Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Legal

The Vercoe witch-hunt

RARELY does the sentence handed down by a judicial officer in this state attract weeks of controversy.

But the two years imprisonment handed down by Justice Shan Tennent to Sarah Vercoe, a teacher who had sexual relations with a few teenage schoolboys, appears to have split our community. This newspaper’s letters to the editor have reflected that division, and last week on this page Lew Bretz argued against the treatment of Ms. Vercoe by the legal system.

There are three aspects of the Vercoe case that should provide cause for reflection by our society. Firstly, Ms Vercoe has been presented as the ‘fallen woman’ by the legal system and some elements of the media. That this is the case in the 21st century is disturbing and it should outrage champions of womens’ rights.

It has been common throughout history, for society to shun women who, and it nearly always involves sex, ‘sin’ against convention. From the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene to thousands of women subjected to abuse by the notorious Irish Catholic Church, there is a long tradition of ‘making a public example’ of women who transgress society’s notion of morality. Ms Vercoe is another victim of that tradition.

When Justice Tennent sentenced Ms Vercoe earlier this month she used these words. “The sentence must also reflect the public condemnation for crimes such as these and the impact of the crimes on the young victims.” In other words, a public example is being made of this young woman.

But as one very experienced educator told this columnist last week, there are male teachers who have been getting away with sleeping with their students for years. These male teachers have always been able to cover their tracks. Ms Vercoe on the other hand, was subjected to a witch-hunt by the authorities.

The second aspect concerns our society’s hypocritical morality about abuse. While parents and others in our ommunity ‘throw rocks’ at Ms Vercoe, they are happy to allow a situation where parents feed their children junk food, allow them to smoke and don’t make them participate in sport. The result — a state of unfit, obese, diabetes ridden young people.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. The life long adverse consequences of parents allowing teenagers to grow fat on hamburgers, soft drinks and lack of exercise are likely to be far greater than those resulting from a sexual interlude between a 16 or 17 year old schoolboy and a 20 something school teacher. Yet the authorities are not charging parents and junk food companies with child abuse.

Finally, the Vercoe case is another example of the fact that our judges and magistrates must avoid sending people to prison wherever possible. Society rarely benefits from the jailing of people who present no security threat. Worse still, the prison system in Tasmania, as this columnist knows, is riddled with human rights abuse.

Lost, sad and lonely

Consider Ms Vercoe’s case. As Justice Tennent herself accepted, Ms Vercoe, at the time of the commission of the crimes, was “lost, sad and lonely. You perceived yourself as professionally ostracised and your marriage was breaking down. You had been a teacher for just a year and was not coping with difficulties being experienced. You found the move from student to teacher difficult.”

Why then, send this young woman to prison? A young woman who will never teach again (because our society is not good at forgiveness) and who needs, and should get mental health support. Prison will simply make this young woman’s attempt to get her life back on track more difficult. Is that justice? Is that in society’s best interests? The answer to both questions is a resounding No.

To send this young woman to jail for crimes that on a scale of one to ten are down the lower end simply reinforces the point made earlier. Ms Vercoe has been made an example of — she has been banished from society just the way women over thousands of years have been shunned by their communities for breaking the sexual morality code.

One final point. It seems that we need to rethink our attitudes to young people today. Many of those, including those in our legal system, who have condemned Ms Vercoe take a view that 15 and 16 year old school boys and school girls for that matter are blissfully naïve and innocent about the ways of the world. That might have been right thirty years ago, but not today.

As a society we allow our young people today to be exposed to a range of media and experiences that are highly sexualised. As a result, young people in western society have a greater grasp on sexual concepts and practices than at any previous time in history.

Ms Vercoe’s treatment says more about our hypocrisy and archaic morality than it does about her alleged misdemeanour.

This article was first published in The Mercury, Monday, September 26.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Geoff Rollins

    October 2, 2005 at 9:26 am

    Geoffrey Hills’ detailed comments on Greg Barns’ article is wholly correct in my view.

    I’ll go on to say that whilst I totally endorse Barns’ somewhat abstract comments on child health, obesity and so on, I thoroughly disagree with the direction of the rest of the article.

    I do not care if Vercoe was “lost, sad and lonely. You perceived yourself as professionally ostracised and your marriage was breaking down. You had been a teacher for just a year and was not coping with difficulties being experienced. You found the move from student to teacher difficult.” Absolutely none of this excuses having sex with students as young as 15. Teachers hold one of the most important roles in society and must be held to account should they abuse their position of power, regardless of the extent to which the victim is effected.

