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No pedophiles in anybody's backyard

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Monday, 9 November 2009

On Monday, November 2, ABC Four Corners considered the case of released pedophile Denis Ferguson. Ferguson was imprisoned for 14 years after being found guilty of abducting and sexually torturing three young children over a period of several days. (I use the word "torture" because "abuse" does not seem nearly adequate to describe what took place in that motel room.) Ferguson committed these offences with his then partner, Alexander George Brookes.

The children's nightmare ended when someone heard their screams, and a naked Ferguson opened the door to police.

Four Corners highlighted the problems inherent in releasing convicted sex offenders back into the community. All attempts to house Ferguson since his release have been met with outrage on the part of the communities involved. Nobody wants him. People will go to great lengths to drive him out. Even charities that assist him find themselves the objects of community anger.


During the interview Ferguson made a point of assuring his audience that he has never touched a child he did not know. Presumably this was intended to allay the fears of potential neighbours, who are, at this point, strangers to him. He is not the kind of pedophile who will hide around corners and attack unknown children passing by. Well, here's the thing. Most pedophiles aren't. Ninety-six per cent of sexual abusers are known to their victims. Pedophiles notoriously groom their victims before abusing them. That is they get to know them. A pedophile may lob as a complete stranger in a new neighbourhood. He can then acquaint himself with potential child victims and their parents and begin the process of grooming. Nobody should be reassured by Ferguson's chilling and self-serving statement.

Experts disagree on the recidivism rate of sex abusers. Many claim it is extremely high. Nobody can guarantee that the released offender will not re-offend. One pedophile can abuse many, many children, as has become evident from revelations of pedophile activities in various churches, schools and other institutions. In families, it is not at all unusual for a pedophile to work his way through children and grandchildren.

If the punishment is to adequately fit the crime, we have to consider the consequences of that crime. In the case of child sexual abuse, the repercussions are appalling. A sexually abused child has been violated at the very heart of his or her being. Rehabilitation from this depth of damage is lengthy and costly. Childhood sexual abuse can lead on to adult drug abuse, mental illness, homelessness, and further abusive relationships. It can mean that the sexually abused child, who previously might have been expected to enjoy a future as a contributing member of society, may be severely hampered in reaching their potential by the traumatic aftermath of their experiences.

As well as the personal cost to the child and the family, there is the economic cost to a society that is deprived of the victims' potential, and to a social system that is responsible for treating the myriad emotional and physical difficulties a sexually abused child may experience throughout her or his life. The losses to Australian society caused through the sexual abuse of its children are inestimable.

Is there any crime in this country that causes more havoc for more people for a longer period of time than does child sexual abuse? With one in four girls and one in six boys being the target of this crime and then suffering the traumatic aftermath, usually for years of their lives, I'm hard-pressed to think of one.

Civil liberties defenders argue that criminals such as Ferguson have done the time demanded of them by our legal system, and so have paid their societal debt. They are then entitled to begin their lives afresh. This is not a position that can be argued against. It is a human right to do one's time then move on, and it is fundamental to our system of social justice.


So we need to take a hard look at the penalties currently imposed on sex offenders. They are not in keeping with the magnitude of their crimes, and the consequences to victims and society. One would not let a serial killer loose in a community, and while sex abusers do not generally literally take the lives of their victims, they wreak a long-term and violent destruction on children that is difficult to exaggerate, and many do it over and over again.

No community should be expected to tolerate an offender dwelling among its children. I would not have been happy to have Dennis Ferguson living in my street when my children were small. His very presence would have changed the entire feeling of our community. He may never have lifted a finger against our children, but how could I or anyone else know that for certain? And it is this dangerous uncertainty that provokes such fear, dismay and outrage. Nobody wants to live their daily lives in constant and cautionary awareness of the convicted pedophile next door. When the chips are down, giving a sex offender a second chance comes a very poor second to protecting the children and the community's right to a daily life free of fear.

There are some lines that must not be crossed, and sexually abusing children is one of them. When abusers cross that line, they cannot expect to be allowed to come back.

It is reasonable to propose that these offenders are permanently segregated from the community, unless they agree to chemical castration. At this point we have no other way of protecting children from them, and it is the protection of children that must be our first consideration. Because Dennis Ferguson has done his jail time does not in anyway indicate that he no longer has the urges that drove him to abduct and sexually torture those three little children. Jail time is not a cure for the desires of the pedophile.

And of course, we urgently need to turn our attention to the 72 per cent of offenders who are the child's natural parents. These offenders are far less likely to be reported and punished. Celebrity pedophiles such as Dennis Ferguson can distract attention from the grim reality that most sexual abuse of children continues to occur within the family, and we have not as yet found any way of successfully addressing this situation.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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