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Australians in denial about child sexual abuse

By Barbara Biggs - posted Monday, 21 September 2009

Every Australian must recoil at the headline story of a man alleged to have fathered four children with his 11-year-old daughter.

Meanwhile, as vigilante’s camp outside child sex offender Dennis Ferguson’s door in Sydney last week, the myth that the greatest sexual risk to children is strangers continues to flourish.

The Melbourne case is an extreme example of this fallacy.


Peer-reviewed global research indicates that the greatest sexual danger to children, intra-familial abuse (including close family friends), accounts for 90 per cent of cases. Yet it continues to be ignored, dismissed and children’s disclosures not believed.

Of every hundred cases of reported child sexual abuse, only 1.6 per cent are successfully prosecuted. Most cases of child sexual abuse are not reported. (In one study by Emeritus Professor Freda Biggs AO of 189 men who admitted to having been sexually abused as children, only 27 had attempted to report their abuse. Just one made a successful report.)

The Melbourne incest story is being compared to the Austrian Joseph Fritzl case. It resembles it in more than one respect. In that case, the girl ran away from home three times before being brought back by police and then imprisoned in her father’s cellar for more than 20 years. The police, apparently, did not ask why she kept running away.

The Melbourne woman, too, told authorities three years ago because she feared for her safety but nothing was done. Why did authorities not act then? Surely, even if she refused to testify, DNA evidence would have been enough to convict.

Even as recently as this year, despite four Melbourne child protection agencies and authorities testifying to the Family Court that a four-year-old boy had been abused by the father, a single court expert said the agencies were all wrong and the mother was coaching the child. Custody was awarded to the father and the mother now has only supervised access visits once a fortnight. A Department of Human Service protection order, which still exists, can override a Family Court order, but because of lack of resources, this power has never been invoked.

While society continues to stereotype people like Ferguson and the extreme case of the Melbourne father as monsters, a different species to the rest of us, the majority of child sex offenders and their families remain blind to the most common form of child sexual abuse. The fact is, according to psychologist Christabel Chamarette, who has treated more than 700 offenders and their families, that most offenders are charming and look and behave much like the rest of us.


There have been calls for many years, from people like Chamarette, for society to implement a public health, instead of a judicial, response to the problem. With the low conviction rate, judicial responses have done little but hung children out to dry. Yet media reports continue to portray these cases as isolated incidents involving evil perpetrators who are fundamentally different to you and me.

In Sydney, the Ryde Mayor and the Minister for Housing have been asked to show leadership in the Ferguson case by calling a public meeting, involving experts to answer residents concerns and giving them information about types of offending and where Ferguson fits into the offending spectrum.

In the vacuum left by the lack of such leadership, fuelled by the media, vigilantes dominate the debate and pressure authorities to support this medieval response.

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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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