Trigger warning: child sexual abuse
“The day that Dad got arrested, I actually knew about his crime two years earlier,” Ryan tells me.
We’re sitting at a table in his mum’s open-plan dining room. There are a few tradies working on scaffolds at the house next door, but it’s quiet in here; layers of brick and plaster strip their shouts of all discernible meaning and, for better or worse, hide stories like Ryan’s from unauthorised ears.
“I was about 12 or 13 when I found his child pornography,” he says.
“I watched it, because I was just interested in it. So I’ve seen a lot of kids being molested and stuff. I didn’t really understand it at the time. I tried to make sense of it in my head, and when I figured out it wasn’t right, I thought maybe it wasn’t a big deal. I thought maybe Mum knew about it,” he says with a shrug. “She didn’t, obviously.”
The police came knocking on a Thursday morning, while Ryan and his siblings were getting ready for school. “Mum actually thought the warrant was for my arrest, because I was downloading music,” Ryan says, amused. “But I was already aware they were there for my Dad.”
The kids had to go upstairs to their bedroom while the police spoke with their Mum. “My older sister was trying to figure out what the cops were there for, and I was just like ‘I know why they’re here.’ She eventually made me fess up,” Ryan says.
According to evidence given in court, their father had a collection of child abuse images that numbered in the tens of thousands, including a stash of backups. Some of the children in the images were barely twelve months old, and many were violent in nature.
“I knew where they all were as well,” Ryan says, “because as a kid—well, you can’t get porn yourself, so you go looking for your Dad’s stash.” He laughs for a moment: a common teenage anecdote, made ugly by the circumstances. He sobers quickly. “My older sister wanted to get rid of the backups, but I told her not to. She was like ‘I don’t care, he’s our Dad.’ But I refused to get them for her.”
What unfolded next is sad and banal. Ryan’s father was sentenced to 18 months jail and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. His parents split up, his Mum sold the family home and moved the kids to a cheaper suburb. Ryan began to receive psychiatric treatment for a number of mental illnesses, while his Mum began to drink heavily—soon, he would too.
In the midst of all this, a report in the local newspaper ensured that the public at large were privy to the family’s secret, further compounding their trauma.
“People would look at me like I was filth,” Ryan says. “They knew who I was. I sort of thought what, I’m fucking filthy because of what my Dad did?”
I discovered the details of Ryan’s father’s conviction through an unauthorised online sex offender registry; websites that make available to the public the conviction records of various Australian sex offenders, ‘naming-and-shaming’ for the sake of community safety.
In Ryan’s case, the newspaper report on his father’s crime was posted online, and I was able to track him down through social media. He was willing to speak on condition of anonymity, and as such his name has been changed.
With the exception of Western Australia, every state government in Australia has been reluctant to implement official public registers of convicted sex offenders.
The rationale behind public registry legislation is that they keep communities safe from sexual violence, following the underlying premise that sex offenders—in particular child sex offenders—are untameable predators who attack indiscriminately, giving the community the right to know where they are at all times.
This concern illuminates one of the major flaws in our society’s understanding of child sex crimes: our focus is always on repeat offenders, who are a relative rarity, while the distressing truths about the locations and contexts that actually pose the most risk to children—as well as the systemic failures that compound their suffering—are continuously swept under the rug.
Either way, the victims—in all their forms—are constantly a distant afterthought.
“Another Pair of Eyes”
It’s cold and overcast, and everybody seems to have an awful story to tell; one of the women walking behind me spends much of the trek from Brunswick to the city centre sobbing loudly, at times almost shrieking. There is little chanting among the marchers until they hit Spring Street, their 130,000-signature strong petition supporting a public sex offenders register trailing in a van.
The sheer scale of the suffering child sex abuse causes is hard to put into words, but plenty of it was on show at Derryn Hinch’s Jail2Justice walk late last month, with hundreds of victims and their loved ones—some well-known, but most anonymous in their pain—joining the veteran broadcaster on the last leg of his campaign.
“I’m sure that some offenders are able to be rehabilitated,” Bruce says, “but the people that we’re really referring to who should be on the public sex offenders register are serial offenders, people who have a history of repeat offences and they usually escalate in violence.”
It’s hard to argue with someone like Bruce Morcombe, who along with his wife Denise has shown an almost superhuman stoicism since their son Daniel’s murder 10 years ago, which ended in the conviction of repeat child sex offender Brett Peter Cowan last March. Both Bruce and Denise participated in the walk, representing their child safety advocacy organisation The Daniel Morcombe Foundation, and they both support the creation of a public register.
