2 November 2023

Victim-survivors push to remove good character references from the 'arsenal of deceit' of child sex offenders

| Claire Fenwicke
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Your Reference Ain't Relevant co-founder Harrison James

Your Reference Ain’t Relevant campaign co-founder Harrison James wants the ‘good character’ of all child abusers to not be taken into consideration upon sentencing. Photo: Supplied.

There’s currently an imbalance when it comes to sentencing child abusers in the ACT, where some offenders can have good character references taken into consideration upon sentencing and some can’t.

The Your Reference Ain’t Relevant campaign wants to stop this “gross injustice”.

Organised by child sexual abuse survivors, a petition has been launched to remove the provision of good character references for convicted paedophiles during sentencing.

“Right now in the ACT, certain types of paedophiles can utilise good character references, but not all,” campaign co-founder Harrison James said.

“For example, teachers and religious leaders cannot use them, but perpetrators who didn’t use their obvious good standing to gain access to their victims, such as step-parents or other relatives, are well within their right to use these references.

“Paedophiles are predators, regardless of their standing in society.”

It’s something Harrison, unfortunately, is familiar with.

He was 13 when his stepmother began sexually abusing him, a crime that lasted almost three years and resulted in the birth of his daughter when he was 15.

While his stepmother has never been charged and is overseas, Harrison has been using his voice to try to change the system for other child sexual abuse victim-survivors.

A recent Australian study found around one in three girls and one in five boys have experienced child sexual abuse.

Harrison said that going through the court process could be incredibly painful, especially if the abuser was convicted and then the victim-survivor had to sit through character references detailing “how great they are”.

“It is absolutely devastating,” Harrison said.

“We need the justice system to fully comprehend the tactics and manipulations [abusers] employ. Their ‘good character’ is another sinister weapon in their arsenal of deceit.”

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Currently, section 34A (b) of the Crimes (Sentencing) Act 2005 reads: “[the court] must not reduce the severity of a sentence it would otherwise have imposed on an offender because the offender has good character, to the extent that the offender’s good character enabled the offender to commit the offence.”

“Let’s delete those 15 words and create a legal system that prioritises the safety and well-being of survivors over the reputation of perpetrators,” Harrison said.

“This isn’t just solely about changing legislation; it’s about instilling confidence in survivors to pursue justice.”

By deleting the words “to the extent that the offender’s good character enabled the offender to commit the offence”, good character couldn’t be considered during the sentencing of any child sex offender.

The petition has been sponsored by Greens MLA Andrew Braddock, who said it wasn’t right that the current sentencing considerations weren’t the same for all offenders.

“Child sexual assault perpetrators often deliberately cultivate a good public character in order to commit these heinous crimes in private,” he said.

“The use of good character references to reduce sentences appears to be rewarding the very strategy paedophiles use to gain access to victims.

“We need to ensure our laws treat these crimes with the seriousness they deserve.”

Conversations are already being had in NSW, with this push now headed to Canberra to make laws consistent across borders.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said altering the law was something he had already been contemplating.

“[I’ve] been seeking legal advice on [this matter], and so we’ll definitely be considering [this proposed change] in more detail,” he said.

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It’s not the only movement occurring in the space of sexual assault crimes and the justice system.

A push to develop a specialist sexual offences court is gaining traction, with stakeholders invited to participate in a roundtable with the Attorney-General to discuss the possibility.

Labor MLA Dr Marisa Paterson had added her name to an open letter calling for the reform and said it was time this was viewed as a priority.

“There has been little focus on systemic reforms that are needed in the courts. Our court processes can be incredibly traumatising for victim-survivors and that is simply not good enough. We need to do better,” she said.

“Seeking justice should not cause more harm.”

Mr Rattenbury said it was a complex reform where people had different views on how it might proceed. He wanted to speak with key stakeholders directly “about the concerns they have, the questions, and help government shape the [potential] policy outcome”.

“It’s really an opportunity to harness the expertise in the community and hear each other’s views.”

Exploring the establishment of a specialist court was one of the recommendations from the Listen. Take Action to Prevent, Believe and Heal report on sexual assault prevention and response.

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My concern with separate courts for sexual offences is that it ignores the fact that these are criminal assaults, that need to be dealt with as criminal offences in criminal courts. Awful as it is, some people do not consider sexual offences as assaults, seeing them as lesser offences unless against children. The criminal aspect must be highlighted, to avoid the assaults being sidelined and treated as lesser offences, as they often are by offenders and their friends.

A sexual predator does not have good character, but they may have a good public image. Call it for what it is, an image created by the individual for their own purposes. It has nothing to do with having good character, so don’t call it that.

Whilst those who abuse, harm and exploit others may do some good things in their lives, that does not entitle them to abuse others, nor to use these actions as discounts on their destructive behaviour.

Gregg Heldon11:34 am 02 Nov 23

I’ve signed that petition. Hope it gets through.

It should go beyond child sex offences – why should a good character reference be used to reduce the penalty for any crime? Their so-called “good character” didn’t stop them from doing something they knew was wrong. I also get frustrated when character references mentioned how they came from a good family. Coming from that good family didn’t stop them from committing a crime, so why should it be used to reduce a punishment? If anything, it should be used to increase the penalty. Despite coming from a good family, and despite knowing what was right and wrong, they still chose to do wrong.

Agreed. What is a good family? To say someone comes from a good family is wholly subjective and usually a completely uninformed or underinformed statement. It is not usually made by anyone with sufficient knowledge or expertise to make that judgement. It is often a statement made to convince people that this person will be kept in check by their family, even though this family has clearly failed to achieve that in the past.

It usually means a wealthy or ‘connected’ family

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