TORONTO – The sexual assault charges filed against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi offer tentative hope to those who fear their claims will be dismissed by an indifferent law enforcement system, victims’ advocates said Wednesday.
Their optimism, however, is tempered by the sweeping changes they argue would need to take place if the Ghomeshi case is to become the rule rather than the exception.
Sexual assault is widely considered to be grossly under-reported, and rape crisis counsellor Hilla Kerner says the complaints that are filed rarely get aired before a judge or jury.
While she and her colleagues at the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter fear that Ghomeshi’s day in court came about in part because of his prominent public profile, she said it still represents a victory.
“This is a very rare example that the police actually was very diligent, very fast and thorough, and the result is criminal charges,” Kerner said in a telephone interview.
“So we do think that it will create a positive effect. That women can see that where there is a will there is a way and the police are diligent. Unfortunately, we’re afraid that the police only acted like that because there was such a public outcry.”
The former “Q” radio host was charged Wednesday with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. He was released on bail and was ordered to live with his mother, surrender his passport and remain in Ontario.
Kerner said allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi from multiple women spanning more than a decade sparked outrage the likes of which she’s rarely seen.
The 47-year-old former host was fired by CBC on Oct. 26 after the public broadcaster said it had seen “graphic evidence” that he had physically injured a woman.
Since his dismissal, nine women have come forward with allegations that Ghomeshi sexually or physically assaulted them, and three of them ultimately filed police complaints.
Ghomeshi has admitted that he engaged in “rough sex” but insisted his encounters with women were consensual. Ghomeshi’s lawyer Marie Henein has also said that her client intends to plead not guilty to the charges.
Kerner said the case has had some decided positive effects, namely triggering a public dialogue about what constitutes assault. The fact that Ghomeshi is now facing charges, she said, means the conversation can progress to a new and necessary phase.
“We’re in a moment that I don’t think we’ve had before in terms of public understanding and support for victims of sexual assault,” she said.
“The conversation was heavily focusing on why women do not come forward, and now we can talk about what will allow women to come forward: public support, public belief and a criminal justice system that takes responsibility to protect women.”
Erin Ellis, a Toronto-based lawyer who represents sexual assault victims in civil suits, said the Ghomeshi case has potential to be an educational one for women debating whether to speak up.
Wednesday’s charges are a concrete reminder that there is no statute of limitations on criminal sexual assault allegations, she said, adding that women may feel reassured by the fact that police can be willing to take their complaints seriously no matter when they’re filed.
She said police themselves can also benefit from these high-profile situations, since they pose questions about how victims should be treated.
“Every time one of these cases hits the media, it raises awareness, the public reacts, and it forces people to look at how they handle these types of cases,” she said.
But others say the Ghomeshi case won’t have much meaningful positive impact unless it changes the way victims are treated once charges are laid.
Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic which supports women survivors of violence, says the legal deck is stacked in favour of the defendants in sexual assault cases.
The women who file complaints may approach police as victims of a crime, but are treated as mere witnesses to one once a trial gets under way.
Dale said defence lawyers typically make their cases by attacking the victim’s credibility, adding this approach is unique to sex-based charges.
“If I report a break-in at my house, they don’t ask me if my curtains were left open, if my stereo was too close to the window, if I enjoyed having my house broken into,” she said.
“That is how we approach the crime of sexual assault, and I cannot see…that anything is going to have changed by the time this comes to trial.”
Ellis concedes that it’s hard to obtain a sexual assault conviction, since defendants only need to establish reasonable doubt to walk free.
But she says any case that comes to trial should be viewed as a step forward and a chance to deepen public awareness around a complex subject.
Dale agrees, but hopes the high-profile nature of the Ghomeshi case won’t detract from the broader issues.
“It behooves us to look at the particularities of this scenario, learn from them, but not limit our learning to the facts of these particular cases.”