A child sex-abuse commissioner hits out at lawyers who attack victim credibility

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article posted on 5 March 2018

As shown by Broken Rites research, children who have experienced church sexual abuse have often found it too difficult to tell their parents about it at the time and therefore the abuse remains hidden for many years until the victim reaches adulthood. If a victim reports these crimes to the police many years later, the church's defence lawyer is likely to attack the credibilty of the victim in court. The church lawyer might claim that the victim has only recently invented the complaint. Therefore, it is interesting to read a comment made by Mr Robert Fitzgerald, one of the six commissioners who conducted Australia's child-abuse Royal Commission. Speaking in Sydney on 2 March 2018, he criticised defence lawyers who “mischievously” attack the credibility of abuse victims in court.

Mr Fitzgerald, a lawyer, has served on various public bodies before becoming a full-time member of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from 2012 to 2017. He is a practicing Catholic.

On 2 March 2018, he was the keynote speaker at a Safe Children Conference in Sydney on various issues regarding child safety.

For example, Mr Fitzgerald said (according to an AAP news item) that Australia’s criminal justice system has previously favoured alleged abusers, and even today “the pendulum has barely moved”.

He criticised defence lawyers for attacking the credibility of survivors over the length of time they took to report abuse.

“You will hear defence counsels still get up in courts today and say, mischievously in my view, that we should attack the credibility of victims because they did not come forward at the time of the abuse,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

“What we saw [in court] is the destruction of the credibility of individuals. That goes against what we now know to be the way in which abuse victims both disclose, and in fact the effects of, the abuse.”

He said the evidence was overwhelming that historically victims often didn’t come forward until years later.

Mr Fitzgerald also took aim at the justice system’s “appalling process” of splitting sexual abuse trials (involving multiple victims) rather than hearing cases involving multiple victims as one case.

“It is a shocking thing that the legal profession continues to support that in parts,” he said.

Mr Fitzgerald said many abuse victims were reluctant to come forward due to how traumatising a trial could be.

“Why would you come forward if the chances of even getting to the courtroom door are so low?” he said.

“Then you’re going to go through this terrible court process with a more likely than not outcome that it’s going to be acquitted.”

While acknowledging there had been some improvements in Australia’s judicial system, he said there was still a long way to go.

“People say to me, church people, ‘Oh the pendulum has swung’ [but] that’s just not true. The pendulum has barely moved and the pendulum has very much favoured the accused."