Craig McLachlan, Kyle Daniels, George Pell. Just a handful of men, in 2020, acquitted of sex offences. We must accept the courts' decisions, but these sorts of high-profile cases have a chilling effect on people coming forward to complain of already under-reported crimes.
However, it is not just acquittals that dissuade complainants, but the often unnecessarily brutal cross-examination style of the typically older, male barristers who defend the accused.
In Craig McLachlan's case, while McLachlan was acquitted, Magistrate Belinda Wallington admonished barrister Stuart Littlemore QC, saying she was "not assisted" by questions including the length of the average female labia majora and "outdated stereotypes of sexual assault victims".
"Times have changed," Ms Wallington said. But, no, they haven't, Your Honour. Not really.
Complainants are not legally represented and are kept out of court apart from during their evidence. The accused is present throughout, has the right to remain silent and, rightly so, is guaranteed a legal defence.
Complainants are described as a "witness".
Saxon Mullins, whose five-year court ordeal and appearance in our Four Corners story I Am That Girl, led to consent law reform in NSW, told me "witness" seems to her a "ridiculous title".
"I wasn't a witness. I didn't just hover over my own body while this was happening," Saxon said.
I decided to write my book Witness after the experience of being cross-examined for a full day by George Pell's barrister, Robert Richter QC.
Ms Wallington was, as it happens, the magistrate, and she did intervene to reprimand Mr Richter but while she tried, and I appreciated that, I felt brutalised and alone.
Victims of sexual crimes have repeatedly told me they did too. And they'd think long and hard before advising someone to go to the police.
While legislative protections theoretically apply – such as the Evidence Act prohibition on improper questions – they're often not enforced.
Paris Street, the victim of grooming by a coach in the St Kevin's case, was, like me, cross-examined by Robert Richter QC. After his evidence, Paris told me: "I just bawled my eyes out." He was only 15. Five years later, still psychologically smarting, he wrote Mr Richter a letter that's in Witness.
It described the "retraumatisation of me and the psychological pain you caused me … a cognitive annihilation of my 15-year-old brain".
Mr Richter's reply did not demonstrate the empathy Paris Street so craved.
"It may not comfort you to know that I have known people – my family included – who have been through trauma and suffering unimaginably greater than you can imagine and have made up their mind to construct a life on the basis that they were not responsible for suffering inflicted on them," Mr Richter wrote.
"All I can do is to urge you to make something of your life rather than to define yourself as a victim and as someone with no agency over your future." Those words to a courageous young man who just wanted to feel heard, crystallised for me why I wanted to write the book.
In another court transcript I was provided, a woman who woke to find herself being raped by a creepy stranger who invaded her house, was asked by defence counsel about the "panties" she wore to bed.
"Are they the skinny ones – skimpy ones – or are they sort of full-length sort of things?" the barrister asked. And if they were the skimpy ones, what then? Does a woman who wears skimpy underwear to bed impliedly consent to sex with a stranger who trespasses in her home?
In another case, a court staffer consoling a victim as she mopped up a cross-examination induced nosebleed, told her of a child complainant's white dress so dotted with blood that it looked patterned with cherries.
In a Melbourne trial of an Airbnb host who raped a young woman, the victim's mother said the behaviour of defence counsel John Desmond was such a "disgrace" she complained about it in her victim impact statement.
"I felt ashamed that, in my lifetime, the way victims of sexual assault are questioned in these trials and the way they are portrayed to the jury hasn't really changed or improved," the mother wrote.
"There are more humane and sensible ways to represent your client without resorting to a performance of degrading and absurd statements against the victim."
John Desmond, who in an interview was jovial and unabashed about his robust style of advocacy, steadfastly believes in "going in hard" for his client.
"That's how she felt," he told me of the mother's statement. "Big deal, I feel Collingwood should win the premiership – not relevant to the process!"
I gasped, countering that the thought of his own daughter being raped and then cross-examined in court made him cry on the SBS Insight program. "Yeah, but she's not my daughter!" Mr Desmond replied.
Victoria's Law Reform Commission is currently considering how to improve the process for victims.
Across Australia, there have been many inquiries before. Legal peak bodies frequently oppose reform, arguing it erodes the presumption of innocence.
That presumption is fundamental, but it is disturbing that victims should be so scarred by the process safeguarding it, it simply isn't worth coming forward.
I believe the most meaningful change would be to give complainants a lawyer in a limited advisory role who could also ensure their legal and human rights are not abrogated in court.
The alternative is we keep dissuading victims from reporting.
And what does that mean? That perpetrators of these terrible crimes get away with it.
Louise Milligan is author of Witness, An investigation into the brutal cost of seeking justice (Hachette).
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