Yesterday’s Dominion Post carried a story about a 23-year-old man who prowled the Internet looking for young girls. Douglas Charles Segetin pleaded guilty to three charges of unlawful sexual connection involving two 14-year-olds whom he'd met online.
It was, sadly, an unexceptional story. The Net provides opportunities that previous generations of sexual predators couldn’t even dream of.
But what caught my interest were the published excerpts from the victim impact statement made by one of the girls. I think I know enough about teenage girls to know how they talk, and this was not the language of a 14-year-old girl. It was the language of counsellors and therapists. Here are a few examples:
“I feel angry, disgusted and dirty whenever he comes to my mind, which is almost always more than once in a day.”
“You robbed me of … my personality, my faith and my trust in people and my courage.”
“I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control … even to this day I struggle with not trying to do it.”
“When it’s really bad all I can do is cry and think of the most horrible ways I could end my life because I just want everything to be over with. I want the old me back. I hate myself.”
“Did you ever think of how much pain, sadness, anger, guilt and grief you would cause? I want to cut you open just like you did to me – it wasn’t physically, it was mentally and emotionally.”
“I just want you to hurt like I hurt. Feel what I feel. When I look in the mirror I see this ugly, sad, damaged girl looking back. I just hope with all of my heart that some day I will get over this without too much permanent damage.”
Now I don’t want to play down the emotional impact of this girl’s experience, but this sort of thing worries me. The girl’s victim impact statement is couched in the familiar victim-speak used by sexual abuse counsellors and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had been coached to use phrases such as “robbed me of … my faith and my trust” and “I often turned to self harm because that was the only way I felt in control”. I don’t believe these are words or concepts that would come naturally and spontaneously to a typical 14-year-old girl.
Rather than trying to move past whatever trauma she experienced as a result of her encounter with Segetin, she seems to be reliving it; almost fixating on it, in fact. Is this cathartic, as we’re supposed to believe, or does it have the reverse effect of encouraging the victim to go through the rest of her life feeling “damaged”?
In a previous generation the girl would have been given some kind advice that might have gone something like this: you made a mistake, you got tricked, you had a bad experience. It wasn’t your fault. Learn from it, try to put it behind you and get on with your life. But the fashion for self-absorption and the cult of victimism demand that victims of sexual abuse immerse themselves in their misery and dig deep to uncover pain that might be better left buried.
You have to wonder if these victims have been abused twice over – once by their attacker and a second time by counsellors and therapists.
You have to wonder, too, about the wisdom of articulating these emotions directly to the perpetrator of the offence in the courtroom. Does this process empower the victim? Please tell me how. And does it induce shame and penitence on the part of the offender, as we’re led to believe, or does it give him the satisfaction of enjoying the victim’s pain and degradation all over again? Given that most of these male offenders are indifferent to the suffering of their victims, and are probably motivated in some measure by sadistic impulses, are we really expected to believe that victim impact statements will strike some chord of empathy and contrition?
In the above case, the mother of the girl delivered a victim impact statement of her own that was almost more emotive than the daughter’s. What’s the point? Does it make the victim feel better? Does it make the offender feel worse?
And since I’m on the subject, there’s another aspect of victim impact statements that makes me uneasy. Justice Minister Simon Power, who shows a marked inclination to announce policy changes on the hoof in response to the media firestorm of the moment, has initiated a review of the law that restricts what victim impact statements may say. This followed a public outcry over the censoring of the statement that the father of murder victim Sophie Elliott wanted to read at the sentencing of Sophie’s killer, Clayton Weatherston, and a subsequent controversy over statements by female relatives of Lower Hutt murder victim Mihi Tuhoro. In the latter case, the judge cut out bits of the statements but one of the two women defiantly read hers in its unedited form, apparently without protest from the bench.
Under current law, as I understand it, victims are restricted to talking about how the crime has affected them personally. It supposedly doesn’t permit them to say what they think about the perpetrator or how they would like him/her to suffer (although you have to wonder how strictly the law is applied, given some of the statements made in the Segetin case).
Comment on the heinousness of the crime has traditionally been the judge’s preserve, as it should be if the courts are to retain some semblance of restraint and dignity. But the mood of the times demands that people must be free to parade their emotional pain publicly in the interests of obtaining what is loosely called “closure”. Power appears to be pandering to this fashionable compulsion.
It’s probably futile, given the mood of the times, to point out that courts exist to dispense justice, not to provide emotional therapy. They are supposed to be places where the law is administered soberly and dispassionately.
If victims of crime are to be given the right to express their outrage, free of judicial restraint, courts risk becoming forums for unrestrained outpourings that more properly belong on Oprah-style TV shows and in women’s mags and tabloid newspapers.
What will come next? Whooping and whistling from teams of supporters in the public galleries? It may pander to the public taste for displays of sentiment, but it has very little to do with the justice that the courts are supposed to dispense.