February 2016


Names have been changed

By Sam Vincent
Names have been changed

© Eugene Sergeev / Shutterstock

Managing child sex offenders in the community

On a Saturday morning, I wake in the dark and drive seven hours to a support session for “fellas”. “We don’t use the P-word,” the organiser had explained over the phone when I’d asked how many paedophiles were coming.

In a musty hall in a one-time boomtown, bowls of chips and M&Ms have been placed on five desks arranged in a horseshoe. We are nine all up. Excluding the organiser, Susan*, and a prison chaplain, I’m the only one here who hasn’t committed a child sex offence or been deemed at risk of doing so, or isn’t the spouse or parent of such a person. “I hope this doesn’t ruin your career,” Susan says to me when I open my notebook.

We introduce ourselves and state our aims. Paul says he wants to equip himself with coping mechanisms for those vulnerable moments when, stressed, angry or tired, he “gets trapped” and “has these thoughts”.

Steve says he’s reached a “good place” and intends to become a mentor. “I want the lowest of the low to know that their psychology and their actions don’t mean they have to see themselves as animals.”

An older couple say they are here for their son, Scott, who couldn’t make it today. Scott breached the conditions of his state’s sex offender register requirements, and will soon appear before the courts. His dad is sweating profusely, making his glasses fog up. I can’t look at him.

We’re handed a diagram that Susan calls “Mr Old Me”. It shows a silhouetted man and a list of attributes commonly found in child sex offenders. Halfway down the list, between “rebellion” and “inappropriate relationships”, is “self-sympathy”. “We don’t want pity parties,” warns Susan, stating that if anyone is looking for self-sympathy “you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis”.

Each member of the group is asked to share their chief weakness.

“Porn,” says Steve, without missing a beat.

“Alcohol,” says his wife, Chantal, here to support her fella.

Self-esteem, admits Paul, is a constant battle. Eyes downcast, he tells us of his self-loathing each time a stranger says good morning to him in the street.

Luke nods in recognition. “The other day a lady called me a ‘gentleman’ for holding open a door. For the rest of the day I thought to meself, But I’m not a gentleman.”

There is one documentary everyone tells you to watch when you say you’re writing about child sex offenders: the Louis Theroux episode where he visits California’s Coalinga State Hospital, a maximum-security facility that houses paedophiles. The first time I saw it I was in a kind of prison myself: halfway into a four-month voyage across the Southern Ocean, living with and writing about Sea Shepherd anti-whaling activists. You watch a lot of TV when you go to sea.

During the documentary, an inmate tells a sceptical Theroux that he feels he’s rehabilitated and ready to be released. Percy, a Sea Shepherd activist who liked to tell me of his compassion for whales and dolphins, guffawed. “Fuck off you are, you pedo cunt!”

While working on this story, progressives and conservatives alike said I was “brave” for engaging with “them”, and that I was able to because I’m not a father so “don’t understand”. I can’t think of a more universally despised demographic.

Last August, when one-time Subway restaurant spokesperson Jared Fogle was imprisoned for sex offences against minors, the New York Post ran the headline ‘Enjoy a footlong in jail’. It was widely circulated on my Facebook feed as a source of mirth. Two months later, when a Muslim teenager shot dead Parramatta police worker Curtis Cheng, Opposition leader Bill Shorten said those who had radicalised the boy were the “terrorist version of paedophiles”. Whether it’s a subeditor making a gag or a politician making policy, dehumanising paedophiles is fair game.

I don’t claim absolution from this prejudice. Soon after I interviewed an offender who, he claimed, was treated worse during six years in prison than an inmate who murdered a child, it was reported that disgraced Hey Dad..! actor Robert Hughes, one year into a ten-year, nine-month sentence for child sex offences, was transferred to Goulburn prison and welcomed by his new inmates with a volley of faeces and the chant “Hey Dad!” I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to laugh.

It may seem logical that those who sexually abuse children receive little sympathy. The long-term effects on victims can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, self-harm, suicide, sexual dysfunction and, tragically (but far from inevitably), abusing children themselves.

Moreover, abuse is more widespread than many realise. A 2013 prevalence study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a federal government research body, estimated that 4–8% of boys and 7–12% of girls experience penetrative sexual abuse; for non-penetrative abuse (molestation, voyeurism, exposure to pornography), the figures rise to 12–16% and 23–36% respectively. These figures are notoriously hard to estimate because most abuse is not reported, let alone seen through to criminal conviction.

