A convicted criminal hidden behind a screen door, an advocate in the front yard defiantly potting geraniums, a banner scrawled with “pedophile”, a child predator “selling toys”, a pine coffin, a petrol bomb, a stabbing: this week the media fell over themselves to cover the latest case of convicted pedophile Dennis Ferguson being run out of town.

This is the pattern every time Ferguson is moved: after being shifted several times from various Queensland locations, Ferguson has now been moved from his public housing apartment in the Sydney suburb of Ryde and is temporarily staying with a friend.

Every night this week TV viewers have been greeted with images of angry neighbours, vox pops from concerned parents and a menacing Ferguson, skulking behind his screen door or tapping away on a computer:

Ferguson was jailed for 14 years in 1988 for kidnapping three children and violating them in a motel. He completed the 14-year term and has since been driven out of several Queensland communities before relocating to NSW.

Any serious examination of what is inarguably a complex situation was drowned out by talking heads across the nation echoing the phrase over and over, “as a parent …”

We all know there’s no nuance in a headline, but SICK PEDOPHILE DENNIS FERGUSON SOLD CHARITY TOYS isn’t quite an accurate representation of the next instalment of the story: an unfortunate security breach for Diabetes Australia in which Ferguson managed to register as a volunteer for them under the name “Ray”. After gaining clearance without a police check, he was free to sell Diabetes Australia merchandise such as pens, raffle tickets, and fridge magnets on the street. Or, as the news.com.au website put it:

The sex fiend was spotted in Sydney’s Kings Cross hawking pens, magnets and a “buzzy bee” toy as part of the charity’s fundraising efforts.

Then came the headline KNIFE FIGHT OUTSIDE FERGUSON’S HOME. The fight didn’t involve Ferguson, he was out to dinner in Balmain at the time.

And spare a thought for Ferguson’s neighbours, faced with a hoard of 100 angry protestors and a media mob outside their apartments. Resident Margaret told The Daily Telegraph:

Margaret Hancock, a tenant of the housing commission complex, demanded that they not be targeted after “bogans” swept through wielding beer bottles.

“I’ve got a child too and I don’t want your bogans coming through here. Not everyone who is an ex-prisoner is re-offending,” she said.

But one commentator did attempt to look at the debate from a different angle, even if it did run under the headline “Was the Pied Piper a P-dophile?” Jack Marx on his News Ltd blog drew parallels between the Pied Piper and Ferguson:

Folk today invoke the Pied Piper whenever someone is seen to lead a multitude, whether to their doom or otherwise. But perhaps the true “Pied Piper Syndrome” has more to do with scapegoats, imaginary perils that serve to absolve us of responsibility when things go bad. Music, drugs and alcohol have traditionally been excellent fall guys for derelict parenting. So too are pedophiles.

The good people of Carbrook, Queensland, don’t really care that Dennis Ferguson is a pedophile (if they did, they’d consider it not a “win” but a disaster that he has been moved elsewhere, rather than imprisoned) — no more than the murderers who bashed him in prison, or the politician who needs to divert attention from his own Government.

They just want to be able to let their kids roam free while they put their feet up in front of the LCDs they purchased with the baby bonus. It’s not difficult today to take good care of your children and shepherd them out of harm’s way, even if harm’s your neighbour, or in your own home. But it can be inconvenient if it’s not your priority.

That’s what we saw at Carbrook: a town full of people who fought for — and “won” — their right to not care for their children as if they were a priority. Like the parents of Hamlen, they’ve come out looking so much better than they deserve.

A pretty harsh condemnation of a community fearful for their kids, but the piece also prompted some pretty fascinating comments, including this one:

I had a lot of contact with Denis Ferguson in the mid-nineties during his accommodation at Her Majesty’s pleasure in the Moreton B Correctional Facility. He had already served a number of years for the kidnapping and sexual assaults so oft quoted. At the time I was working as a psychologist working independently of the correctional system identifying individuals whom I believed were victims of what was then an epidemic of false accusations of s-xual abuse. In Queensland in the late 80’s and early 90’s it was a frequent police practice to use allegations of intra-familial s-xual abuse to put away revolving door offenders for extended periods.

The fact that physical evidence was not required and the cross examination of alleged victims was frowned upon made the job of the special police task force a fairly straight forward one. Defence counsel often wished to expedite such ‘dirty’ proceedings by advising their clients that if they do not contest the charges they will get a two year bottom but if they plead not guilty the judge will take them to task for bringing more ‘trauma’ to the victims and they will get 10-14.

Many innocent men would plead guilty at the advice of their lawyers and then go to prison to serve time in protective custody as the rock spiders that they would have always despised. They would then be placed in the notorious S-xual Offenders Treatment Program where their first duty was to make a full disclosure of their sordid s-xual past. When they would tell their inquisitor that they didn’t do the child s-x stuff and that they just plead guilty for legal expediency they were tagged ‘in denial’, would receive no remission, no parole and would serve their full term (usually 8-10 years). Ironically the real ‘monsters’ would tell all get ‘treated’ and be on the street in a couple of years.

I cannot say with any real certainty that Dennis Ferguson was an innocent man, in fact he was well known for his criminal conduct and he had priors for check fraud and the like. The child s-xual assault case against him was not exactly water tight, however, and Dennis has vocally protested his innocence ever since. Even if he did all that he was convicted of and more I met much worse in Queensland prisons. None of them, however, looked quite so convincing as Dennis. None had the twitching, stuttering manner, the inch thick glasses, the stoop and the stale incontinent ming that we identify as the caricature of the child predator.

Dennis stayed alive only by virtue of the fact that he can read and write and could help other prisoners with their applications, a valuable asset in a prison system with only 30% literacy/numeracy.

He was a vexatious and litigious prisoner. He sued corrections for a severe bashing he received and was constantly making complaints. A half-arsed bomb threat to the warden resulted in a further conviction and all of this made the press and raised his profile to Dennis Ferguson — Super Pedophile.

His greatest misfortune was to have been convicted during a peak of child s-xual abuse hysteria and the ‘Hinch Crusades’ although imagine his surprise to emerge to the light of freedom to realise we have come full circle and are going through the same madness and he is again satan incarnate.

Great piece Jack. Brave cause. Good luck.

el champion of unpopular causes (Reply)
Thu 24 Jul 08 (11:58am)

Nice to see some shades of grey and a bit of context in the coverage of this highly contentious issue, pity readers have to scroll down to a comment at the bottom of a blog to get it.

View our complete Wankley winners’ archive

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off