The not-guilty verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial – and the judge's words in handing it down – are stoking fears that sexual-assault victims will increasingly suffer in silence instead of giving painful testimony that may well result in an acquittal.
At a Toronto courthouse on Thursday, Justice William Horkins read from a 25-page decision that criticized the three complainants for their "willingness to ignore their oath to tell the truth on more than one occasion." While he said the courts must "guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants," he went on to say in his hour-long delivery that each of the women's conduct seemed "out of harmony with the assaultive behaviour ascribed to [Mr. Ghomeshi]."
Furor erupted on Twitter over what many described as victim-blaming – a male in power telling victims how they should behave in the aftermath of an assault. While the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported went viral when allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi emerged in the fall of 2014, #IBelieveWomen was the statement trending Thursday.
In a tweet, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan summed up the concerns: "Will women in the future who are victimized feel safe enough to come forward?"
Already in Canada, reporting and prosecution rates are low. When the Ghomeshi allegations surfaced, the YWCA released a graphic, based on a researcher's analysis of Statistics Canada data, that said 460,000 sexual assaults take place in Canada every year. Out of every 1,000 assaults, it said, 33 are reported to police, 12 result in charges, six are prosecuted and three lead to conviction.
"The immediate aftermath of the Ghomeshi accusations started an unprecedented public discussion of sexual assault in this country," said Brenda Cossman, a University of Toronto law professor. "But the trial and its outcome will, I fear, send us way back. … Victims have long been reluctant to come forward out of fear that the trial will be all about putting them on trial. The Ghomeshi trial put that anxiety up in neon lights."
For victims' groups and legal experts, the potential chilling effect stems both from the verdict and the specific terms Justice Horkins used to characterize the three accusers. He called their testimony "manipulative and deceptive" and declared each of the complainants lacking in sincerity and honesty. "Every survivor is hearing that terminology being applied to someone who claims sexual violence and thinking to themselves, 'If I told my story now, would anyone believe me?'" said Nicole Pietsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.
Ultimately, Ms. Pietsch said, the question of whether the Ghomeshi verdict deters others from reporting sexual violence is moot unless the system of handling their complaints undergoes a major overhaul. "We could have 10,000 more people report, but if we have the same system and it doesn't improve, we need to ask ourselves, 'What is the purpose of survivors reporting, when they are summarized in a verdict as being unreliable or untrustworthy?' "
Gillian Hnatiw, the lawyer for the only named complainant, Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere, said she believes in the concept of special courts that are specifically designed to address sexual-assault cases. "Ultimately, if we are ever going to improve the low reporting rates and even lower rates of conviction for sexual assault, we need to think creatively about different ways of supporting complainants through what is often a traumatic process," she said.
In a recent interview with Chatelaine magazine, Ms. DeCoutere laid bare the shame she felt as a result of the cross-examination by defence lawyer Marie Henein. "I've never felt so bad about being myself than I do now," she said.
Asked whether she felt added pressure as the public face of the trial, she told the magazine she felt responsibility – not pressure. "After I testified, I felt like I had to go up to every person in the world and apologize for ruining the case," she said.
Another complainant, who cannot be named because of a publication ban on her identity, has launched the Coming Forward website to support complainants through the court process. She released a statement Thursday through her lawyer, Jacob Jesin, in which she said reporting sexual assault is difficult but also worthwhile.
"While my story may not have passed the high legal test for proof, it remains my position that the evidence of the substantive issues is truthful," she said. "I encourage anyone who is a victim of abuse to come forward, seek assistance and not be afraid of what may happen."