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Avella sex offender bill clears another hurdle in Legislature

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State Sen. Tony Avella’s (D-Bayside) bill aimed at closing loopholes and addressing inadequacies in the state’s laws concerning sex offenders has passed out of committee in the wake of a scandal that began when Joseph Denice, a Whitestone resident and former volunteer at three northeast Queens Catholic schools, was revealed to have a sex abuse conviction himself.

The legislation would help ensure that sex offenders are officially categorized under the state’s Sex Offender Registration Act upon their release from incarceration and would speed up the timetable for determining the risk levels of sex offenders.

“I am thrilled to see that this legislation has passed through committee and hopefully look forward to voting for it shortly on the Senate floor,” Avella said in a statement. “Our current law has allowed some sex offenders to be released in the community after their conviction and sentencing, without an immediate risk level determination resulting in a delayed listing on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. We cannot continue to put our youth in harm’s way by releasing sex offenders into our neighborhoods without the public knowing the risk that he or she poses.”

Avella wrote the bill, which the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee passed June 2 by a vote of 10-3 with one abstention, after conducting an extensive review of current sex offender laws in the wake of the arrest of Denice, who worked at schools in northeast Queens for months despite the fact that he is a registered sex offender.

Denice earned that unenviable title when in June 2010 he was convicted of sex abuse in the second degree and sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation for telling a 12-year-old boy at an after-school program to undress and undergo several “full-body scans” before molesting him, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office and court documents.

But despite his criminal record, Denice passed a background check requested by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn — which also covers Queens — before beginning his work at schools including St. Mel’s School in Flushing, St. Kevin’s Church in Bayside, and St. Luke’s in Whitestone, according to the diocese.

The schools where Denice volunteered never found out about the arrest because he accepted a plea deal on the violation that allowed him to be registered as a Level 1 sex offender rather than the Level 2 the crimes usually carry, according to Avella. Level 1 sex offenders are not listed on the sex offender registry, and the schools were never contacted about his conviction.

That was until parents raised concerns last year that Denice contacted a St. Mel’s student via Facebook, a violation of school rules and a possible violation of his parole. The diocese has barred him from working in its schools.

Denice also pleaded guilty in May to criminal possession of a forged instrument for forging and cashing five checks totaling more than $7,700 that belonged to the St. Mel’s Religious Education Office, anonymously calling 911 and falsely reporting emergencies and calling the city Administration for Children’s Services to falsely report neglect and abuse by parents.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

Updated 10:53 am, October 12, 2011
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