My favorite time of the day is when I tuck my sons in bed. I hold them and ask if they’re doing ok, I hear their prayers and kiss them goodnight. I try to listen carefully to what they say and study how their eyes light up when telling a story. Sometimes we laugh. These are magical moments for any parent. Life feels pure and sweet … and everything seems possible. The breadth of a child’s imagination and the depth of their dreams know no limits in those twilight conversations.
But the morning dawn pulls back the curtains and reveals a harsher reality. A child’s innocence is under siege every day from images, sounds, movies and music. And by far, the greatest threat is the one posed by pedophiles and sexual predators. We must do all that we can to protect our children from these cowardly villains who hide in the shadows of the Internet.
I know that you are already doing a lot in your states to safeguard the innocence of our children. Many of you have been leaders in the fight against online predators and in creating sex offender registries to help keep your communities safe. For that I want to say thank you, and God Bless you.
But more can be done.
That's why in February of this year I announced Project Safe Childhood, a Justice Department initiative aimed at ending abuse and exploitation of kids through the internet. Project Safe Childhood marshals the efforts of law enforcement at the federal, state, and local level, along with non-governmental organizations, so that we can make the best use of our resources and obtain the toughest penalties possible under the law.
Earlier this week I attended a gathering of law enforcement, prosecutors and advocacy groups, and I asked them to go back home to inspire everyone in their communities to face this brutal threat with the same boldness that they do. And now I have a request for everyone in this room today as well: please join me, and each other, in building a national, zero-tolerance attitude towards pedophiles and sexual predators.
As a society, we already share a revulsion for what these criminals do to our children. But if we are to really stop pedophiles and predators before they strike…we need to move our country past revulsion, on to determination fueled by outrage, and finally on to action by parents, community organizations, legislators and law enforcement.
I told prosecutors this week that they need to be aggressive in the cases they bring – to show the world that there is no gray area when it comes to hurting kids.
I have asked law enforcement to discipline themselves so that no lead will ever cross the threshold of a prosecutor's office, local police precinct or advocacy center without some kind of follow-up and action. If there is evidence that a child has been hurt, I want to see an arrest, a thorough investigation, and a merciless prosecution if we have the evidence.
As leaders in your States, you have the power to improve investigations, to get pedophiles and predators off the streets by reviewing your computer forensic capabilities and ensuring that they are up-to-speed for dealing with the criminals who target our children, as well as other offenders who use the Internet to facilitate their crimes. We cannot allow ourselves to be "outgunned" by criminals whose knowledge of the Internet and computers exceeds our own. I urge all of you to make sure you build the necessary computer forensic capacity for your law enforcement agencies.
This is an area where you as legislators can make a unique contribution to our partnership. We must have stiff state-level penalties for these criminals. I've told law enforcement that where state laws are more aggressive, it should be a state-level case. If the federal law will put a pedophile behind bars for longer, it should be a federal case.
But in order for prosecutors to have the tools they need, there must be strong laws at both the federal and state level. State and local prosecutors far outnumber those at the federal level, and they must be empowered to fully join in this fight. Many of you here today have done an outstanding job on this point, and I want to commend you for that.
But there are still two states that do not criminalize possession of child pornography without intent to distribute. In six states it is possible for someone to be convicted of possession as only a misdemeanor.
While most states' child pornography laws consider persons under age 18 to be minors, five jurisdictions continue to set the age limit at 17, and five others set it at only 16.
And 20 jurisdictions do not provide mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of production, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute child pornography.
As a former State government official myself, I can assure you that nobody is more willing than I am to acknowledge that our great national experiment in Democracy and Federalism requires us to celebrate our diversity of laws. But there are some things I think we can agree on, including that perpetrators of these vile crimes should face some minimum sentence. I am not here to tell you exactly what that minimum should be; that's for you to decide.
And again, many of you have already had that debate and adopted minimum sentences. I only respectfully, and I repeat, respectfully, ask those states that have not taken action to join the national consensus of setting some meaningful floor in sentencing these criminals. There should not be any place in this country where a judge could let a child sex offender go free with nothing more than probation. There should not be any jurisdiction where predators can hide behind weak laws.
So experiment with the precise contours of your own laws – and maybe we all will learn from you. But I submit that no State in our Nation can do its duty by its kids unless it has protective laws with real teeth.
On our end, the Department of Justice is determined to step up with funding and assistance to equip law enforcement with all the knowledge they need so that they can work their cases.
I also support new regulations for the federal Bureau of Prisons to pursue the civil commitment of mentally abnormal or disordered sex offenders who would pose a serious danger to others if released. Congress has been creative; under the Adam Walsh Act they’ve given us the right to pursue that path and others like it, and we are going to.
For those of you who have done so much to protect children, civil commitment laws are another area you might consider in your states as a way of keeping dangerous offenders from re-offending … by continuing to incapacitate them, and by providing them treatment.
When he talked about the importance of the civil rights movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior, said that "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."
