Judge's handling of abuse victim criticised

ABBIE NAPIER AND DAVID CLARKSON
Last updated 10:08 14/04/2014

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A Christchurch judge has been criticised for his reluctance to allow a sexual abuse victim to read her victim impact statement.

However a spokesman for the judiciary has rejected the criticism, saying it displayed a lack of understanding about the restorative justice process and the judge's decision.

Shane Vincent Roy Dennis, 54, was last week convicted for offending against three young girls aged under 12, which took place more than 20 years ago. Christchurch District Court Judge David Saunders sentenced him to 10 months' home detention, 200 hours' community work and ordered him to pay $1000 to each victim.

Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar criticised the judge's reluctance to allow a victim to read her victim statement in court.

During sentencing, Judge Saunders questioned why one of Dennis's victims wanted to read her victim impact statement. He cited the victim's unwillingness to engage in a restorative justice programme with Dennis, and said reading the statement didn't have "a sense of balance about it".

Judge Saunders said he was "not sure what the victim was trying to achieve" and reading the statement did not give Dennis opportunity to respond or apologise.

He agreed to allow her to make her statement after Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh argued to let her, saying: "It is part of the process, part of the healing for her. That's what the law provides."

McVicar said being questioned in court would have compounded the already difficult task the woman faced in voicing her trauma. "I can't imagine what this woman would be going through just to make this statement," he said. "This is the one opportunity she would have had to speak."

The 29-year-old said in her statement Dennis had stolen her childhood. She had suffered mentally and emotionally, taking up drinking and drugs, and had issues developing relationships with men. She was on medication for anxiety and panic attacks.

McVicar said he had not seen any evidence the restorative justice programme worked, and it could even be harmful for victims of sexual abuse.

"In this instance [it] is totally inappropriate. It has no place in cases of sexual abuse," McVicar argued.

"For the judge to even think restorative justice was appropriate shows how out of touch he is, restorative justice would simply have been another opportunity for the offender to cause incredible emotional harm to his victim."

Neil Billington, a spokesman for the judiciary, said the Sensible Sentencing Trust's criticisms misunderstood the restorative justice process as well as the judge's decision.
 
He said restorative justice had been shown to be an increasingly effective process for victims, with 77 per cent saying they were satisfied with their overall experience and 80 per cent of victims saying they would be likely to recommend it to others in a similar situation.

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Billington said contrary to the Trust's claims, the restorative justice process also included dealing with sexual offending, subject to clear guidelines to protect victims.
 
''The sentencing judge has also been unfairly criticised by the Trust. The judge granted the victim her wish to read her victim impact statement at the sentencing, as she was entitled, but inquired whether she might have wished to have undertaken this through the offer of restorative justice made earlier by the defendant.

''The defendant had acknowledged the harm he had caused and his wish to offer amends in a meaningful way. In such circumstances, restorative justice would have been an option, though it remains the right of the victim to decline, as occurred in this case,'' Billington said.

The sentencing judge was well aware of the rights of victims, which were provided for in law.

Billington said in the last fortnight Judge Saunders had dealt with two cases of serious sexual offending where the defendants did not acknowledge or wish to make redress for their offending and imposed lengthy prison terms, with the mothers of the child victims being given permission to address the court.

- Sunday Star Times

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