EDITORIAL: Vigilance or vigilantism?

Online vigilante group Creep Catcher walks a fine line in its mission to protect youth from predators.

“It is better that 100 guilty men go free than that one innocent person should suffer.”

That phrase – and variations on the theme – have been attributed to many though the centuries, from 12th century legal theorist Maimonides to Benjamin Franklin.

And though the idiom has been around awhile, one wonders if it still holds true. There are many who would suggest it does not; while no one wishes to convict an innocent person, the thought of guilty parties going free is a hard concept to stomach.

That philosophy has been brought to the forefront in Surrey in recent weeks, as the local chapter of the online vigilante group Creep Catcher Canada has grown in stature.

The anti-child-luring organization, according to its own Facebook page “focuses on the apprehension and media publication of predators (and) spreading awareness about an ongoing epidemic, pedophilia.”

A noble cause, to be sure.

But while their efforts can been commended, the group has come under fire for its methods, which include publicly shaming the alleged perpetrators before any formal charges have been laid by authorities.

The chance of falsely accusing someone – ruining reputations in the process – is indeed high, as one Surrey RCMP officer found recently when his name was incorrectly circulated through social-media channels as an alleged child predator.

Which begs a new question altogether: is it better that 100 people are falsely accused of such a heinous crime if it means that a single child is saved from such unspeakable horror?

It’s one that is hard to answer when all sides – and outcomes – are considered. Either way, lives are ruined.

The Creep Catcher members remain undeterred, despite law enforcement’s suggestion that they leave the crime-fighting to the experts, or at the very least, share their findings.

Online vigilantism with regard to child luring is nothing new, having gained popularity with the NBC show To Catch a Predator, in which undercover sting operations were set up to catch those attempting to lure children.

And while it is difficult – impossible, really – to argue against stopping predators, whether through American network television or shaky, hand-held camera online feeds, it continues to beg the question of whether the means are justified by the end.