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Vigilantes versus pedophiles - our community shame

By Barbara Biggs - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2005

While many Australians were appalled by the vigilante attack aimed at driving pedophile Dennis Ferguson out of a Queensland town (February 1, 2005) the display bolstered some in the community who have had their own or their loved one’s lives destroyed by abuse.

The lynch mob trend against child sex offenders is worldwide, disturbing and growing. UK residents were shocked late last year when a mob attacked a pediatrician’s home because they didn’t know the difference between a pedophile and a pediatrician.

The attacks point to two things. The natural instinct to attack and defend loved ones on the one hand, and the shameful lack of action by governments to take this previously hidden epidemic in our community in hand. The most visible example of the second, which spurns resentment and outrage, is the lack of understanding in the judiciary in handing down sentences.


For example, one ACT Supreme Court Judge, throughout his long career, had never imposed a custodial sentence for a child sex offender unless the offender had pleaded guilty.  In one instance, when a man attacked a four-year-old child, even though he admitted the offence, his sentence was wholly suspended. Is it any wonder the community is outraged?

Around this country and in the UK sentences are routinely being suspended because judges say children are “willing” if they don’t resist their abusers. Such sentences show a chronic lack of understanding about the emotional manipulation of abusers and the subsequent long-term damage of that on victims’ lives. When the judicial system fails the community, are we surprised that the effect is to further inflame some people to take matters into their own hands?

Last month I returned from a tour speaking about child sexual abuse twice a day in every major town from Nowra to Townsville, culminating with a meeting with the Queensland Minister for Child Safety, in order to raise awareness about the need for more government action on child sex abuse. To that Minister’s credit, he is already “considering” adopting my proposal for a 24-hour helpline for perpetrators.

During the course of the tour, I met and spoke with dozens of lay and professional people who clarified and helped form a ten point plan to Stamp Out Child Sexual Abuse (SOCSA), of which the helpline was one.

I also saw the pain that spawns vigilante attacks. I met a man who told me about his two sons, both now in their late 30s, whose lives had been ruined by sex abuse in their early teens by a family member. One has an ongoing mental condition and the other is unable to hold down a job or relationship. Both still suffer chronic low self-esteem 25 years later. The father, an intelligent, caring professional, told me how he had spent four years lying awake at night thinking about how he would murder the perpetrator after he was given a suspended sentence following the court case - another devastation in their lives.

Understandably, he wasn’t receptive to my ideas on treatment and support programs for child sex offenders, until I asked him, “If a program had been in place when your children were abused and you could have their lives back, with all the blossoming potential they had then, would you support it?


“And if you could save another family going through your pain, would you?” He struggled, but eventually saw the point.

This problem needs to be dealt with at every level. Vigilante action, though an understandable response to lack of government action, is simply driving the problem further underground. If perpetrators want help, and research shows that more than half do, then they should be treated like heroine addicts or alcoholics. If we can’t cure them, we can at least minimise their behaviour through programs.

My ten point plan involves measures ranging from an education program for the judiciary to kindergarten programs teaching children about their physical boundaries and identifying and treating early sexualised behaviour, a trial of which is occurring in Bundaberg Queensland as I write.

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First published in The Canberra Times on February 8, 2005.

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About the Author

Barbara Biggs is a former journalist and author of a two-part autobiography, In Moral Danger and The Road Home, launched in May 2004 by Peter Hollingworth and Chat Room in 2006. Her latest book is Sex and Money: How to Get More. Barbara is convenor of the National Council for Children Post-Separation,

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