The community response to convicted child sex offenders is predictably unsympathetic. But as Dublin-based criminologist Judy McAvoy writes, eventually the majority of convicted offenders are released back into their communities, and how they are treated “will not just shape their lives and determine the extremity of their punishment, it will also shape the lives of those communities and determine the level of risk they may unknowingly inflict on themselves”.

In other words, a gap exists between the pitchfork mentality that typifies popular response to the crime and an approach that may reduce it.

Dr Kelly Richards, a criminologist from Queensland University of Technology, says there’s plenty of research showing what the public thinks about a range of exclusionary measures, such as offender registers, community notifications and residency restrictions. “You’ll be unsurprised to find out that the community is overwhelmingly supportive of these types of measures, although they are all absolutely useless at doing what they profess to do.”

At a public seminar at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Richards outlines an alternative way of reintegrating into the community what she calls “the lepers of our time”. The process started by accident in 1994, when Canadian serial child molester Charlie Taylor was due for release from prison into the community of Hamilton, Ontario. Taylor was considered to have a 100% chance of reoffending within seven years of his release. Due to his high-risk status, Taylor had served his full sentence behind bars with no parole period – normally a key stage for prisoners in navigating the transition from cell to community.

Correctional Service Canada psychologist Bill Palmer had worked with Taylor and described him as a “marginalised man with few life skills and a persistent sexual interest in children”. Seeing a train wreck unfolding, Palmer tried to organise support for Taylor upon his release, but because Taylor had no parole to serve, Correctional Service Canada correctly informed Palmer that he no longer had any authority over him.

In an act of desperation, Palmer called Harry Nigh, a local Mennonite minister. Nigh had previously surrounded local parents of children with a disability and/or mental-health issues with what he called a “circle of support”, comprised of volunteers from his congregation.

Nigh did the same for Taylor, finding him housing, inviting him to attend church services and functions, and organising a safety net of daily contacts to protect the community from Taylor – and Taylor from the community. The man rated a certainty to reoffend stayed ensconced within his circle until his death 11 years later. He had not reoffended.

From this beginning, Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) are now typically funded by correctional services departments and implemented by prisoner support organisations, often religious in nature. Typically, a “circle” of four to seven trained volunteers meets weekly as a group with the “core member” (sometimes serving parole, sometimes not) and, alternating among them, with him one-on-one on a daily basis. The circle offers support with everything from doing laundry to dealing with government agencies, as well as acting as a sounding board for concerns. In return, the core member has signed a contract to uphold his – and it is nearly always his – commitment to not reoffend. (“Accountability” was added to the title in recognition that support without accountability is inadequate.)

From Hamilton, CoSAs have spread across Canada to the United States, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, New Zealand, and, since March last year, amid much secrecy, Australia.

The Australian pilot, funded by a $40,000 grant from South Australia’s Department for Correctional Services and implemented by Adelaide-based non-government organisation OARS Community Transitions, comes on the back of impressive outcomes elsewhere.

In a 2007 study into the relationship between CoSAs and recidivism, 60 high-risk offenders in circles across Ontario were matched according to age, offending history and other variables with 60 offenders not in a CoSA. Over four and a half years, the researchers observed 70% less sexual recidivism among the CoSA sample, as well as a dramatic reduction in recidivism of any kind. Repeating the study across Canada two years later, they found an 83% reduction in sexual recidivism. Wary of the fact that participation in a CoSA is voluntary, so may attract the offenders most motivated to not reoffend anyway, a 2012 US paper used a randomised model. It produced similar results.

CoSAs have rightly been lauded for preventing child sex offences, but, as Kelly Richards points out, they have two official mottos: “The motto of ‘No more victims’ clearly speaks to the issue of risk [to a community] … The motto of ‘No one is disposable’ reflects restorative justice principles. It alludes to notions of forgiveness … or as criminologists like [the Australian National University’s] John Braithwaite would put it, of separating the act from the actor, and of seeing the humanity in even the most reviled of offenders.”

The word “paedophile” is as misunderstood as it is misused. Its literal translation from Greek is “child lover” – crudely inappropriate for the crimes involved. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a door-stopper published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines a paedophile as someone aged 16 and over who has, over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children. The DSM-5 states that a paedophile is at least five years older than the child or children involved. Controversially and ambiguously, the definition also states that a paedophile is one who has “acted” on their urges, without specifying if this means masturbating to fantasies, viewing child pornography or molesting a child.

