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Empathy for paedophiles is not sympathy for the devil


Dennis FergusonPaedophiles are among the most hated individuals in the community. It's tempting to suggest that this is for good reason. After all, children and young people are at once society's most cherished assets and its most vulnerable. Paedophiles exploit this vulnerability, and children must be protected from them.

But hate is a negative emotion that can be all-consuming. Inevitably it is directed towards people who have done wrong, rather than bad circumstances. It can lead to further negatives, such as vigilantism in the style of the Ku Klux Klan, or misguided military action such as the War on Terror, which was essentially an act of vengeance on the Muslim world in response to the actions of extremists.

Hate also nurtures a more subtle and pernicious mindset that assumes some people have rights and others do not.

The NSW Government has effectively enshrined hate in legislation, thanks to its ham-fisted attempt to deal with the reaction of residents of Ryde, a suburb of Sydney, who did not want released paedophile Dennis Ferguson living in their neighbourhood. The Housing Amendments (Registrable Persons) Act 2009 was hastily passed last week, specifically to force Ferguson out of his home.

Eureka Street has published an article on this by barrister Georgina Wright, who believes the community should expect a better performance from the Government in the face of whatever level of threat Ferguson poses.

'Does a conviction as a paedophile mean someone forfeits any and all rights for the rest of his life?' she writes. 'Were there not alternatives to this option? None of these questions were debated because of the way the legislation was passed.'

There are indeed alternatives, and governments have the resources to assemble appropriately qualified professionals to formulate proposals. Similarly insurmountable challenges have been met by making use of the best creative minds we have available.

Think, for example, of the heroin injecting room run by the Uniting Church's UnitingCare in Sydney's Kings Cross. The so-called shooting gallery was a much-debated concept prior to its establishment, and still has its detractors. But Dr Alex Wodak of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, said last week that overseas and local experience has proved the strategy an effective component of the effort to tackle drug abuse.

'We don't need a debate about heroin-assisted treatment,' Wodak  said. 'We should be providing this now to the small minority with very severe problems who have not benefited from repeated episodes of other treatments.'

The philosophy that underlies the injecting room is that drug addiction is an illness more than a crime, and that community empathy, rather than ostracism, is required to overcome it. Note that there is a distinction here between empathy, which acknowledges and respects the humanity of all individuals, and sympathy, which might be seen as tacit approval of individuals' actions.

Empathy for paedophiles is a big ask, but without it paedophilia will remain a problem. It is important to recognise that it is a problem that afflicts the community as a whole, and not just the human beings who are its agents.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Dennis Ferguson, pedophilia, hate, empathy, Alex Wodak, shooting gallery, heroin, injecting room



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Existing comments

It is great to read an article that tries to put some balance into a most complex situation. Any time that society vilifies any group, something unhealthy happens. One of these unhealthy things is that people can project their unowned "dark" side on to others. Certainly vulnerable people must be protected, but there must be ways in which this can be done without vilifying paedophiles and forever hounding and punishing them.

Well done Michael Mullins.

John Webb | 27 September 2009  

I can understand and agree with much of what Michael Mullins is saying. However, I have read of instances where paedophiles have been placed into communities having their right to privacy respected. Their neighbours did not know of their pasts. They have then gone about their old ways and preyed on children.

Whatever alternatives the best gathered minds come up with, the first priority must be to protect children. Paedophiles do not deserve to be given the benefit of any doubt in dealing with this issue.

Patrick James | 27 September 2009  

A cautionary article, Michael, and it is good to draw back somewhat from the inevitable outrage and loathing this man and his ilk engender. But your analogy of the heroin injecting house leaves the pedophile situation hanging. Heroin users come and go in the community. What do you suggest for pedophiles, especially for the likes of Ferguson? A safe house for them, keeping them and their victims safe from each other? The government might have acted too quickly but what is your solution? It has to be more than empathy, surely!

Jan Coleman | 27 September 2009  

Thanks Michael for a sane response to this dreadful situation.

Rob | 27 September 2009  

Well said Michael Mullins and John Webb. And doesn't the media savour a pogrom! There should also be legislation against media incitement of hate.

Vacy Vlazna | 27 September 2009  

I agree hatred of any persons, including paedophiles is abhorrent; but are you suggesting the establishment of paedophilia "injecting rooms" may
be a solution to the problem of paedophilia?

Bill Barry | 27 September 2009  

Mr Mullins' opinion is rather idealistic - coming from someone definitely not affected by the deeds of a paedophile . And yet again , the protectors-of-the-Rights-of-the-guilty overlook the Rights of the victums ..... the Right of justice , of punishment of the guilty , the Right not live in fear of men or of the released guilty paedophile . 3 or 6 or 12 months in prison is NOT punishment for the almost irreparable damage done to innocent lives .

