Recently, Australia was fortunate enough to host one of the best child protection conferences seen in this country in recent years.
So the well-known Order of Australia Emeritus Professor of the University of South Australia, Professor Freda Briggs, told me after the second day. She is a seasoned national and international conference delegate and was one of three Protect All Children Today Conference’s keynote speakers.
Two months earlier when I was invited to be another of the conference’s speakers, I decided it would be worth paying my own return travel expenses from Europe because I was told many of the 200 delegates would be members of the judiciary.
As power brokers in the justice system, which sorely needs better understanding of child sexual abuse, I felt my talk would have a greater than usual impact.
Having written In Moral Danger, a confronting and brutally honest book about my own story of abuse at 14 by a 42-year-old man, I’ve given more talks about my life than I’ve had hot dinners.
Mostly I address women’s groups, social workers, survivors, teachers, school kids, police, prisoners and offenders. All-important, but not people who have the power to change policy.
I felt this engagement would really count, that I’d be talking to a room full of men and decision makers. Usually not nervous about speaking, on the plane flying back to Australia, I was in the extreme. It felt like I was walking into the mouth of the wolf, my own abuser having been one of Melbourne’s top criminal barristers, Robert Vernon.
I was disappointed (financially) and relieved (emotionally) that so few members of the judiciary turned up.
Instead, once again, I found myself speaking to the converted, a room of 90 per cent women and 10 per cent men. Throughout the conference, I couldn’t help asking myself: why is it so many women are passionate about minimising child abuse and reducing its impact? And so few men?
The main keynote speaker was one such feisty woman. As a survivor of horrendous abuse herself, her motivation is clear. She has risen from the ashes to be a national award-winning academic. It was refreshing to hear her: Dr Caroline Taylor, senior research fellow at Ballarat University and author of two books, Court Licensed Abuse and Surviving The Legal System: a handbook for adult and child sexual assault survivors and those supporting them, refer to a judge from early legal history as a “misogynistic, hoary, old fart”.
This particular British judge, she told us, enshrined in law 300 years ago, the notion that women and children are more prone to lie than men and so their testimonies should be more rigorously questioned and tested.
This, we were told, despite reams of research refuting the idea, underpins the current practice of defence barristers cross examining child witnesses through hectoring, humiliating and deliberately sharing strategies effective in confusing and alienating them to put their testimony in doubt.
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