Dennis Ferguson, now 62, was convicted in 1988 of kidnapping three children and sexually molesting them. He served 14 years in prison. On release he was hounded out of a number of Queensland residences. He decided to move south, no doubt hoping that his notoriety had not preceded him. He found refuge in a housing commission home unit thoughtfully provided by the New South Wales government. The local community discovered him and has demanded he go - where to, no one seems to know or care.
To help Ferguson make up his mind a large banner was erected outside his home saying, “warning paedophile”. Crowds have demonstrated in front of his unit calling for his removal. A Molotov cocktail was left nearby, lacking only a public-spirited arm to throw it. More imaginatively, when Ferguson said he would move out only in a coffin, a local citizen responded by delivering one before TV cameras to his front door. The coffin was disappointingly small, but with help from a few willing hands Ferguson could probably be stuffed into it.
Ferguson is not a one-off case; public anger against pedophiles is acute. This could easily cross over - as Ferguson shows - to mob violence. What is to be done?
It would be simple to change the law and impose mandatory life sentences on people such as Ferguson: their chances of reoffending among exclusively male inmates would be scant. Or, more timidly, as one group proposes, a “two strikes and you are out” rule: two convictions for pedophilia and life in prison. Chemical castration has been publicly canvassed, though not so far actual castration. (But wait.) Neither stoning to death nor the amputation of the hands of pedophiles has yet been suggested; however, good precedents can be found from other societies if such robust measures are needed. Offshore solutions - once an easy way of getting rid of undesirables - look dismal. Locking up all pedophiles in Norfolk Island wouldn’t be the punishment it once was; it would cost too much to refurbish the solitary confinement cells of Port Arthur; Christmas Island is already overcrowded.
Onshore, poor government planning - another Howard government failure - has left us without gulags to which pedophiles and other undesirables could be sent, or camps for their re-education. But again, good foreign precedents exist.
Predictably the NSW State Government has treated Ferguson - since the media focused on him - as a political problem. We can imagine meetings between the Premier, his Housing Minister and senior bureaucrats, “What is this (expletives deleted) doing here? Can’t we ship the (expletives deleted) back to Queensland where he belongs?” The Premier has ordered a review of the state’s provisions for sex offenders. Reviews are useful devices: well-handled they can go on for years.
Our criminal justice system works on the general rule that once a prison sentence is served, released offenders are free to return to the community and live where they wish. This applies across the board: to pedophiles and rapists; to murderers and kidnappers; to the evil and unrepentant; to professional criminals for whom prison is an enforced suspension from work; to one-time offenders who will never stray again.
Understandably, pedophilia excites public rage and condemnation; the violation of the innocent and the vulnerable, and the psychological damage which can tragically burden their lives. But it doesn’t follow that pedophiles should be treated as a unique breed of social outcasts.
Ask these questions. If the general rule is to be qualified, who is to be excluded from living where they choose? Pedophiles? Why stop there? What of rapists and murders? Kidnappers? Professional burglers? CEOs who have plundered public companies and are then released to enjoy their spoils? (Now, there’s a tempting example.) Where do you draw the line? And from what areas of our huge continent are they to be excluded? And for how long?
Hard cases, as the old maxim runs, make for bad laws. Ferguson’s case gives a state government the opportunity and the impetus for a wide-ranging inquiry into pedophilia. But in cases like Ferguson’s, governments can give way to opportunistic responses, which are not the way to deal with the grave and worrying ills of pedophilia. The right way is the hard way.
To start with: think imaginatively. Gather facts and expert advice on the whole issue. Analyse and reflect. Have resources (without resources, which means money, things won’t get better) for mandatory therapy for all pedophiles while in prison, the assessment of their risk profiles before release, and for any needed follow-up assessments. Assess reporting and monitoring requirements for released offenders, and tailor these requirements to the individual cases. Learn from overseas experience. Co-operate with other states. Build an Australia-wide system for an Australia-wide problem. And much else besides.
One thing, though, is certain. Mob threats and violence are not the answer. This undermines the very basis of a civil society - which is a society of laws not of passions, where the lives and bodies of even the most contemptible of people are given protection.
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