    The suggestion that Vercoe was treated more harshly than a male counterpart is an utter nonsense. To further imply that it is unfortunate Vercoe will never return to teaching is extraordinary. A custodial sentence is thoroughly deserved for Vercoe’s calculated and repeated behaviour.

    Would Greg Barns also suggest that the best place for convicted child sex offender and former Victorian teacher Travis Robertson is outside of gaol as well? What are we supposed to do with these people? Give them a hug, a course in moral personal relations and a marked card and send them back to the classroom?

    Barns is right to suggest that the teenagers of today are far more worldly than 30 years ago. However, to suggest that this goes some way to lessening the actions of the teacher is just astonishing.

    Generally I enjoy Barns’ writing, but I am totally bemused by this recent rambling example.

  2. Geoffrey Hills

    October 2, 2005 at 8:44 am

    I have a few problems with Greg’s comments, although I should add a caveat that, not having access to offline media in Tasmania, I’ve not followed this case.

    I agree with the sentencing comments of Tennent J. My agreement with those comments does not arise out of some “moralistic” concern.

    Let’s nail down the issues more precisely.

    (1) The relevant ages. Rather than the vague (and perhaps, hypothetical) references in this piece to a “twenty-something” accused and “16 or 17 year old school boys”, Vercoe was 24 at the time of the offences. One of her victims was 15. Tennent J’s comments do not indicate the age of the other victims.

    (2) Vercoe’s behaviour involves not an isolated incident of sexual relations nor a single relationship with a particular student but instead, a pattern of recurring behaviour. As Tennent J said, “there were numerous acts of various types with 5 boys” and “[t]he night in April 2005 with the 4 boys could not be said to be an aberration in your behaviour given the 2 month relationship with J in December/January”.

    So, this is not a one-off event but a pattern of predatory behaviour.

    (3) To address Greg’s suggestion that there is some sort of bias against women involved in the sentence and that male teachers are alleged, by a senior educator, to get away with sleeping with their students:

    If we reverse the genders and imagine a 24yo male teacher engaging in the same activities with 15 yo girls, I don’t think there is any ambiguity in predicting the community’s response. I (and, I suspect, the community broadly), would expect that male teacher to be charged and, if convicted, to receive a custodial sentence.

    There is no gender bias in Tennent J’s sentencing comments. There was a 9 year age gap and the accused was in a position of trust. The only gender bias involved functions the other way – by those who think that because they are school boys (rather than girls, who are popularly perceived to be more vulnerable), we’ll just give them a wink and nudge and congratulate them for their studliness in ‘pulling’ an older woman.

    It is that bias that is repugnant and unacceptable. Male and female teachers who abuse their positions to engage in sexual activity with children should be equal before the law. The law must not make distinctions on account of gender.

    Furthermore, that an educator who spoke to Barns suggested that male teachers get away with sleeping with their students is a non sequitur: that is not an argument in support of quashing Vercoe’s conviction, it is an argument in favour of better policing in order to charge such male teachers.

    (4) I do concede that, despite my thoughts (above) on the particular facts of this case, it does present Tasmania with an opportunity to consider law reform options.

    It would appear that the age of consent in Tasmania is 17. Consideration should be given to whether it is appropriate to lower that to 16.

    I would respectfully suggest that the ACT Crimes Act provides an example of national best practice. I will excerpt it:

    Crimes Act 1900, Section 55 –

    Sexual intercourse with young person

    (1) A person who engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is under the age of 10 years is guilty of an offence punishable, on conviction, by imprisonment for 17 years.

    (2) A person who engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is under the age of 16 years is guilty of an offence punishable, on conviction, by imprisonment for 14 years.

    (3) It is a defence to a prosecution for an offence against subsection (2) if the defendant establishes that—

    (a) he or she believed on reasonable grounds that the person on whom the offence is alleged to have been committed was of or above the age of 16 years; or

    (b) at the time of the alleged offence—

    (i) the person on whom the offence is alleged to have been committed was of or above the age of 10 years; and

    (ii) the defendant was not more than 2 years older;

    and that that person consented to the sexual intercourse.

    The Tasmanian Attorney-General and Law Reform Institute should consider their options for reform.

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