Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It is time to stop blaming the wrongly accused for putting off women from reporting rape

Two sisters have been ordered to pay their uncle $125,000 in libel damages after they accused him of sexually assaulting them as children. Patricia and Sarah Vanderkooy, now in their 30s, say the abuse occurred during sleepovers at their uncle’s farm in Simcoe in the early ’80s, when they were four and six years old, according to the judge’s written decision. In 2006, they confronted their uncle, Jack Vanderkooy, and asked him for an apology. After he refused, they wrote a series of emails detailing their allegations to family and friends. Judge Andrew Goodman wrote that the sisters “did not like their uncle,” and sent the emails “in order to vindicate their actions or validate their historical claims of abuse.”

The news report says this about the libel award: "It’s a decision lawyers say has sent a 'chilling effect' through legal circles and will discourage sexual-abuse victims from coming forward in the future." While the report references "lawyers," it quotes just one lawyer: "It’s 'very rare' to see victims of alleged sexual assault found liable for defamation, said Elizabeth Grace, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse, but was not involved in this case. 'Predominately, the courts have wanted to encourage people coming forward with their allegations of abuse,” Grace said. “This decision gives added weight to the concern that (our clients) may face a defamation suit…. It’s going to have a chilling effect.'”

The disturbing implication is that the man who was libeled should not receive the same justice that every other victim of libel is entitled to receive, merely because the lies told about him involved sex.

The man in the instant case who was libeled did not choose to be victimized; nor did he choose the heinous manner of his victimization. He is no less deserving of civil redress than any other defamation victim. It is time to stop blaming the falsely accused for women who don't report their rapes. If anyone is to blame, it's the false accusers.

The lawyer quoted in the news report, Elizabeth Grace, is just the latest in a long line of sexual assault victims' advocates, prosecutors, and average citizens who suggest that the wrongly accused should be deprived of justice because of the possibility that some women won't come forward and report their rapes on account of it. See, by way of example, here and here and here and here and here.

Instead of addressing the real problem by discouraging the false accusers from lying, these sexual assault victims advocates are content to give them a pass, and thereby implicitly give them license to do it again to some other innocent man or boy.

First, the implication that we should deprive the innocent of justice because of the nature, and not the severity, of the harm inflicted on them is repulsive by any measure and unworthy of serious debate. The uncle is not the bad guy for suing his false accusers, Ms. Grace. The nieces are the ones you should be chiding. The fact that the victim is turned into the villain for seeking redress for harm inflicted on him is both maddening and a telling barometer of a justice system in free-fall.

Second, the persons who seek to deprive the wrongly accused of justice do no favors to rape victims. Giving liars license to harm innocent men and boys without consequence undermines the public's confidence in the way rape claims are handled. Jurors will be all the more wary of convicting even men and boys who should be convicted for rape if they believe that the system gives liars a free pass. If we want to seriously address sexual assault, we need to seriously address the false accusers.

Third, and perhaps most obvious, the persons who advocate depriving the wrongly accused of justice never offer evidentiary support for their assertion that rape victims will be put off from coming forward if the wrongly accused get justice. In fact, the principal reasons women don't report their rapes have nothing to do with fear of having a libel award entered against them. See here (the summary of the testimony of Scott Berkowitz, head of RAINN). But why let the facts get in the way of a good narrative?

In waging war on sexual assault, the insistence on treating the wrongly accused as necessary collateral damage is nothing short of morally grotesque, and all persons of good will need to speak out against it. It is time to stop blaming victims for the consequence of their harm, and to start blaming the persons responsible.