Clinically speaking, then, this disqualifies many media-christened “paedophiles”, who are motivated not by compulsion, but situation. Criminologists call them “opportunistic offenders”: abusers, often sexually hyperactive, who may not be aroused by children, but when faced with an environment of power ripe for exploitation – a sex-tourism hotspot, a boarding school – act on it.

Calling these offences “paedophilia” is as tenuous as calling all rapes in prison acts of homosexuality. But we use the P-word all the time. The ex-con who claims he was treated worse in prison than a murderer is not, according to DSM-5, a paedophile. He tells me of receiving a death threat (“Die, pedo!”), and of the parole officer who lost her temper and told him, “You’re just a bloody paedophile anyway!” (Anecdotally, prejudice against child sex offenders among correctional staff is widespread; the voluntary nature of CoSA circle members is a crucial distinction from caseworkers assigned to work with an offender whether they want to or not.)

And while media coverage of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is understandably focused on victims, there seems little desire to explain their perpetrators beyond the cover-all label of “paedophile priest”.

You might not think semantics matter when, ultimately, kids’ welfare is at stake. But recognising the complex shades of difference within the spectrum of paedophilia or child sex offences enables intervention to be tailored appropriately.

Writing in the Crime Prevention Studies series, criminologists Richard Wortley and Stephen Smallbone admit that there exists a paucity of research into “opportunistic offending”, but nonetheless argue its existence casts doubt on the view that “most sexual offenders are dedicated, serial offenders driven by irresistible sexual urges”.

Nor are actual paedophiles a homogenous group. Some are exclusively attracted to prepubescent boys; some to girls; some to boys and girls; some are in loving heterosexual relationships with partners their own age. Some display deviant sexual feelings for children throughout their life; some will experience it intermittently.

Prevalence is contested, but Michael Seto, director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research’s Forensic Research Unit, believes that paedophiles represent 1% of the adult male population. Kelly Richards thinks it could be closer to 5%.

Familiarity is another factor. Dr Danny Sullivan, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant clinical director at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health (Forensicare), says a deeply uncomfortable fact that the community struggles to accept is that most child sex offences occur domestically. “If you read the media you’d get the impression that there are hundreds of dodgy men prowling around, snatching strangers off the streets, but actually, the problem, like family violence, is much closer to home,” he says. “It’s far more likely to be the case that the offender is a family member, a relative, someone who is trusted; someone who is in a position of contact with the children … The number of offenders who fit the stranger-predator profile is a very small proportion.”

But “concerned citizens” maintain the fight against a stereotype, perhaps because it is an easier target. “Say the words ‘child sex offender’ [and], in the community, immediately we think of a serial perpetrator who’s trapping children and throwing them in an underground dungeon,” David Way, the Queensland co-ordinator for prisoner chaplaincy group Prison Fellowship, tells me. “It’s uninformed, and it’s judgemental.” Way has frontline experience of the community’s appetite to ask no questions in its quest to tar and feather. In 2008 Queensland Police asked Prison Fellowship, which supports those transitioning from prison, to provide 24-hour pastoral care for high-profile child sex offender Dennis Ferguson upon his release. Way tells me that a mob of “about 70” vigilantes rocked his Tarago as he attempted to park in Ferguson’s driveway. Once Way had fought through the mob, closed the door and told Ferguson he “had time” for him, the 60-year-old pariah wept for 10 minutes. Way thinks it was the first time anyone had attempted to humanise him. Ferguson would go on to tell Way of his own abusive childhood, saying his stepfather started raping him when he was 13 years old.

Even for men who harbour a persistent, predatory sexual interest in children – the subject of CoSAs and of Susan’s support – abuse is not inevitable. Michael First, editor of DSM-5, told the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv in 2013 that there is no scientific evidence of abnormal desires being any harder to control than normal ones. “People choose to do bad things all the time.” The implication is that moral, not just criminal, treatment is required – after an offence has been committed, but preferably long before.

Having been homosexually active from the age of 14, Steve, from Susan’s group, had assumed he was gay. At 17, he realised he was attracted to boys as well as men. It was the late 1980s; the stigma of homosexuality was hard enough. The onset of “the kid thing”, Steve believes, precipitated a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, self-loathing and, ultimately, psychosis. With nobody to turn to – he would keep his paedophilia secret for more than a decade – Steve became gripped by the fear that he would harm a child, and restructured his life to exclude all contact with children.