“There are do-gooders who suggest that everyone deserves a second chance and that’s a fair call,” Bruce tells me, standing on the steps of Parliament, “but predators against children—that is a sickness.”
Bruce is absolutely right. Repeat child sex offenders are particularly dangerous. They are often untameable, their offending typically becomes more violent as time goes on, and the community does need protection from them. But the question remains: are public registers the answer?
Queensland University of Technology criminologist Dr Kelly Richards says there is no solid proof that public registers reduce reoffending rates among convicted sex offenders. “The research evidence from overseas and all the research evidence that’s just emerging in Australia says they do not have any impact on community safety. They’re just not very well run: people can go underground, change their name and change their address,” she says.An expert on child sex abuse prevention, Dr Richards was awarded a fellowship grant in 2009 to travel overseas to study Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a form of sex crime prevention that would likely sit awkwardly with many Australians, despite its documented success.
COSA are groups of trained volunteers who work with soon-to-be-released prisoners. They are trained in the criminal justice system, and are given their designated offender’s case file.
Upon the offender’s release, the circle has two main responsibilities, the first of which is to support the offender: helping them find somewhere to live, buy a mobile phone, or even enrol in a TAFE course. “These offenders have usually burnt their bridges. They’ve most likely offended in their families, so they usually don’t have a support network,” says Dr Richards. “And we know that stress can create situations where offenders want to reoffend, partly because stress is actually a driver of sex offending.”
However, the most important aspect of COSA lies in holding the offender accountable. They monitor them, meet with them frequently, and alert authorities to any strange behaviour before a crime is committed.
“The volunteers keep an eye on the offender, and if they see anything they think is dodgy—and circles often do, they will often see offenders form friendships with people who have young children for example—they then speak to a sort of ‘out-circle’: a group of professionals, as well as the offender’s parole officer,” Dr Richards says. “Then they look at the case, and usually take the guy back to prison.”
In Canada, where the programs are currently in their 20th year, research has shown a 60-80% reduction in repeat child sex offending among participants. So, why has a COSA pilot program never been trialled in Australia?
“I think governments are worried that the population is so angry at sex offenders that COSAs would never work. They are all hoping one of the other state governments will do it first,” Dr Richards says. “But I don’t think that is actually the case. The ‘pitchfork mentality’ exists across the Western world, so it’s exactly the same in Canada, the United States, the UK and New Zealand, and they all have successful programs operating.”
I can’t help but think of Ryan’s situation: he may not have faced pitchforks, but he certainly did feel the sting of stigma over his father’s paedophilia. As such, it’s not surprising that increasingly populist governments are reluctant to attempt COSA programs, while the policies that do get floated—like GPS monitoring, or public naming-and-shaming through registers—are often focused on punishing the offender upon release rather than achieving positive results.
“The trouble with the naming-and-shaming and the pitchfork mentality,” Richards says, “is that we know these kinds of crimes thrive in secrecy, and we know that those sorts of behaviours drive offenders into isolation. So it’s actually the opposite of what we should be doing: we should be being very open about the issue, and surrounding that person with people in a supportive way but also as another pair of eyes.”
Despite all this, it’s worth recognising that repeat child sex abusers are a minority: relatively speaking, child sex offenders have low recidivism rates compared to other offenders so the fact they are always front-and-centre when it comes to policymaking tends to obscure many of the bigger issues surrounding child sexual abuse.
In truth, it’s the systems we trust to deal with these crimes that are most in need of a thorough crackdown, yet they seem to receive the least scrutiny.
“Australia doesn’t have a justice system”
“I had one young mother walk with me, and she said probably the wisest words I’ve heard in the whole 10 days,” Derryn Hinch said, addressing the crowd before the march. “She said ‘Australia has a legal system, it doesn’t have a justice system.’ And the policemen out here, they know that this is not a justice system: they do their job, but it’s a process. It’s a criminal process.”
And when it comes to child victims, it’s a process that is fundamentally flawed.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, published in 2005, a staggering 12% of women and 4% of men experience sexual assault before the age of 15—yet the number of recorded convictions for child sexual abuse is not nearly as high. In fact, the crime has one of the lowest conviction rates of all offences types.
