New Law In Australia Shifts Burden Of Proof From Abuse Victims To Institutions

An article on ABC News reports a new law in Victoria, Australia, which shifts the burden of proof from abuse victims to the institutions in which the abuse took place.

This is a Very Very Good Thing. At the moment, when a child is abused and it’s covered up (or otherwise not addressed) by an institution, the burden of proof is on the child to demonstrate that the abuse took place, and that the organisation knew and did nothing.

This new law means that it’s no longer the victim’s responsibility to prove that they were abused – instead, it’s the organisation’s responsibility to demonstrate that they had enough safeguards in place to prevent abuse from happening, or that there’s a reason why they couldn’t have known it was taking place.

A new law means victims will no longer be responsible for proving that abuse took place

As an example, if a child is abused in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are currently all kinds of rules that make it very difficult for the child to go to the police about it. The JWs have what they call a “two witnesses” rule, where two people have to have seen the abuse taking place (and admit it) before they will take a claim seriously. They also have various processes whereby the offenders are put through an internal “judicial committee” (basically, a telling-off by the JW version of priests) rather than being reported to the police. This puts a lot of victims off when they consider going to the police, because they know that (a) they’d have to prove to the JWs that the abuse took place and probably wouldn’t be believed, and (b) they’d then also have to prove to the police that it took place, without the backup of their congregation.

This new law means that a victim could go to the police with a claim of abuse, and then it would be up to the religious organisation to show that they were doing enough to protect the child, and that their rules about child abuse were sufficient.

Some really good things might come out of this (including increased awareness of institutions’ roles in child abuse), and I hope it’s taken up by other legal jurisdictions as well.

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