“Despite all the other shit going on in my life, I never let my guard down,” he tells me in his living room, the hum of a fish-tank filter filling his long pauses.

Steve lived a late-night existence so as to avoid children. He attempted suicide several times, and was in and out of mental hospitals for years. He had obsessive thoughts about lighting fires; soon afterwards, acting on internal voices, Steve burned down a prominent city landmark.

Ironically, Steve is the only paedophile I spoke to who had a positive experience of custody. Imprisoned for arson, not child sex offending, he was spared the usual bashings during his 18-month sentence and was considered something of a curiosity. “One guy was convinced that I had done it [the arson] for insurance money and wanted a cut, but when he realised I hadn’t he left me alone.”

Now in his 40s, psychologically stable and happily married (to a woman, Chantal, in a testament to the fluidity of human sexuality), Steve doesn’t doubt his life might have been less traumatic had more support been in place when he was most vulnerable. This is the reason why he now intends to become a mentor.

On Skype from Montreal, where he’s on leave, Dr Danny Sullivan from Forensicare frowns when I propose a hypothetical situation: you’re a teenager, attracted to kids and worried you’re going to abuse one. Where do you go for help?

“A significant minority of offending is actually [done] by juveniles or young adults, and they tend to be served by very different services than adults,” he says. “As a juvenile, in Victoria, if you are charged with a sexual offence you can be diverted into treatment by the Therapeutic Treatment Board [in lieu of prosecution], but other states don’t have that diversion option.”

“And for non-offenders?”

“In terms of getting treatment, Forensicare will take self-referred patients or patients referred by other people – not just GPs but family members or social-service agencies … That includes people who have never offended or been charged with an offence.”

The treatment, Sullivan tells me, is predominately psychologically based, and aims to give the patient an understanding of what constitutes a risky situation (such as being asked to babysit), and to help them deal with situations that might arise unexpectedly.

I mention Prevention Project Dunkelfeld (which translates as “Dark Field”), a state-sponsored program in Germany that offers non-offending paedophiles free clinical treatment anonymously – a measure designed to gain trust, for which it has been widely championed. Recent amendments to Australian privacy laws permit patients to use a pseudonym when interacting with the public health system, but as Sullivan points out, “You’re not going to have a Medicare card that says ‘Captain America’.”

And even if you are prepared to use your real name it is difficult to know who to turn to. Sullivan mentions a GP who contacted him “in hysterics at how disgusted they were” when referred a patient who had both health problems and paedophilic thoughts. Rarely, specialised private psychologists and psychiatrists can offer good quality treatment for non-offending paedophiles, Sullivan says, but in most Australian jurisdictions this demographic cannot access public treatment because it’s only funded through correctional agencies. I’m incredulous: to access help from the state, first you have to have been sentenced for sexually offending? Skype cuts out, but Sullivan later clarifies via email:

I am unaware of publicly funded bodies apart from Forensicare in Victoria which take on patients who have not been referred through the courts or correctional agencies. Disability services and some child and adolescent mental-health services may provide treatment as an element of wrap-around care, but once more this is an add-on and is not part of core funding for these agencies.

As you can tell, I strongly support any opportunity to provide preventive treatment for people at risk of sexual offending, who are motivated to seek help rather than offending. It is likely to be cost-effective, and to have a reasonable success rate. In order to do so you would need: funding; a service with the requisite expertise; and a framework, which enables disclosure without censure, but not which “justifies” ongoing offending.

Sullivan’s last point refers to Australia’s mandatory reporting laws, whereby health-care professionals have a statutory obligation to report to child protection if they form a belief “on reasonable grounds” that a child is at risk of abuse, and to report a crime to the police if a patient admits to abusing a child. It’s a delicate position: clinicians must balance the trust of their patient in divulging distressing aspects of sexuality with their professional obligation to not collude with someone who may be offending but not disclosing that to the treating service.

“If a person fails to show progress, the service must be careful that they do not go along with their patient in pretending that attendance alone is an indication of success in treatment.”

Sullivan doesn’t believe mandatory reporting dissuades people from continuing treatment, but that it may deter people from seeking it. “If the [paedophile] has already offended,” he writes, “they have a choice: lie in treatment (which then doesn’t work as well if you can’t be frank); or confess, which likely triggers a notification. So the fork is at the stage of engaging in treatment. I think mandatory reporting is necessary to protect the treaters as well – they might be perceived as an accessory if mandatory reporting did not exist.”