Mr Mullins would alter his opinion if the convicted and then released paedophile lived next door to his grandchildren , and/or was seen loitering in the vicinity of the school where his grandchildren attended .

Mr mullins is quite correct when he says that the public expect a better performance from the Government - the public want better punishment of criminals , they want better protection from criminals , and they want to live free lives - not being afraid of the released criminals re-offending . A convicted criminal forfeits some of his rights by being a criminal - he forfeits total-freedom , and he forfeits total-choice . The community want the punishment to match the crime . A 3-month jail sentence for a convicted paedophile is not justice when the paedophile has permanently damaged the lives of innocent children .

LES KROENERT | 27 September 2009  

Michael, thank you for putting into words what my conscience has been grappling with.I know it is a big ask but the 'new commandment' does require that I try to follow. I have tried to stand in the shoes of both parties but an innate sense of justice kept pulling me back to empathy for Mr. Ferguson.

Anne Chang | 27 September 2009  

I was a victim of sexual abuse from a 'friend' of the family when I was a child so Dennis Ferguson repellss me.

Be that as it may, I am deeply concerned at the primitive reaction to his release. I can’t help wondering if some of the loudest voices against him do 'protest too much' in the Shakespearean sense of that phrase.

We can and should never forget, but now that Ferguson has served his time, isn’t it time that we put into practice the dictum in The Lord’s Prayer that 'we forgive those who trespass against us'?

I agree with Wendell Rosevear that society must come to grips with the likes of Ferguson in a compassionate and, dare I say it, pragmatic manner. He must live somewhere, if under surveillance so that he may never re-offend. Hate-mongering diminishes us all.

Patricia | 27 September 2009  

From what i know of the situation it seems that the NSW Government did not liaise/discuss with the local community in Ryde about the possibility of Mr. Ferguson living among them. It was a mistake not to do this. Is it possible to find people who are empathic and compassionate enough to welcome someone like Mr. Ferguson into their neighbourhood? I would hope so. A compassionate society would make it a sustained priority to get the balance right between people who are seen as victims and those who are seen as criminals. Let's not forget that criminals can be victims and victims criminals.

Empathy lays the groundwork for the loving of one's enemy. Real empathy can challenge long held assumptions and beliefs about others, our society and ourselves. It is courageous to empathise. It costs. It means that we actually embrace the needs of others often at the expense of our own perceived security and lifestyle. Hands up who has this kind of courage....hands up who wants this courage...

Andrew | 27 September 2009  

Empathy and hate are not the central feelings at work here. I think that compassion for the offender is overpowered by fear and prejudice. Children's innocence must always be protected and this means removal of any temptation to re-offend by inappropriate placement of the offender in society.

Patricia Martin | 27 September 2009  

I am someone seriously affected by the deeds of paedophiles, have been in therapy 9 years, likely to be for a number of years yet. My views differ greatly to those expressed by Les Kroenert. I agree with Michael Mullins & Georgina Wright.

The vast majority of sex crimes against children is perpetrated on girls by ‘adults’ in positions of trust within &/or known to the family. At least when Mr Ferguson was housed at Ryde parents did know where he was.
On seeing the scenes outside Mr Ferguson’s home I wondered who was at home caring for the protesters children.

I cannot imagine the NSW Government was not told by experts that stress can be a trigger for paedophiles to act on their compulsions. Mr Ferguson’s stress levels must be through the roof.

Does the legislation put in peril the housing of struggling families against whom allegations are made?

Appropriate vigilance & care required to decrease ones children’s vulnerability will stand children in good stead against paedophiles both within the family & those who commit the crime by ‘opportunity’.

My advice to parents; from your child’s earliest days have an ongoing dialogue with them.

Issues surrounding paedophilia are complex & require much more reflection before enshrining laws that are the ‘thin edge of the wedge’.

Helen Coles | 27 September 2009  

I have no sympathy or anything else for these people. Have you ever been involved with the affected children and their families? if so you would have a completely different outlook!

gwen thomas | 27 September 2009  

I subscribe to Eureka St because it is prepared to open up the most difficult issues facing society. Michael Mullins' artcle warrants praise for doing just that and the responses show he has succeeded.

No matter how despicable a crime, just society must always apply the principles of justice and avoid the simplistic and self-righteous response of hate. This article addresses a seemingly impossible challenge in the best traditions of Eureka St. We all should hate pedophilia but hatred of the pedophile does not inform a just response.

Peter Johnstone | 27 September 2009  

I found myself inserting a word into the final phrase of the last sentence in this article - and not just the human beings who are its CONVICTED agents.

