If we were all lined up: the mad, the sad and the bad, the crippled the odd and the old, those reviled for the colour of their skin or for their looks or for the way they speak their words, the few who have done wrong to the many and the many who have done wrong to the few, the unspeakably evil and those of greatest misfortune for whatever reason, we would find the least loved among us, the one next door to whom many would least like to live, would be Dennis Raymond Ferguson.
In prison-speak he is the nonce, the rock spider; for some people of Ryde and other towns in which he has tried to settle — and for many who speak their views through the media — he is the perv, the scum, the low life. He is the paedophile. Do I make myself clear!
That is him. The other. That is not us. But is that really so?
Dennis Ferguson has been to jail for 14 years for the abduction and rape of three little children. He has served his time. Broadly speaking, jail is meant to achieve three purposes: to mete out just punishment; to correct and rehabilitate; and to protect those who may be harmed by those convicted.
Jail is meant to do these things, but it may not.
In the eyes of the law, Dennis Ferguson has been punished. But punishment does not always correct. We know this, whether we are people of the law or parents of young children; for correction, or rehabilitation, requires not just the force of punishment but also the free act of agency. To be corrected one must, at some level, seek and accept the need for change. Of Dennis Ferguson, on the matter of rehabilitation, two things can be said: first, he appears not to have sought rehabilitation; and second, at a more general level it must be asked the extent to which paedophilia is itself amenable to change.
There is one statistic that has frequently been repeated in the media over recent weeks: that one in every four girls and one in every eight boys are sexually abused — 90 per cent of whom by a family member or trusted friend. Dennis Ferguson, and others whose victims are not personally known to them, may be the visible and atypical tip of an iceberg submerged in very murky water indeed. If these figures are even close to the mark what can we conclude other than that there is, in many adults, more than a latent curiosity about sexual engagement with minors?
Is this a sickness? If so, it must be of plague proportions and worthy of attention by the national health system. Is it a moral failing or act of will? Probably just the opposite of this — maybe it is only by the exertion of moral fortitude and strength of will and by the threat of exposure that more adults do not give way to what I propose may be an inherent tendency to paedophilia in some, or maybe in many. On the basis of this argument, in the case of Dennis Ferguson, my conclusion must be that he is unable, as well as probably unwilling, to change.
In this conclusion he will find no reprieve. As best we understand, the paedophile knows what he is doing and knows that it is wrong. He may say that, for him it is a natural and intrinsic urge; but we say otherwise. We say that such acts are totally and unambiguously wrong and that they must be sanctioned by the full force of law.
Thus, while the second of the tasks of incarceration — rehabilitation — very well may never be achieved for Dennis Ferguson, it cannot be left at that. Harm to others is intrinsic to paedophilia; and this harm, because by definition it is borne by children, is judged rightly by the community to be of such importance that paedophilia is held to be among the most heinous of crimes.
The paedophile is the rock spider; the lowest of the low.
Of the three aims of incarceration Dennis Ferguson fulfils just one: he has done his time. In the achievement of the other two — rehabilitation and the safety of others — we can have no confidence. He is out, he is not going to reform, he is a danger to others, and he needs somewhere to live. What are we to do?
Ferguson’s experiences over recent months have demonstrated that the options are few: if he is known to live autonomously in any neighbourhood he is likely to be identified either by a rapacious media or a vigilante community. He is the subject of legislation that will withdraw from him the security of public housing. He is at the whim of landlords in a sensitive private rental market. Even in jail he was the subject of vicious bashing. Is there nowhere that will offer him even the most basic accommodation?
We may say that, in large part, he has brought this problem on himself and with that I have some sympathy. It is not clear to me that he is best understood as a victim, despite evidence that he, himself, was the subject of prolonged abuse as a child and young man. As adults we all must take responsibility for our actions to the extent that we have a capacity for comprehension, and must not inflict on others that which was meted out to us. If we do not comply we will be punished and our liberties, in one way or another, will be curtailed.
So it must be with Dennis Raymond Ferguson. If he will not show remorse and demonstrate that he is worthy of trust, then he must be forcibly prevented from potentially traumatising the lives of innocent children and naïve parents. Central to this is the nature of his housing. Others are better placed than I to determine these things; perhaps best among them are shelter organisations in the non-government sector. Such organisations have experience, expertise, robust human values, and are unlikely to be shaken by the current moral panic, largely engendered by a tabloid media and its reactive public. Already Brett Collins of Justice Action has indicated willingness to assist. But there is more. I know from the experience of managing the freedom of aged and dementing relatives that developments in electronic surveillance may provide additional security where direct and personal supervision is not possible. It can be done.
We also must ask why the task of housing the convicted paedophile on release from prison is still a question. In terms of rehabilitation, a prison sentence is known to be among the least best solutions. It could have been predicted with confidence that, on release, Dennis Ferguson would pose a serious problem for statutory authorities — when passing sentence in 1988 Justice Derrington said that Ferguson’s "chances of rehabilitation were zero" — and yet no action has been taken to provide secure housing. It can only be concluded that the desire in the community for retribution and punishment is far greater than its concern for the protection of both potential victim and perpetrator.
Despite the notoriety of this man, and the intransigence of the problem he poses, the accommodation requirements of Dennis Ferguson, of this one person, can be solved and community demands for protection from his feared predation achieved. Of far graver concern may be the shadows in the crowd, the lurking family member and trusted friend — the other "90 per cent" — and the cries for help of unknown victims, muffled beneath shrill media and the cacophony of self-righteous community protest.
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