Successful treatment, post- and pre-offending, focuses on notions of self-control and responsibility. Clinical therapy works to ensure that thoughts don’t become reality.

And yet the stereotype of the predatory paedophile hardwired to offend persists. Social-media commentary about the Adelaide CoSA pilot has been broadly sceptical of its likely efficacy, while a Change.org petition, STOP THE COSA TRIAL IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA IMMEDIATELY, paints the pilot as a pointless, cushy program for the inherently evil:

[H]ere’s the logic behind the program, if a child rapist feels comfortable they are less likely to reoffend …

Do they forget who they are dealing with here? These people are master manipulators. They will lie through their teeth they will sit there and say how great their rehabilitation is going and how wonderful the regular coffee visits are, meanwhile they are probably sitting in the [cafes] canvassing the next victim they intend to stalk, groom then attack.

As long as we use caricatures in place of the nuanced real world, we make treatment impossible. “Monster.” “Kiddie-fiddler.” “Rock-spider.” “Pedo.” I’d rather be called a “fella” too.

The support session I attend is not the CoSA pilot in Adelaide. OARS, the organisation facilitating that trial, does not return my emails and phone calls; as for the CoSA-pilot participants, a spokesperson for South Australia’s Department for Correctional Services emails that “if they are still on our books so to speak, (parole etc) we strictly do not permit convicted sex offenders media access as we have a duty to victims of crime first and foremost and believe that the voice of victims takes priority over their offenders”.

Nor am I able to access the CoSA volunteers, drawn, if the overseas experience is instructive, from retired health- and social-sector professionals, students, the faith community and the police force (especially to play the “bad cop” role of accountability-keeper).

The session I visit is largely modelled on CoSA, right down to accountability contracts that have been cribbed from a circle in Minnesota. Like the OARS project, this one is in its infancy; at this stage, meetings are taking place with all prospective core members present, under the tutelage of a prison chaplain. It is hoped volunteers will eventually include retired police, teachers, doctors and public servants.

But the program, the name of which is not public, also draws on the “Good Lives Model” of offender rehabilitation devised by clinical psychologists at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. In this model, offender wellbeing and risk reduction are inexorably linked, and the attributes of “Mr Old Me” are not simply removed but replaced with more positive influences such as recreation, social gatherings and anger management. As with CoSA, label theory, whereby behaviour is believed to be influenced by the terms used to describe it, is harnessed to improve self-esteem – hence my P-word dressing-down. The key difference between the CoSA pilot in Adelaide and the meeting I sit in on is that those chips and M&M’s were paid for out of organiser Susan’s pocket.

“We would like to work with [correctional services],” says Susan, who has no professional background in counselling and started the program last year, motivated by a family history of child sex abuse. “But until that happens there are some advantages to being independent.”

Steve, who is helping Susan structure the program, later tells me he hopes the program will eventually receive government funding once it starts getting results, but he agrees that at this stage it is good to not “unnecessarily make waves”. With public funds, Steve and Susan reason, comes public scrutiny.

I wish them well, but have major doubts. Although they have consulted psychologists and criminologists (Kelly Richards thinks they’re “on the right track”), do-it-yourself offender reintegration seems naive and fraught with difficulty. And yet when I ask the parents of Scott, the offender who has breached his register conditions, whether they would like to see that state’s government pilot CoSA, they reply that it wouldn’t make much difference – he’s already in this de facto one.

Not that public funding is forthcoming. There’s never going to be political capital in this realm. David Way has been lobbying, without success, for CoSA to be funded in Queensland since 2008. He tells me a few politicians from both major sides of politics “get it”, but, unsurprisingly, deem it electorally toxic. Kelly Richards tells me that even once the South Australian government decided to fund the CoSA pilot, it was intended to be conducted in secret until she accidentally revealed its existence to the media.

Nor is tangible evidence of victim reduction a guarantee against political expediency. In 2014, Canada’s then prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced funding cuts for CoSAs in his country – the world’s most established and effective child sex offender reintegration program. The official reasoning was belt tightening. (The 18 CoSA sites across Canada, working with 150 offenders nationwide, were collectively receiving C$2.2 million annually. Not counting court fees and police work, it costs around C$150,000 to incarcerate someone for a year in prison – let alone, as Canadian journalist Ed Tubb has pointed out, the cost to the victim.)

