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While the judge may have ruled in Geoffrey Rush’s favour, the subtext is clear to those who come forward: the system will not protect you.
First—some necessary disclaimers; I have never met Geoffrey Rush and have no knowledge of him or his behaviour. I make it a rule not to criticise the judgments of our courts because I believe in our system of justice. That, of course, does not mean that judges and juries never make mistakes. It means, however, that our system is as fair as flawed humans can make it. Those who make the legal judgments that define our system have heard all the evidence and I have not, so I accept their verdicts in good faith.
Having said that, however, I am disturbed about the treatment meted out to a witness in the recently decided Rush defamation case—Eryn Jean Norvill.
Norvill was not the complainant in the defamation action in which Rush sued the Daily Telegraph and won. She was called as a witness. Indeed, she was as clear as she could be that she did not want anything she experienced when she co-starred with Rush in a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear raised in any official capacity. This is a woman whose story has been hijacked by others to service an agenda she never had any part in. The same can be said about ABC journalist Ashley Raper who also had her alleged experience with ex-NSW State ALP leader Luke Foley made public without her permission. What added insult to injury for Norvill was the criticism she received from the judge in the Rush case, Justice Michael Wigney, who said that she was not a credible witness who was prone to embellish and exaggerate. Norvill has stuck by the veracity of the evidence she gave.
The essential he said/she said nature of such behaviour is the problem with taking sexual harassment, abuse or assault cases to court. If the accused is judged to be innocent by the courts of justice, then the complainant is often judged to be guilty by the court of public opinion. This can happen even when the accused has been found guilty and convicted, as we saw recently with Cardinal George Pell’s accuser. If Pell is innocent as many of his supporters claim (he is appealing the verdict) then presumably his accuser must be either lying or a fantasist, prone, perhaps, to embellishment and exaggeration.
Yet, when the vulnerable—often women, often adult survivors of child sex abuse—are so reluctant to come forward they take decades to do so (the average length of time it takes survivors of child sex abuse to come forward, according to Louise Milligan, is 33 years)—that delay is enough to cast doubt on their accusations by itself. When women and other victims do take action on their own behalf immediately—in the case of Saxon Mullins, for example, or the Irish woman who accused the Belfast footballers of rape last year—they must prepare themselves to face often harrowingly aggressive cross-examination (by four separate lawyers over eight gruelling days in the Belfast case) and the possibility that if they do not win, they will be branded liars.
Almost worse, when women stare their options in the face and decide to cut their losses and try to deal with the situation within their workplace or by venting to friends, they are also risking being blamed or doubted because they are not willing to take their accusations any further.
Prior to the #MeToo movement in 2017, it was shame that kept many women and children silent about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of those with more power. It seems to be peculiarly human to feel responsible for one’s own vulnerability. I think the outpouring of millions of secrets that accompanied #MeToo has taken some of that shame away. At the time, I wrote that breaking the silence around sexual harassment, abuse and assault made the world a little safer for the vulnerable and a little less safe for those who would exploit their power. I still think that is true. However, the silencing tactics also appear to have ratcheted up a notch.
The message to women and other victims of sexual abuse and harassment that is currently being sent by our justice system, some of the media, and many in the general public is that there is no right way to approach the problem. Speak up and you risk further intrusion, humiliation, criticism and judgment. Don’t speak up but fail to prevent others speaking up about your experience and you also risk having your personal life and character dragged through the mud. Don’t speak up to anyone ever and you help return us to a world where silence protects the abusers of power.
Heads the powerful win, tails the powerless lose.