Child victims lose out in sentencing of sex offenders
It is just a matter of time before we once again see an outraged local community - concerned Mums, Dads and Grandparents – holding placards and rallying against having convicted paedophile Dennis Ferguson as a neighbour.
It’s happened at least 4 times in the last 5 years, and the scene will be replayed over and over. Each time we see public opinion divide into two camps – the larger one believing that this repeat-offender ought not be living in any community with children (and certainly not theirs), and the smaller camp decrying vigilantism and claiming the guy has a right to live in the community having “done his time”.
But let’s stop for a moment and look at the concept of “having done his time”.
What does our society consider an appropriate sentence to fit the crime of “sexually penetrating” (let’s call it what it is – raping) a small child? Or three children?
This guy planned his crime while doing time in Long Bay jail for a range of offences that included “various assaults on children and indecent assaults on females”.
When he was released from jail, he and a “partner” tracked down a fellow inmate’s three young children – aged 6, 7 and 8 - he abducted them from their home in Sydney, flew them to Brisbane, where he held the children prisoner and repeated raped them until the police arrived some days later.
The Judge in Ferguson’s trial said the chances of rehabilitation were zero – but he was sentenced to just 14 years. 14 years for a crime so premeditated and so vile. A crime that no doubt imposed a life sentence on the most vulnerable of victims – three small children.
Sadly though – this is not a one off case.
We appear to have somewhat of a double-standard when it comes to sexual offences. If they are perpetrated against an adult without their consent, it’s an aggressive act and very serious business.
If they are perpetrated against a child, it’s that less-talked-about, child molestation “thing”. The focus seems to shift to the sexual deviancy of the perpetrator and away from the victim.
While it is difficult to get a clear understanding of the sentencing of child rape vis a vis adult rape, as many jurisdictions classify them all as “sexual offences”, there is evidence that we do not afford our children the same level of “sentencing protection” as they would have as adults.
The Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council provides statistical information on sentencing. It found that in that State from 2006-07 to 2007-08, the average effective sentence term for cases with “sexual penetration” of a child aged 10-16 was just 1.9 years for a single offence.
It was just 3.3 years if the child was younger than 10. In fact, if there had been up to 10 sexual offences committed against the child, those averages rose to just 4.8 years and 5.2 years.
The median length of imprisonment for rape of an adult was 5 years, with sentences varying from 2 to 20 years.
I am not for one moment arguing that one crime is less heinous than the other – they are both abhorrent.
But I do believe we have a special duty of care to protect the most vulnerable in our community – and our innocent, trusting children are high on that list.
When I rose in Federal Parliament earlier this year to raise this issue, I pointed out it is not something that people like to talk about because it is one of those very distasteful and disturbing issues.
It’s estimated that, from an economic standpoint, child abuse costs our nation about $4 billion a year – the social price we pay is much, much higher. Women who have been abused as children have a considerably higher risk of experiencing sexual violence in adulthood that the rest of us (54% compared to 26% for all women).
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that the sexual offences that come to the attention of the police are only a small proportion of the sexual offences that occur in the community.
Sadly, most victims of sexual offences are victimised by someone known to them – most commonly a family member. This is a problem that needs addressing.
Tougher sentences certainly need to be looked at, the way we view the crime of paedophilia needs to the re-thought, the terminology we use to describe crimes against children should be stronger, the outrage we feel as a community shouldn’t be confined to when a paedophile moves into our community…it needs to be ongoing.
Clearly the concepts of trust, protection and love within a family need to be re-enforced in our society and the value of children and good parenting needs to be underscored.
The premature sexualisation of children in the media also needs to be examined, as does the trend to excuse aberrant behaviour through moral relativism. We may be facing an uphill battle there – just look at the way Hollywood has rallied to absolve filmmaker Roman Polanski of his crime of having sex with a 13 year-old child.
This isn’t a problem that has one easy quick-fix.
But it is a problem that we need to acknowledge and discuss. Let’s not wait until one sick offender moves to a nearby house – let’s start waving the placards now and talk about this scourge, shed some light on it, and call on our policy makers to do more to address it.
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