Without getting into the particulars of any ongoing cases before the courts, the enormity of the challenges facing victims of sexual assault as they testify against their abusers are next to impossible to completely understand unless you’ve been there. The issues vary from case to case and victim to victim. No two situations are ever exactly alike, nor are the complexities of the lives, experiences and emotions of the victims involved.
Even veteran prosecutors and police investigators that have walked through the procedure with numerous victims over their careers don’t fully understand what victims have gone through and then have to further endure through the ensuing judicial processes.
Similar challenges exist in cases of physical abuse, including when they occur in domestic relationships.
It’s also important to note that many victims do not report physical or sexual abuse, often because they remain afraid of the abuser, or out of fear that they won’t be believed. Then many dread that if they are believed, the process will be awful, as they describe what they went through in an open court. Victims are often forced to open up the intimacies and personal emotions of their lives to strangers and then get grilled to the point of exhaustion by defense attorneys.
When victims do come forward, they will likely testify for the first time in their lives. That can be very stressful. Albeit totally wrong, some victims will deliberately omit certain particulars when interviewed by police initially, because they are embarrassed. Some will have forgotten details and confused dates or the sequence of events while testifying. Others may have feelings of self-blame for what they feel was “allowing” it to happen, or have self-esteem issues for the way the abuser has made them feel or because of how others have reacted to their story. For many, it becomes a second round of victimization, as they re-live the horrors of the abusive act – or acts, that brought them to this difficult point in their lives. In addition, they are often testifying about issues that occurred many years prior, which is never easy.
Sadly, in many cases the abuser is someone they know personally or are related to; maybe even cared deeply for, or were in love with. In some of those cases they may still care for or love the abuser, regardless of the physical or sexual abuse they have endured.
That’s a hard concept for some people to understand. How does one continue to love or care for someone that beat them and/or sexually assaulted them? I don’t have the answer, but it happens. We are all human and all fallible. Many victims stay in oppressive relationships, continue to suffer abuse incessantly, and some continue to have consensual sexual relationships with the spouse or partner that brutally victimizes them at times. That is not meant to be a criticism whatsoever. It is simply a reality that is difficult for many outsiders to rationalize.
Since the early 1970’s, mental health professionals have described what they have dubbed the “Stockholm Syndrome”, whereby hostages in some hostage-taking events have become emotionally attached to their captors and even defended them from authorities after they were freed. Experts have reported other instances of similar emotional bonding and the growth of positive feelings between victims of abuse and their abusers.
Similarly, I’ve seen victims of domestic abuse physically attack the police officers that were trying to arrest the very spouse that blackened both of the victim’s eyes, broke their noses, or worse. In other cases they refuse to testify or withdraw their complaints – even though the event occurred exactly as they reported it.
We have all seen or heard of cases like in this in the pro-sports world or among members of the entertainment industry, because those involved are high-profile and in the media spotlight. But they happen in all walks of life. I am even aware of such happenings within police families, including police officer victims that refused to report abusive spouses.
Then again, in some instances the alleged victims are not telling the truth – in whole or in part, and the crime was not committed as reported at all.
Despite various inconsistencies, omissions, exaggerations and forgetfulness, many victims are actually telling the truth about being victimized. Unfortunately when these evidentiary shortcomings occur, it understandably hurts the veracity of the testimony of the witness. At times, guilty parties will walk free as a result of the entire testimony of the victim being irreparably tainted by one misstatement.
Still, it is important for any victim to have faith in our judicial process and know that the police, prosecutors and victim support staff will do everything possible to help them through it as best they can. To not come forward, puts them at continued risk of further abuse and potentially may result in other innocent person being victimized by an abuser who is not stopped. But the victim/witness must be completely open and honest with authorities for the system to work as it should, in fairness to all concerned – including the accused. Not 90% or 99% truthful, but 100% honest.
Anything less will make an already difficult situation an impossible one for them.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.