Avella aims to tighten state’s sex crime laws

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Religion, politics, law enforcement and Facebook have all intersected in an effort to stop loopholes from allowing convicted child sex offenders from working with youths.

One such sex offender, Joseph Denice, 24, of Whitestone has been working at schools in northeast Queens since about 2007, according to state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who plans to introduce legislation to close cracks in the system that allow such criminals from working with children.

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

But in December 2009, he was arrested and in June 2010 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 the Queens district attorney’s office and court documents.

The schools he volunteered at 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 that he contacted a St. Mel’s student via Facebook, a violation of school rules, and a possible violation of his parole. The school has since stopped using him as a volunteer.

The diocese said in a statement that it “takes seriously its responsibility for the safety and security of young people in our care. Nevertheless, we must always be vigilant to discover what more can be done to protect our children.”

Avella said the New York system for keeping tabs on sex offenders “isn’t actually broken, but there are too many cracks in the system that allow them to still reach children,” which Denice was able to take advantage of in this incident.

“These are not individuals that can be rehabilitated. They are going to commit offense after offense after offense and we need to ensure they’re not in any proximity to children and if necessary they be put in jail permanently,” Avella said. “I want to get a clear picture of what happened here, what went wrong, where the system needs to be tightened, and then I fully intend to introduce legislation, absolutely.”

Avella, who is working with the diocese and the DA’s office to get to the bottom of the situation, also wrote a letter to Facebook requesting that it take steps to ensure Denice cannot use the site to contact children anymore.

State Assemblyman Michael Miller (D-Woodhaven) has also expressed his concern over the issue and has two bills before the state Legislature to address the system’s loopholes. One would prevent sex offenders from getting jobs that involve contact with children and another would allow local law enforcement to access information about Level 1 sex offenders.

“These bills would give parents the assurance that their child is safe,” he said in a statement.

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

Updated 10:42 am, October 12, 2011
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