That is still true today. For us to be silent on this issue is to fall short of our responsibilities as leaders in a battle to protect society’s most vulnerable: our children.
We must seed our communities with our knowledge and our passion. Remember that this communication starts with each other. At conferences like this one, you should be talking to each other about what initiatives are working in your states—what creative methods you and your partners are using to fight this fight.
Sexual predators gladly cross state lines to achieve their goals; we must cooperate across those lines to achieve ours. The citizens of this great country expect us to work together to keep them safe. They want us to be creative and to remember that all of us here today are on the same side.
You are the leaders of your communities, and you have voices that will be heard. Everyone who cares about this issue and has access to the bully pulpit should be talking to parents, teachers, and community groups as often as we can. We need to keep learning from our partners, then keep sharing with our communities – teach them how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to take action if they suspect that a child is being abused.
This message needs to be heard at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting as much as it does at the school board meeting. Because every adult—every adult--is responsible for protecting the next generation of children. And we can’t succeed in protecting them unless we establish a true zero-tolerance culture.
I think the President put it very well when he signed the Adam Walsh Act. He said: "Protecting our children is our solemn responsibility. It's what we must do. When a child's life or innocence is taken it is a terrible loss -- it's an act of unforgivable cruelty. Our society has a duty to protect our children from exploitation and danger."
As leaders, our duty is clear. We must not only legislate, investigate, and prosecute – we must speak, and speak again, and speak more loudly and more clearly if we aren’t being heard.
Because when responsible citizens stop and see what is being done to our kids … and how determined predators are to get access to children … they, like you, will be moved to help.
The average citizen will step between molesters and their victims. They will notify authorities when they think something ‘just isn’t right.’
They will follow the example set by Tracie Dean earlier this year. Tracie took action when she couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl she saw at a convenience store who "just didn’t belong" with the man next to her.
Tracie couldn’t put the child’s face out of her head. Maybe it was the look in her eyes, she didn’t know… but she returned to the convenience store – hundreds of miles from her home – and worked with the store manager and local police to find out the story of the little girl she had seen, the girl she was so worried about though she didn’t know quite why.
As it turns out, Tracie was right. The man who she’d seen with the child was arrested and has been charged with statutory rape, sexual abuse and sodomy in connection with that girl and a 17-year-old boy also found living with him. Doctors confirmed that the young girl had been severely sexually assaulted.
Thanks to Tracie, that little girl is finally safe from the man who was hurting her. She is now in foster care and we pray that her wounds – both physical and emotional – are healing today.
We have the ability to create a nation of Tracie Deans.
If everyone acts like she did, the number of people actively protecting children every day, everywhere they go, will absolutely dwarf the number of twisted minds trying to hurt them.
People often ask me what keeps me up at night. Obviously the threat of a terrorist attack never leaves my mind, and it is the top priority of our government to keep that from happening.
But it is the faces of child victims that haunt my dreams. I can see their eyes, that awful emptiness, as if their tiny souls are trying to detach themselves from their desecrated bodies. The images of these victims have become part of my heart, and I am not going to tire in this fight to protect them.
I know you are with me. That is why, today, we are brothers and sisters in a common cause – you and me and the good citizens you represent, standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels at the watch.
President Bush has talked to the American people about the need for armies of compassion to rise up to battle the evils of our society.
We are not yet there on this issue, but our band of soldiers grows stronger every day. Parents and community groups will be our infantry. Strong laws will be our artillery. And our prosecutors will be our cavalry.
Our fight owes so much to the leadership shown by many of you in this room. Today I want to encourage you to go back to your states and work to make your laws as strong as possible, to give your prosecutors the powerful weapons they need for this battle.
I think there are some basic principles on which we should be unified, and I would ask all states to achieve these three things:
And for those of you whose laws already do all that and more, I suggest you look for other creative opportunities to advance our cause. Work to develop digital forensics capacity in your State labs. Consider the option of civil commitment for dangerous sexual predators. Hit child pornographers in their wallets by requiring restitution for their victims.
I know you join me in looking forward to the day when we are routinely catching and prosecuting the criminal who is buying child pornography and has signed up to be a summer camp counselor … but hasn’t yet touched a child.
A day when justice is served before an abusive parent invites his daughter’s friends over for a slumber party.
A day when we never hear from the people who brag on the Internet about being revolutionaries, fighting for the so-called “sexual rights of children” – as though they are doing kids a favor by sexually molesting and exploiting them.
I want these pedophiles off the streets.
I want them put away for as long as the law will allow.
And I want all of society to act as one united front against this threat.
I know you join me in each of these goals. You and I won’t tolerate the continued victimization, exploitation, and desecration of our children. And soon, with your help, no one else in this nation will, either.
Thank you for your leadership on this and on so many other issues, such as comprehensive immigration reform. We look forward to working with you on these issues over the coming months.
May God bless you, and each of your States, and may he continue to bless the greatest nation on earth, the United States of America.