The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sarah Lothian Headshot

Should Rape Defendants Be Anonymous?

Posted: Updated:

Is a victim of rape or sexual assault automatically assumed to be a less reliable witness than a victim of another crime, say a violent robbery?

This seems to be the logical assumption behind the latest calls for anonymity for sex-case defendants, made by chair of the Bar Council Maura McGowan.

Campaigners against rape have argued that the move would make it even harder for victims to get justice.

Jill Saward, victim of the high profile Ealing Vicarage rape in 1986, told the Guardian, "...the key reason the system should remain in place is that we know that rapists rarely have one victim.

"Many people feel their case is too weak on its own and if the name of the suspect is made public it brings out other victims. It also enables people to judge for themselves whether to trust someone or not and put themselves in danger."

The main argument for defendants to remain anonymous until convicted is that sexual crimes carry such a strong stigma.

Well, yes. But as many commentators have pointed out so does murder, cruelty to children and other forms of violence.

So why should rape and sexual assault be treated differently? Either we have faith in our justice system, or we don't... By protecting defendants, what are we saying about our confidence in the evidence presented - which includes the reliability of the witnesses involved?

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, concludes that anonymity would "send a message to juries and to victims that uniquely in rape cases the victim should not be believed".

I've been researching an article on safeguarding children in the Church and a question that looms large in the background is 'what about damaging false allegations?'

Experts in child protection tell me that these are very rare and easy to see through, that the current estimate for false allegations is three in 100.

They obviously do happen, but how often do they get to court? The 'false allegation' story being cited in the press in the last few days is that of Terry Harrison.
He suffered terribly when he was falsely accused of rape. But DNA evidence didn't support the claim. He was never charged. Instead his accuser was successfully prosecuted for perverting the course of justice.

Thankfully false accusations are rare. The myth of the neurotic victim who makes up stories of abuse for attention is one which enables abusers to carry on abusing.

In fact the shocking revelations of the last year point to a different story - that our system is failing victims and survivors.

The majority of perpetrators are known to victims; families and communities can split when an accusation is made. And the thought of a court appearance, let alone a hostile cross-examination deters many from reporting. This was highlighted earlier this month when Frances Andrade took her own life days after being called a liar and fantasist during the trial of music teacher Michael Brewer.

Often the stigma of not being believed is too much to bear. The prospect of a 'not guilty verdict' can stop victims from going to the police in the first place.

Sometimes when abuse is reported, nothing is done. Only last week Wallace Benn, the former Bishop of Lewes denied a cover-up after it was claimed in court that he'd not acted on concerns about a paedophile priest under his authority.

Instead of calling for protection of those accused, shouldn't we be calling for better treatment of victims and survivors?

Perhaps there are other aspects of our justice system that should be examined, like whether it should be law to report child abuse.

After everything we've heard since the first Savile revelations, and especially after the death of Mrs Andrade, isn't it now time to put the victims first?

Around the Web

Why giving men anonymity in rape cases is a bad idea

Comment: Anonymity for rape defendants is a tired argument that's had its day

Give suspects in rape cases anonymity to prevent the innocent becoming ...

Sex case defendants 'should get anonymity'

Editorial: An unproven case for anonymity