Michael, taking on societies' dark angels is not an easy ask, yet, as you point out, the risks are great when we remain silent in the face of this ugly response to what has to be acknowledged as ugly behaviour. But I think this is the point, it is all about behaviour. If we do not separate the act from the actor, here we go again on the well worn path to discovering another scapegoat.

The fire in the belly that furnaces this perennial call to cast the blame and the pain onto the back of the other is always righteously masked by a call to a higher order. Protection of children is echoed many times in Scripture where the perpetrator is cast into the fires of hell because of his/her (usually a his) deeds.

I think the quick response from the NSW Parliament is a classic ‘electoral response’. As Greg Smith, who was formerly the President of the NSW Right to Life Association, told Parliament ‘(I) was glad we are doing something about this problem'.

From my tiny seat in the middle of an electorate, I can see the problem. It is votes.

Vic O'Callaghan | 28 September 2009  

I agree with you Michael that there are possible alternatives to what the NSW government has done,and these should have been sought, rather than hound Ferguson from his home yet again. Where can he go now?

If his release was unwarranted, although he had served his sentence the court should have had power to impose restrictions or effective surveillance on his activities to guard the community where he chose to live. Now he is more like an outlaw who can be hounded out of wherever he might find shelter.

Tony santospirito | 28 September 2009  

I strongly agree with what Les Kroenert wrote, I thin even Jesus was a radical man too, I will give you an examplo please read Mathews 18, 2-9l, in my own interpretation was not talking metaphorically, Children are closer to God than adults.

There is no way than anyone can convince me to give a second chance to somebody harm a child, I suffered myself too, it is not that easy to say you can recover with time. I am spending the rest of my time debriefing, triying to put aside the all experiences sometimes I win sometimes i loose. I think basically that Jesus comdemns these kind of people and their behaviour, if is not please read Matthew's Gospel; we may have a debate about it.

Roberto | 28 September 2009  

Some psychological clinics report significant success in their time consuming and specialist work with clients who have sexually abused children. Since such abuse often takes place in a family context the clinicians frequently work with both abused people and their abusers. Sometimes their work starts while the abuser is in prison and contiues after the abuser is released.

Unfortunately, if the clinics publicise their work, they become the focus of violent or near violent protests. So they do their work quietly and with great courage. And often with success.

If good citizens want to achieve something in this area they will encourage their politicians to support the work of psychological/psychiatric teams in prison systems and in after prison support of offenders.

But most family offenders are never reported or convicted. Some clinics effectively help them and their families. The clinical results are often good ones.

Gerry Costigan | 28 September 2009  

Is it hatred of pedophiles (unreasonable) or fear of what pedophiles do (reasonable)? The paramount concern must be the protection of children. If the indefinite incarceration of pedophiles is only way to guarantee this, so be it. Protection of the community takes precedence over the rehabilitation of those who threaten the community.

On the other hand, life-long imprisonment seems very harsh. Could we develop a kind of gated community or condominium type of residence for pedophiles in which they would be closely monitored and contained but otherwise free to live their lives? Maybe the same approach might help with the problem of drug addicts.

This approach would protect society and, at the same time, allow pedophiles, drug addicts and other anti-social types a maximum of freedom consonant with the common good.

Sylvester | 28 September 2009  

Yes, we should thank Michael for this balanced and - may I say it - Christian response.

I agree that the protection of children is the foremost aim - but how are children protected by refusing all help and healing to their abusers? Definitely condemn the sin, but remember that in the case of paedophiles, they 've often been sinned against themselves as children or young people. Their abuse of others is often one result of being abused themselves.

When do we stop trying to help and heal these people? Once they're 18? Once they're no longer cute? Repentance and foregiveness are not optional extras in the Christian way. The individual victim may very well not be able to forgive, nor should s/he be asked to do so - but church and society have a responsibility to care for its members, including perpetrators of abuse.

Joan Seymour | 05 October 2009  

Comparing heroin injecting rooms and paedophiles doesn't make sense to me. Apples and oranges. Heroin users are predominantly harming themselves. Paedophiles harm others. Yes, I believe drug addiction is an illness, not a crime... Kidnapping and raping children, is first and foremost a crime. Not an illness. I agree that the way the legislation was passed was premature. Australian government has become overzealous in legislating every issue as soon as it is comes to public attention, and as such, not enough time is given to properly consider the ramifications of the legislation. All people are born equal and are entitled to inalienable rights. Other rights however are forfeited upon committing abhorrent crimes that oppress the rights of others. Ferguson forfeited his right to privacy and freedom to live peacefully when he kidnapped and raped those little children.

Lauryn | 19 October 2009  

You have clearly never had your arse torn so badly that you need stitches. You've never had to wait for weeks for your rectum to go back inside your body. I may hate them but I don't let that hate control me.

Name | 17 February 2015  

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