I had been a reporter for all of a month when a horrific sexual predator moved into Auburn, the city I was covering. It was 1990. The state had a...

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I had been a reporter for all of a month when a horrific sexual predator moved into Auburn, the city I was covering.

It was 1990. The state had a new law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses so police — and the public — could track them. My gut reaction was: Aren’t we pinning a scarlet letter on someone who served his time?

Then I read the case file. The man was an Episcopal priest who used his ministry to befriend four teenage boys, ply them with drugs and rape them.

He pleaded guilty to three counts of rape, yet served less than three years in prison. He got no treatment. The state said he likely would reoffend.

And here he was, loose in Auburn.

It was a different time. At the newspaper, the Valley Daily News, we agonized over this information. The priest was as free as you or I. If we printed his name or address, would we incite a pitchfork mob? Would his house be torched?

The police fretted, too. The chief had lobbied for the sex-offender notification law. But now that it was here it could whip his town into a frenzy.

In the end, police passed out fliers with the priest’s name and description, but not his address. My story didn’t include his name or address. A police captain read my story before it was published and said: “You should name this bastard. Why are you coddling him?”

Whatever imperfect balance was struck seemed to work in that case. There was no violence. People in Auburn said they just felt better knowing, though they didn’t plan to do much about it.

And so it has gone for 15 years, as 16,000 sex offenders have moved into the state’s communities. Inciting virtually zero vigilantism.

Now nobody has qualms about divulging names and addresses of sex offenders. The state’s public database (ml.waspc.org) even provides handy maps of where they live.

If it’s true that two sex offenders were targeted and killed in a vigilante action last weekend in Bellingham, it’s chilling. Let’s catch the vigilante and lock him away.

But it doesn’t change the fact that over the years the public has handled this incendiary information with far less hysteria than predicted.

Part of it is the problem’s mind-numbing magnitude. My ZIP code contains 61 offenders, including 32 of the most heinous child molesters and rapists. This is so staggering I guess I’ve chosen to ignore it.

Yet the lists do help police. If someone reoffends, they’re caught more quickly now than in the old days — in half the time, says a study by the Institute for Public Policy, the state’s research arm. Police must maintain the lists, so they pay more attention.

As for the danger of stigmatizing people, the rules now are clear: Don’t molest children and you won’t be stigmatized.

What happened in Bellingham is shocking. But it’s an exception. Tossing out a solid law because of it would be succumbing to fear and hysteria — exactly what the public has so wisely avoided.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com