Dr Richards says child sexual abuse crimes largely go undetected, and in detected cases, it can be very difficult to get evidence. “For a start, you’ve got a victim who’s a child, and children, to put it bluntly, make terrible witnesses. People have all these views that children are unreliable, that they can’t remember, or that they make things up and live in a fantasy world,” she says. “You’ve also just got one person’s word against another’s and there’s a power dynamic because it’s an adult’s word against a child’s.”
To make matters worse, the majority of victims do not even report the crimes committed against them to police, and when they do it is almost always months or even years after the crime, making the collection of evidence, as well as the victim’s own recollection of events, exceptionally difficult.
This is mainly due to one distressing yet little-known fact: the biggest risk to children is not some weird man living down the street, it is the child’s immediate family circle.
According to the ABS, male relatives or close family friends commit approximately 60% of all child sex abuse crimes, while 30.9% are committed by others known to the victim such as neighbours, sports coaches and clergy. Strangers commit only 11.1% of offences.
Interfamilial offending usually takes place over an extended period of time, features multiple acts of abuse, and is often shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult for young children to remember the specific details of each incident by the time they come forward to police. Although revised offence categories such as Victoria’s Persistent sexual abuse of a child law have been implemented across Australia—removing the need for complainants to remember the specific details of multiple acts of abuse—these laws have ultimately been unsuccessful at raising the conviction rate: they are chronically underutilised by prosecutors, for reasons the Australian Law Reform Commission is still not sure of.
These widespread systemic flaws should be a source of community outrage. They have been well known in law reform circles since as early as 1998, and yet the conviction problem persists.
“We’ve had no voice—no voice,” said one lady I spoke to at the rally. Both of her now-adult children were abused by a family friend but police have been unable to press charges because there wasn’t enough evidence for a solid conviction. “Nobody’s listened to us, and nobody’s believed us.”
“You don’t want to tear the family apart”
Just as the legal system spurns victims of sexual abuse, it also ignores the trauma experienced by offenders’ families, who are often completely unaware of the offender’s crimes but must live with the consequences.
“My sister’s living interstate,” Ryan says. “She hasn’t dealt with her stuff, she just sort of blocked it out.” He cracks a wry smile. “And there’s still a hole in my bedroom wall upstairs. I punched it in one time, when Mum tried to kick me out.”
After the trial and the embarrassing newspaper report, Ryan’s family retreated into layers of red-brick suburban normality while their shock, misery and eventual resentment was left to fester inside. Yet despite the mounting inevitability of a family breakdown, justice authorities did little to help them.
“They didn’t give two shits about us,” Ryan says. “They just wanted to prosecute another sex offender. You don’t really get any support afterwards, you get a shrink but that’s all. They just send shrinks around to talk to you.”
Over time, tensions in the home grew increasingly volatile.“I became a heavy drinker. Mum would let me,” Ryan says. “I think she went a bit screw-loose at that time. It was weird.”
He continues very carefully. “She started attacking us, and we didn’t quite get why. I think maybe we reminded her of our Dad. At times, it got physical—we’d both be drunk all the time. And I was a kid for fuck’s sake, drunk,” he says.
“I didn’t feel protected anymore by the people who should’ve been protecting me.”
As Ryan goes on, his story begins to hint towards a much darker and challenging aspect of the child sex offender puzzle: considering the amount of vitriol the community at large feels towards paedophiles, to what extent are we complicit in child sex offending remaining a dark family secret that often only gets reported to police years later?
“You don’t want to tear the family apart,” Ryan says. “I didn’t come forward about Dad’s child pornography because I didn’t want to tear the family apart. You don’t really feel like you can come forward… It would have been nice if I could have told someone he was a paedophile and got him into therapy or something, and if family members or society found out, they could just be like ‘oh that’s a shame, he needs to sort his shit out.’”
Walking out into the street, I notice that all the houses are practically identical: red-bricked and double storied ‘McMansions’, with neat manicured front yards. I wonder how many of these perfectly suburban homes are hiding dark secrets.
Writing about the Daniel Valerio child murder case in 1995, Helen Garner referred to a ‘force-field that repels outsiders’—the rules of social discourse that make it difficult for someone suspicious of family violence to sound the necessary alarms. It is customary to assume the best of those closest to us, and to take for granted the safety of the nuclear family; but in truth, we can never really know what goes on behind all those layers of brick and plaster, and what desires drive the characters who live within.
Preventing child sexual abuse is all about staying vigilant, but vigilance must start at home: the place where the majority of the threats lie, and where the majority of the pain is felt.
By Michael Walsh