As appeared in the Illawarra Mercury here:
Too many people have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children, writes DAVID SHOEBRIDGE.
Since coming into the NSW Parliament almost three years ago, I have worked to ensure that the crime of child sexual abuse is prosecuted as one of the most heinous crimes on the statute books. In that time I have been very critical of the failure, especially of the Catholic Church, to report abuse to police.
In working with the many courageous groups and individuals who support survivors of sexual abuse I have had my eyes opened to the real extent of the problem. They have shown me many cases where organisations have treated the sexual abuse of children as a lesser crime than the sexual abuse of adults. In many cases it has not been treated as a crime at all.
This has happened because for too long, too many people have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. When children reported what had happened to them they were often disbelieved, particularly if the abuser was a person in a position of authority. This must not continue.
But the sexual abuse of children continues in many ways to be treated as a lesser crime. People I speak to expect their elected representatives to fix that.
As a Greens MP I don’t jump on the law and order bandwagon; I don’t support mandatory minimum jail terms for instance, and have been critical of the Government’s bikie laws. I’m more interested in looking how to prevent crime instead of spending more money locking people up.
However, MPs do have a role in oversighting the criminal justice system to make sure that it is meeting society’s expectations. When there is evidence before us that it is systematically failing we need to do something.
In the last two years the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has looked at the average sentences for people who commit sexual crimes against children and also at the sentences received by those who commit sexual crimes against adults. The results have been worrying.
Their data shows that criminals found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of children are getting less jail time than criminals found guilty of the same offences against adults. On average those who commit these crimes against children get sentences that are almost a year shorter than where the victim is an adult.
The same goes for minimum non parole periods, with courts delivering significantly shorter non-parole periods where the victim is a child than where the victim is an adult. Not only are the jail terms shorter where the victim is a child, but even where serious sexual abuse has been proven, offenders are 10% less likely to go to jail than where the victim is a child than an adult.
All of these issues are on top of the fact that sexual abuse against children is substantially underreported, and obtaining a conviction is often very difficult.
These studies demonstrate that something is not working. There is no simple explanation why. The penalties for the offences are almost identical and yet cases involving children are consistently being treated as less serious.
The answer requires more careful consideration than just a knee jerk increase in penalties. Some of the problem appears to be that many of these cases are of historical child abuse and the courts in these cases apply sentencing principles that are often decades out of date. But we also need to consider educating judges and prosecutors on the seriousness of the crime and its lifelong impact on victims.
When the upper house sits next week I will be moving for a cross party committee to look at what’s going wrong and to work on agreed recommendations to fix the problem. This is not a political issue, it’s about justice and doing right by children.
No child should be a second class citizen in NSW. No court should treat them that way and no MP should stand quietly by and let it happen.