Murderers leave prison, if they leave, with their names plastered across newspaper front pages more often than not. Thieves are named too. So are arsonists and embezzlers. But what of pedophiles?
Serious sex offenders are able to apply to the courts to have their names and details suppressed, never to see the light of day, ostensibly because the braying public would hound their every move and, you know, judge them.
Other high profile criminal cases occasionally have details suppressed, too, but it happens most often with pedophiles and serious sex offenders. Those cases are more emotive.
A wealthy Sydney businessman had his details suppressed so he could ‘minimise any ongoing damage to his reputation’. For the record, he raped his 11-year-old step daughter. His name was kept secret yet the explicit details of his crime were laid bare. The victim later said:
“His identify was protected, yet these intimate details about me are not protected at all. How can, on the one hand, they protect this man’s identity, and on the other hand, deny the victim’s right and the rights of society to know he is a convicted pedophile?”
It was only after broadcaster Derryn Hinch named the man that a court lifted the suppression order. That was last week. That man is Peter Versi. A property developer and pedophile sentenced last month to 18 months’ jail for the rape which took place in the 1980s.
He maintains his innocence.
It’s important to note suppression orders are made by judges as a balancing act. The competing interests of open and transparent justice (justice should not only be done, it is said, but should be seen to be done) and of the individual’s right to privacy, fair trial and the resumption of a relatively normal life after serving one’s debt to society.
But the public are unsure of pedophiles: can they ever really be rehabilitated? Therefore, do they continue to pose a risk when released and shouldn’t they be made aware if they do?
As for Hinch, he has made a name for himself by outing these suppressed pedophiles, against the law.
He was jailed in the 1980s for naming a pedophile priest and was last year banned from broadcasting or speaking publicly for five months after naming more sex offenders.
Sex offenders at an admitted risk of re-offending have had their names and addresses ziplocked behind a wall of secrecy. Judges use different reasons for the different cases, of course.
Risk of vigilante justice being one. Sometimes details are suppressed to protect the victim against the salivating scrutiny of an engrossed public. Sometimes suppression orders just protect the pedophile.
“The question which is at the centre of the debate is – should convicted and suspected sex offenders have any civil liberties and rights to privacy?
The answer, in a civilised society, must surely be yes. The rights of those offenders who have served court imposed sentences, while they are certainly diminished, are not extinguished completely. Many within the community would disagree. They argue unequivocally that in committing their offences, these types of offenders have infringed on the freedoms and rights of their victims and in so doing, have forfeited any rights enjoyed by other members of the community.”
That’s Nigel Waters. He’s the head of the Privacy Branch in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. He dances along the line many of us struggle with: what of the public’s right to know if serious sex offenders are back in the community?
One of Australia’s most notorious pedophiles, Dennis Ferguson, was hounded from town-to-town and interstate by mobs of angry locals each time his whereabouts became known. It was always meant to be a secret.
Eventually it seemed as if there was nowhere in Queensland the convicted pedophile could live. Who would have him? He had a long record of child sexual assault stretching back to the 1980s including one stint which resulted in 14 years’ jail when he and a partner kidnapped three young children and flew them interstate to have them sexually abused.
A sentencing judge noted Ferguson would never be rehabilitated and, during prison, he refused to take part in rehab programs and persistently tried to gain access to police crime photos of his victims under Freedom of Information laws.
Honorary Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry from the University of Melbourne Dr William Glaser framed the debate with a sharp race to the point:
“Imagine a society afflicted by a scourge which struck down a quarter of its daughters and up to one in eight of its sons. Imagine also that this plague, while not immediately fatal, lurked in the bodies and minds of these young children for decades, making them up to sixteen times more likely to experience its disastrous long-term effects. Finally, imagine the nature of these effects: life-threatening starvation, suicide, persistent nightmares, drug and alcohol abuse and a whole host of intractable psychiatric disorders requiring life-long treatment. What should that society’s response be?”
What indeed? Where do you draw the line between the right for convicted criminals to re-enter society and the right for society to know about the criminal pasts of those living with them?