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Whether it is a clergyman or a teenager, a stepparent or a teacher, the abuser is despised. This visceral, almost biological repulsion at the actions of those who prey on the defenseless has left us at times unable to judge when our own reaction becomes the scandal.

Increasingly, states have been passing laws to monitor convicted sex offenders and hamper their movement through society by warning their neighbors who they are. In some states, those defined as sex offenders include many people who are not pedophiles or predators.

These laws reflect a greater social sense that steps must be taken to protect possible future victims, but there is always the risk that such legal harassment will cross a line over into ongoing and cruel punishment.

Such a law exists now in Georgia. An Atlanta man who was convicted and punished in 1994 for "indecent liberty with a child" will soon be sentenced to life imprisonment. His crime: He cannot find affordable housing in Georgia that is not within 1,000 feet of a daycare center, school, church, pool or school bus stop.

Because Larry W. Moore Jr. is homeless and cannot find a residence, he was convicted this month for a second time of violating a requirement that he register an address with state officials. The mandatory punishment for this second offense is an automatic life sentence.

Supporters and critics of the law say that its intent is to force all sex offenders to move out of the state of Georgia. That they would then not be monitored at all is, apparently, not Georgia's concern.

The law makes it difficult for offenders to obey because it makes it difficult for them to maintain a legal residence. And it punishes them harshly if they do not. Some police say the law actually drives offenders underground and away from monitors of any kind.

The desire for vengeance on those who have abused the weak and defenseless is understandable. We must, however, reject the quest for vengeance simply because it demeans us as Christians and as Americans. The imposition of cruel punishments and an indifference to the basic standards of justice regarding such individuals is itself unworthy of our society.

A law that is intended to harass and punish with the ultimate aim of driving them to other communities or to life in prison is not ethically tolerable.

Society absolutely needs to craft a strategy for dealing with the true pedophile, the chronic sex offender. Without functional therapies that can alter this behavior, a portion of those convicted of sexual abuse do pose a grave risk to the defenseless, and addressing the risk they pose is an ongoing challenge.

But as Catholics, we believe that punishment must ultimately be corrective, that it should be proportionate to the crime, that it should respect the dignity even of the convict.

In no way would the church diminish the horror of true sexual abuse, but such blind and unjust laws -- in Georgia and in other states -- make a mockery of justice while doing little to address the real threat from a dangerous few. Such laws diminish us while at the same time making us even more unsafe as a society.

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