A controversial libel case in which a judge ordered two Ontario women to pay their uncle $125,000 in damages for falsely accusing him of sexual assault will likely prevent other sexual assault victims from coming forward, advocates say.
"Victims will look at a case like this and just say 'why bother coming forward?'" said Hamilton author Viga Boland, who just published a book about sexual abuse at the hands of her father called No Tears for My Father.
"It's a real deterrent."
The two sisters in the case, who are from Ancaster, Ont., and are now in their 30s, alleged that their uncle abused them in a rural farmhouse when they were children.
But Ontario Superior Court Justice Andrew Goodman said their claims were based on the fact that the sisters "did not like their uncle," and sent emails to other family members describing the alleged abuse "in order to vindicate their actions or validate their historical claims."
"I find that the evidence adduced at trial was not of the clear and cogent nature required to substantiate the defendants' claim of sexual abuse," wrote Goodman in his decision.
There were no criminal charges laid. Through a lawyer, family members told CBC Hamilton that they would not comment on the case.
'No one can really understand it — not if you've never known the terror of lying in bed in a darkened room trying to sleep.' —Viga Boland, author and abuse victim
Boland says that the fear of telling people about sexual abuse — especially involving a family member — often keeps victims from speaking up.
"Shame on the family holds people back," she said. "It's the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about."
Boland, 67, was first sexually abused by her father at age 11, she says. It continued until she left home in her 20s. Her father has been dead for 13 years, and she never confronted him about it, she says.
No one in her family knew until recently. "My mother and I never discussed it until she was basically on her deathbed," she said. "I never told my husband and we'd been married for 40 years."
"There's always this weight. This thing in the back of your mind dragging you down."
She decided to write a book telling her story to raise awareness about child sexual abuse and to help motivate victims to speak, she says. That's why this case worries her. "The shame is incredible," she said. "No one can really understand it — not if you've never known the terror of lying in bed in a darkened room trying to sleep."
Very rare decision, lawyer says
It's very rare for a person who is alleging sexual assault that stems from a childhood experience to be slapped with defamation charges, says Elizabeth Grace, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases.
"Generally, people have very little to gain by having their lives opened up like that," she said, adding that victims could become less likely to come forward after hearing about a case like this one.
"That is the concern — that the publicity could discourage people from telling others," she said.
Often, sexual abuse victims are protected by "qualified privilege" which allows them to speak about allegations of abuse without fear of being sued. However, in this instance, the judge ruled that this wasn't the case.
Grace also called the "hypothetical damages" mentioned in the judge's decision into question. In the decision, Goodman wrote that had the case gone the other way, he would have awarded $35,000 to each sister. The uncle in this case was awarded more than three times that amount.
"I couldn't believe they got slammed with a fine like that," Boland said. "This is telling me that a person's life isn't worth as much as another person's reputation."
The ruling is not binding on any other judge in terms of a precedent-setting decision, Grace said.
Erin Crickett, the public education co-ordinator for the Hamilton and area Sexual Assault Centre said the decision in this case is "really worrying."
"I hope that this case doesn't have ripple effects — but I know that it will."
According to a Canadian Department of Justice research digest survey on sexual violence that was released in April, over two-thirds of people surveyed did not report either child or adult sexual abuse.
The most frequently reported reasons for not telling anyone because the participants thought that they wouldn't be believed, they felt ashamed or embarrassed, they didn't know they could report the abuse, and they had no family support.
The false reporting rate on sexual assaults is usually around four to six per cent, Crickett says, which is about equal to other types of crime. "Yet sexual assault tends to be the least reported types of crime," she said.
"If in this case they did make a false report, they are a very clear statistical anomaly."