Monday, September 24, 2012

'Good men live in fear'

Naomi Arnold writing here:

New Year's Eve, 2009. As the rest of the country relaxed in the sun, a Nelson man faced the darkest of accusations. He has the dubious distinction of being what the media calls "a former prominent person", and his stepdaughter accused him of sexual abuse in their own home. She was 13 at the time, and said the man indecently touched her breast while watching television in the lounge - and again, later, in her bedroom.

The man said nothing happened. That the kids and he watched a movie, went to bed, and he spent the evening tidying up the lounge. But police arrived to arrest him the next night and the man could not return home for nearly three years. The drive to the police station, he said, felt like "falling back into an abyss".

During the trial the man's lawyer accused this girl, who must now be barely 16, of convincing herself that something happened, of going too far with the story to turn back, or perhaps of dreaming the whole thing. She says she did not.

Yesterday, the jury unanimously found him guilty. For the average person following the case this week, it was impossible to read the daily news reports and predict what decision they'd make. There was no physical evidence; it seemed to come down to his word against hers.

It's over now. But as I read the news reports I wondered about the possibility of innocence, and what it would be like to be accused, Kafka-esque, of a crime you'd never committed; particularly a crime as gross as this. When I was at school, one male teacher simply disappeared amid similar swirling rumours. I never found out if they were true or not; in some ways, it doesn't matter. Once the accusation has been made, it sticks. The feeling must be akin to being buried alive.

Mangakino man Leonard Joseph was falsely accused of raping a 14-year-old girl, and was acquitted in 2010. He told the Waikato Times he'll never be able to shake the stigma.

Married with seven children, the charges "destroyed" him and all the work he'd been trying to do for the Mangakino community. He used to spend five nights a week teaching kapa haka, hip-hop and rugby league teams, but it ended when he was arrested and confined to his mother's house on a 24-hour curfew.

He spent 17 weeks in Waikeria Prison before being released on electronic bail. "That is just one charge you don't want to go to jail for," he told the paper. He was verbally threatened numerous times and watched as other men around him were beaten and raped. "Mentally it destroys a person. It almost killed me."

I know of many men in teaching and caring roles who fear the same. My father, a phys-ed teacher for 20 years, used to end after-school detention early when there was just one girl and him, so they wouldn't be left alone.

Another male teacher I know always makes sure that if he has to speak to a girl after class the door is open and a friend sticks around. It would take one teen grudge to ruin him and his family, he says.

Then there's Sydney fireman Johnny McGirr, who was on a Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane to Sydney last month and was mortified when flight attendants asked him to move from his seat next to two unaccompanied boys - airline policy, they said.

The same thing happened to a male nurse sitting next to a 10-year-old girl on a Qantas flight. Look at the awful message such a policy sends young women - that every man is a potential abuser, if only they had the opportunity.

This man has name suppression. It protects the victim, though the public's hunger is always to find out the identity of the accused. I do not want to undermine victims of rape and sexual abuse, and nor do I want to suggest this girl was lying. But I do wonder how many good and decent men - coaches, carers, teachers and fathers - live with this persistent worry on their shoulder; going between work and home every day with the fear that it will happen to them.