business to find out who he was and when I did I went out to his house in Laragh and said I’m the father of the two little boys you approached.

“He just laughed at me, so then I hit him a box in the mouth and that’s when he started crying and apologised for what he had done.

“We had a few more serious words and then two nights later Roly [Roland] Heaney called a meeting of the congregation and said one of the congregation had been very violently assaulted after a person had found out he was a paedophile.

“I had already gone to Gorey Garda Station and told them what I had done.

“I stood up at the meeting and I said it out straight that I was the one who had assaulted him and that I had previously made my concerns about his presence known in the church.

“At first there was a chorus of boos over what I had done, but then another member of the congregation got up and said he was 110 per cent behind what I’d done.

“And then someone else got up and said he was shocked by what he’d heard because Cleere had been in his home giving his teenage son guitar lessons.

“Mr Larragy then got up and said that two other ex-offenders had been reintegrated through a church in Dublin and there had been no re-offending.

“But the fact of the matter is there is no way I can accept that a paedophile would knowingly be allowed mingle with children.”