With a current surge in victims coming forward to make allegations of sexual abuse, there are irritating outbursts of refusal to listen to these victims on the grounds that a person is “innocent until proven guilty.” On the surface, this seems fair enough, but people have failed to acknowledge the damage this kind of response can have on victims who come forward and victims wondering if they should do so.
We live in a society where police recordings of crimes like rape and sexual assault are unlikely to be representative of the actual scale of these crimes. This is because of the stigma attached to reporting sexual crimes. The vast majority of crime recorded by police has been reported by civilians but when civilians are too scared to report the crimes or see no point in it, recordings stop reflecting reality. This lack of reporting is often because victims are scared of the response they will get. Some victims talk of not being taken seriously, others have been looked down upon and asked questions like “What were you wearing?” being asked of them, as if to say that they may somehow be at fault for someone else’s act. On top of all this, there is the issue of refusal to believe anything victims say which can make reporting sexual crimes seem futile since nobody will listen to a word you say.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a well-known doctrine on which judicial systems are founded upon around the world. What this essentially means is that the burden of proof is on the prosecution rather than the accused defendant. It is, simply put, the responsibility of the accuser to prove that accused is guilty (typically beyond reasonable doubt). Because of this, the defendant is presumed to be innocent but that does not mean they are actually innocent. The entire doctrine was set up to ensure people receive a fair trial, if one is presumed to be guilty it becomes a lot harder for them to show that they are not and more likely for them to be convicted whether guilty or not. The doctrine was not created to allow us to completely disregard any allegation made because guilt has not been fully proven yet. That is simply not how the judiciary system is supposed to function and is not how human beings think. If you were to tell your parent that someone was bullying you at school, they would not respond with “Where’s your proof? How can I be so sure you’re not lying? Perhaps you just don’t like that person and you want to make them look bad by accusing them.” Yet this is how many choose to respond to victims who tell their stories.
It’s clear that the general public tends to have a very low level understanding of law, hence why “innocent until proven guilty” is used as if it is a valid refutation of anything a victim of sexual assault says. When an allegation is made you have a duty to listen to both sides, that is how good judgement is made. Ignoring victims entirely is both lazy and a clear sign of ignorance. If you truly wish to uphold the right to a presumption of innocence then you should be ready to hear evidence from both sides, you should not be silencing one side entirely. It’s important to remember that filing false police reports is also a crime so really we should also be presuming the innocence of people who come forward as victims of sexual abuse, they need to be given the benefit of the doubt.
There is a distinction that needs to be made between presumption and assumption. Whilst a presumption is an idea that is taken to be true on the basis of probability, an assumption is a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen – without proof. Presuming that someone accused of sexual abuse is innocent is perfectly justifiable, there’s a chance they could be innocent or guilty. Assuming that person is innocent, however, is wrong and harms victims. You can quite easily listen to a victim, take their story on board and wait for more evidence to develop on either side without proclaiming them as a liar or the accused as innocent. The same goes vice versa, you do not have to accept a victims story as absolute truth because, as mentioned earlier, there is still a presumption of innocence for the accused.
We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in these kinds of situations. Some jump to the conclusion that the accuser is absolutely right. Others jump to the conclusion that the accuser is unlikely to be truthful. These assumptions made are problematic in different ways as in some cases accusers have actually been lying but those that do lie are in such a small minority, we should not be using this as evidence of the innocence of someone accused of sexual abuse. When we find out about allegations we should be open minded and ready to listen with no assumptions of absolute facts being given by either side should be made. Only where clear evidence is produced early on, such as in the case of Harvey Weinstein where floods have allegations have poured in, should we begin to label the accused as criminal. The general public has a duty to listen to victims and let them know they will be treated well by the judiciary system so that each and every victim of sexual abuse will feel confident enough to seek help but we don’t get to decide guilt where there is no evidence.