When I heard the rumour that my half brother was living with a woman who had two young children, I was filled with dread. Within a few hours, I was at the local police station to report the sexual violence I had endured at his hands for over 11 years. Little did I know of the roller-coaster ride I was embarking on.
Yet, if I had to do it all over again, I would. I was five years old when my innocence was stolen from me. His depravity wounded me profoundly. I was imprisoned for years in a cage of shame and silence.
The judicial process was a draining and frequently distressing experience. Even though I was quite naïve about the process, I had watched enough Law & Order episodes to know that I would be cross-examined. I respected and understood the need for the presumption of innocence.
I knew that it would be difficult and certainly unpleasant. The case was assigned to an amazing crown prosecutor whose demeanour was enough for me to assess that I was in good hands. We met sparingly, but she made great efforts in explaining each step of the process to me and of reassuring me that she would be there to support me. I was lucky to have her prosecute this case.
And I was lucky also to have been allocated a social worker from the OPP who managed to make me laugh even in the most confronting of times during the process. However, despite all this I didn’t expect that I would feel so victimised and re-traumatised by the process.
I received a subpoena to give evidence in a trial by the OPP, with a warning of a contempt of court and arrest if I failed to comply and approximately $9 of travel money. The memories of my assault were stripped of all the pain it carried and reduced to a legal term.
I felt like I was a tool in the OPP’s case against him. I was a mere witness. I felt dispossessed of my story and disenfranchised of the role I needed to take on this journey of healing. I had no control and was propelled back into a victim role.
I was made to relieve my early years of trauma and recount those intimate violations perpetrated against me to the jurors and in his presence. Memories I had spent decades burying away in the furthest part of my mind were brought back to the surface, in the presence of my abuser. I felt violated. I hated knowing that he was hearing all those details from my mouth.
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I had to endure cross-examinations which I found at times indecent and callous. Cross-examinations which explored ancient tensions and dealings with other siblings, debts of money owed, a travel receipt claimed from my work over two decades prior, my relationship with my father – all completely irrelevant to the experiences of sexual violence I was submitted to. All in desperate attempts to cast doubt over my character.
I also came to learn that the justice system is not about the truth. The system is a game of chess played between the defence barrister and the crown, and umpired by a judge. The jurors are not presented with the whole truth, but with partial truths and evidence negotiated between the defence and the crown prior to the trial. Witnesses testifying in court have to take the oath of telling the whole truth, but in reality, they can only tell the truth that they are permitted to tell by the court.
The delays with the courts were torturous, if not involuntarily cruel. It took two years for the case to be heard at a committal hearing, and a further year before it was heard at the County Court. An appeal was granted based on an error in the instructions provided to the jurors by the presiding judge at the time. A new trial was booked over a year later.
Meanwhile he was allowed to roam free in society and pursue a new romantic relationship which he had started whilst being incarcerated. My life was on hold.
He was found guilty again at the second trial, and sentenced to almost exactly the same sentence he had received in the first trial. In all, it took 5 years and 6 months from the moment I gave my statement to the final sentencing. He was sentenced to 4 years and 5 months, with a non-parole period of 3 years. However, I can’t help but feel that he was lucky.
That a remorseless and guilty sexual predator could have so much latitude as to be permitted to drag one of his (past) victims through the justice system for over 5 years and receive only 3 years of solid incarceration in the end, demonstrates to me that the system is not only too indulgent towards the accused, but also towards the convicted.
The argument for a fairer judicial system which considers the mental and emotional wellbeing of the complainant is valid. Many members of the judiciary describe the stress and trauma experienced by the complainants as unavoidable consequences of the adversarial process. The painful experiences are dismissed under the guise that the rights and liberty of the accused need to be protected at all cost.
Yet, for society to place their trust in the system the current judicial system needs to address the imbalance of power between the accused and the accuser. There are ways of ensuring that complainants are not harmed and traumatised without eroding the presumption of innocence bestowed upon the accused.
‘Veronique’ is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS which asks what happens after reporting a sexual assault.