Coming forward in court: Women break their silence of sexual assault

WATCH ABOVE: 16×9’s “Coming Forward.”

“I feel I am not the same person I was before…I miss me and I want a say in my own life again…”

When Hope Kirksey, 44, sat down to write her victim impact statement to read in court, she was trying to explain what it was like to have her life torn apart.

Hope’s story is just one of the almost 500,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year, according to Statistics Canada. Hope is part of another statistic; she is one of the less than 10 per cent who go to police, suggesting an epidemic of unreported and unprosecuted criminal activity in Canada.

“Probably going through the court system was almost worse than the assault itself,” says Hope, who was assaulted by a man she was dating.

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It is not often that a woman puts her name or face to the crime of sexual assault. Burdened by shame, embarrassment and confusion over what happened, many victims choose to remain silent.

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Hope Kirksey

“I think sexual assault is taken very lightly generally in Canada,” says lawyer Pamela Cross, who has been working with victims of sexual assault for twenty years. She says women are afraid they will not be believed when they come forward.

“If I were sexually assaulted, particularly if I were sexually assaulted by someone I knew, I would think long and hard before calling the police,” explains Cross. “Because I see what the system does to women when they report.”

An accused’s presumption of innocence is a crucial constitutional right and criminal trials are about proving whether an offence occurred or if there is doubt. Criminal defence lawyer Craig Penney has been cross-examining witnesses for twenty years. He was not involved in Hope Kirksey’s trial.

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Hope Kirksey (right) with her daughter, Megan. 16x9

His client’s right to a vigorous defence and fair trial must be defended, he says.

“If I am asserting my client’s innocence then I am trying to create a moving picture for you in your mind as to what happened that will see my client fully exonerated. If I know my client is factually guilty that restricts me somewhat, but I’m trying to create doubt.”

Penney creates doubt, in part, by questioning a witness’ memory, if the allegations are false or if there was a mistaken belief, on his client’s part, of consent.

“I’m trying to cross-examine or raise doubt or show the person that they’re not a reliable witness or they’re not a credible witness,” he says.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1991 that a woman’s sexual history cannot be used as evidence in a trial without special permission from the court. But Cross says rape myths still make their way into the system.

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Questions about how much a woman had to drink, her actions before and after the attack and whether she comes forward immediately or years later are irrelevant to whether the accused committed the attack, Cross says.

Sexual assault trials follow the same template as any other criminal trial; the victim can become a witness in the case. But the intimate nature of the questioning in sexual assault can leave victims feeling responsible for what happened.

“She feels re-victimized, she feels as though she is under attack,” explains Cross. “And victims of other crimes do not report feeling that way.”

It was almost three years before Hope took to the stand to testify against her attacker. Her attacker’s lawyer argued that the accused thought the sex was consensual.

“I got asked, was I sure that I was assaulted. Did I, was I sure that I didn’t get it wrong,” she says. “I said ‘no’ repeatedly. And I don’t think that at any point should that have been ever misconstrued as a maybe or a yes.”

Throughout the ordeal Hope battled depression, contemplated suicide, her health deteriorated and her finances were drained. But, after almost five years, she heard a verdict most women don’t:


But, after all she has gone through, don’t call her one of the lucky ones, she says.

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“…To be told that you are lucky to get a guilty verdict drives me around the bend too because I shouldn’t be lucky to have somebody convicted of a crime committed against me. Should be just given,” says Hope.

The accused is appealing the verdict while Hope tries to recover from coming forward.

16×9’s “Coming Forward” airs this Saturday at 7pm.

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