• Home
  • Best Of 2009
  • Best of 2009: Empathy for paedophiles is not sympathy for the devil

Best of 2009: Empathy for paedophiles is not sympathy for the devil


Dennis Ferguson

First published September 2009

Paedophiles 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



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for daring to deal with something that some would regard as a taboo subject. The shrieking classes would have us believe, as some of your rhetorical questions imply, that paedophiles have forfeited their rights for the rest of their lives.

No matter what offences a person has committed, once they have served their time, they have a right to an opportunity to start a new life. Until they commit another offence they have the same rights as all of us to privacy and more.

If they commit a similar offence and are convicted, sentencing will take that into account, and repeated offending could demonstrate that they have little prospect of rehabilitation. But even in such cases the option of incarcerating them for the rest of their natural life is an extraordinarily hard one to take up.

Empathy for paedophiles is indeed a big ask, but it must be asked.
John Clapton | 04 January 2010

Paedophilia is a fearful thing. We are aghast at the violence toward the young who are defenceless, and who need our love and protection.

A crime has been committed, and the offender has taken his punishment. It is time for him to try to live in our society with an element of dignity.
Let us not revert to a Klu Klux Klan mentality.

'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'
Bernie Introna | 06 January 2010

Your argument is one sided and is silent on the risks of placing convicted paedophiles into the community. We must also respect the humanity of people who object to having their children exposed to what are often recidivist child sex offenders without their knowing. Somehow I think the objections of the community at Ryde are more than just the ‘reaction’ you make it out to be, though the Government’s response certainly was reactionary.

Empathy is fine and forgiveness is divine - but placing paedophiles into situations that have proven to be untenable in the past is gambling with people’s futures and it is not responsible (neither may I add is legislating to evict them on the grounds of their past).

Until there is a fail safe supervision and intervention system the risk of further tragedy is in my view too great and no one has the right to gamble with other people’s safety and welfare like that.

I agree with your assessment paedophilia is an illness, and I agree that we must respect the humanity of each individual; but the rights of children must come first in our society – they are our future and our most valuable humans.
Paul Brockhoff | 08 January 2010

paedophilia is the crime where it is said the perps should never have been born and millstones tied for casting into the river as I recall. what do you mean about empathy for such people and how can empathy, if that could be achieved, do anything to reduce the occurrance of the evil?. Michael i think you go too far. By all means let there be justice and by all means let us have a stop to the lynch mob behavior shown by the Press and others. However the gentleman you feature shows no sign of reform and shows every sign of still being a problem. Perhpas he should have some empathy with us. I still find it amazing that the church shuns and shows no empathy for Catholic people who are divorced. Perhaps that kind of empathy is too hard and it's easier to show empathy to other sinners.
Ken Fuller | 08 January 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up