A more believable reason was forecast by Harper in 2013, when tabling harsh new sentencing laws for child sex offenders: “I cannot even begin to comprehend why those who sexually prey on children do the heinous things that they do. But sadly there are truly evil people out there. The fact is we don’t understand them, and we don’t particularly care to.”

Harper’s deliberate, ostentatious ignorance was telling. His head-in-the-sand approach discounted the fact that a problem cannot be solved if you don’t endeavour to understand it.

The more savoury policy approach is to track offenders, but such measures often have unsatisfactory results. A study in Florida found that three quarters of those surveyed steadfastly supported community notifications of the presence of ex-offenders – after survey participants were educated on how the measure had little impact on protecting children. (Especially because it’s not strangers, but fathers, uncles and guardians who are most likely to abuse children.)

It’s not just Florida. In 2011, the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s report on that state’s sex offenders register found little evidence to suggest it or other registers of its kind are an effective means of reducing child sex abuse. Among other flaws, the report criticised the existence of one register for both serial predators and those less likely to reoffend (juveniles who have engaged in consensual sex, for example, or someone who has “sexted”). What’s more, the Victorian register contains no provision for differential responses according to degree of risk.

Despite this, the register approach remains popular. Last June, to substantial public support, the Victorian government passed amendments designed to bolster that state’s register. (Information-sharing between relevant parties is to be facilitated, and those on the register face increased reporting obligations and tougher sentencing for breaches.) Last September the Northern Territory government attempted to establish a website listing details and locations of convicted serious sex offenders. It would have been the only register in Australia providing public, rather than government and official, access. When confronted with research indicating registers are ineffectual in curbing abuse, the Northern Territory attorney-general, John Elferink, said he understood “what the studies say, but I also know what the parents think and feel”. In December the plan was shelved indefinitely, but arguably more because of political incompetence than popular opposition.

GPS monitoring is another measure that is politically popular but problematic in practice. In 2010, police in the US thought they would have to round up 16,000 convicted sex offenders fitted with ankle bracelets after the monitoring system crashed for 11 hours. In any case, as former Victorian attorney-general and now director of RMIT University’s Centre for Innovative Justice Rob Hulls pointed out in a 2013 Herald Sun op-ed, “GPS monitoring relies on someone actually watching and understanding the signals being transmitted from the device … GPS monitoring does not alert corrections officers when an offender commits an offence, but merely indicates their location.”

A more extreme measure was raised last August, when NSW justice minister Troy Grant proposed mandatory chemical castration of child sex offenders, which leads to myriad health problems for the patient and is of contentious effectiveness (“You don’t need your willy to work to hurt children,” one criminologist told me). Surveyed ABC NewsRadio listeners were overwhelmingly in favour of the idea.

Across Australia, child sex offenders deemed to be high risk are increasingly serving more of their sentence in prison, meaning less time on parole before they’re thrown back into a hostile community – the opposite to the gradual reintegration championed by CoSA. In some instances, offenders can be detained indefinitely through a preventative detention order after their sentence has expired. “These laws”, the Centre for Innovative Justice’s Stan Winford writes in an email, “allow people to be locked up or have their freedom severely curtailed – not for something that they have done, but for something they might do … CoSAs seem to reframe the management of risk in a much more socially inclusive and constructive fashion.” Such continued detention schemes, which have produced little evidence of reducing child sex offences, were described by the Victorian Supreme Court in 2007 as “a significant departure from fundamental principles underlying our criminal justice system”. In 2015 they were enthusiastically lauded at a Council of Australian Governments meeting as a measure that should be extended to convicted terrorists.

We know what works, but we choose not to implement it.

Writing in the Saturday Paper in 2014, chief correspondent Martin McKenzie-Murray – himself a victim of child sex abuse – wondered whether our dismissal of this so-called unspeakable act has left us unable to process it: “We are terrified that the act of explanation will lead inexorably to understanding, then to sympathy. We are terrified that we will erode the notion of personal responsibility, of choice, of wilful criminality.”

“So this is the big issue,” says Prison Fellowship’s David Way. “Are we betraying the children who have been abused and affected by helping these guys? That’s the challenge.”

I ask Susan if she thinks Australians are up for it.

“It’s up to them to decide what’s more important,” she says, “preventing victims, or vengeance … People say that I shouldn’t be talking to the fellas about their sexual feelings, but I always say that if I don’t, the prosecutor will.”

* Names have been changed.

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars and My Father and Other Animals.


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Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality