Michelle Snape and Tabitha West both reported the same family member to police for allegedly sexually abusing them as children.
One woman’s case never made it to trial, the other saw a conviction recorded against her abuser.
But neither really got the closure they sought from the justice system.
Here they tell their stories and join leading criminologists and advocates who are calling for change to the way our justice system treats sexual assault victims and complainants.
A child reports sexual abuse, but it goes nowhere
Michelle Snape describes herself as a survivor.
She was just eight years old when she says her older brother, Keith Dudley, sexually abused her.
While Ms Snape was just a small child in the mid-1970s when she says the abuse occurred, her brother was 18 at the time.
“I just put it down to my brother being a young adult at the time and I suppose experimenting, that was my way of dealing with it.”
It was something she pushed to the back of her mind as she was growing up, but by her late teens and early twenties, Ms Snape says it was causing her emotional pain and distress.
She spoke to a chaplain about the issue and thought she could move on with her life.
But decades later another revelation changed everything for Michelle.
Her niece Tabitha came forward with her own story.
As an adult Tabitha tells her family about her own abuse
Tabitha West was between the ages of eight and nine when her uncle Keith Dudley sexually abused her.
The abuse occurred over a year and on two separate occasions.
For Ms West, it took time to be able to talk about what had been done to her and she was in her early 20s when she told her family.
She then sent a clear message to her uncle through family members — she would not go to police if he sought professional help.
Ms West says if that had happened, “That would help me understand this person is seeking help, is remorseful and the chance of them doing it again would be reduced.”
Her biggest motivation was reducing the risk that Dudley could offend again.
Both women say they decided to go to the police only after Dudley refused to get any professional help.
But that decision was difficult.
“I didn’t have that, so that added to my stress.”
With her heart pounding and body shaking, Michelle makes a statement to police
It was in 2014 that Ms Snape went to make a statement to police at a station in the ACT where she was living at the time.
She says it is important for the public to understand how difficult that process can be for sexual assault survivors.
“It does feel like you are living it [the alleged abuse] again,” she says.
“You are not sure if the person sitting across from you can relate at all, and to be honest they probably can’t, they are just trying to do the best job they can.”
While Ms Snape told her story to an officer, she didn’t explain how stressed she was sitting there in that interview room.
Ms Snape says that moment was the start of a two year legal process for her as her brother was charged and the case slowly made its way to court.
“It is a lengthy time and it is a lengthy time to feel stressed,” she says.
“You peak and trough.”
She says when she had to speak to police her anxiety escalated, but then she would worry when it felt like nothing was happening.
Michelle takes the stand, but her coping strategies work against her
In 2016, Ms Snape’s case came before the County Court in Wodonga in regional Victoria where the abuse was alleged to have occurred, for a committal hearing.
It’s a type of hearing where prosecutors need to show they have enough evidence for a case to go to trial.
“I went into a podium box thing and the judge was on my left and the counsel and the defendant and the prosecutor were just in your eyesight,” Ms Snape says.
“So that is intimidating to see him [the defendant] there and scribbling notes.”
Ms Snape could have used a remote witness box to give evidence but chose to be in the courtroom.
She says she only met the prosecutor the day of that hearing — it’s an issue that still bothers her.
Ms Snape says it meant the prosecutor didn’t know her and didn’t know that she was someone who coped with extreme stress by putting on a brave face.
It’s a coping strategy that Ms Snape says she had been using since the alleged abuse as a child, but in court she says it worked against her.
She says the lawyers questioning her were respectful, but she was asked to articulate intimate details of the alleged abuse.
“I just struggle with that, so articulating that was very confronting for me.”
She was so distressed she says, “The only way I thought I could get through it was almost like being a robot.”
“The problem with that is that it was like my mind had shut down.”
Ms Snape says her stress level left her with a “surreal” feeling, like she wasn’t completely there.
And she says it made it difficult for her to answer even simple questions.
“I didn’t always answer them [the questions] according to my statement, even though I knew the question that was being asked and I knew the answer, but I was saying, ‘I do not recall’.”
Ms Snape left the courtroom “devastated” and critical of her own performance on the stand.
While the Judge did commit her case to trial, ultimately the Office of Public Prosecutions decided to withdraw the case.
“I wasn’t a strong witness and they felt like the case wasn’t strong enough and they didn’t want to put me through doing that and not get a conviction at the end,” Ms Snape says.
It meant after two years pursuing her complaint through the justice system, her allegations were not taken to trial, her story wasn’t heard by a jury and there will never be a verdict.
Dudley found guilty of six sex offences against a child
In 2017, Ms West gave evidence at trial at the Wodonga County Court in regional Victoria before Judge Frank Gucciardo and a jury.
It was the first time she’d properly told her story.
“I hadn’t really verbalised the specific details of what had happened to anybody, not to my husband, not to anybody,” she says.
“So to sit there to a roomful of people and to describe in specific detail what happened, it was quite confronting to be honest.
“It was a bit more confronting than I was expecting.
“In some ways it felt like being undressed in a roomful of people.”
But Ms West says she was in a strong mental space to deal with the pressure and had the support of her close family members.
Unlike many sexual assault cases where prosecutors must rely heavily on the evidence of the complainant, Ms West’s case had two other important witnesses.
Her dad and aunt both testified that Dudley had made confessions to them.
A jury found Dudley guilty of five changes of an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under 16 and one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 10.
Judge Gucciardo said Dudley’s conduct comprised “repulsive acts of sexual abuse”.
The Judge said the defendant’s behaviour was deplorable and an “egregious breach of trust”.
“These acts exploited in a manipulative sense both the relationship which enabled you to have access to her as well as her bodily integrity.”
Judge comments on Dudley’s ‘contumacious self-absorption’ during trial
For Ms West, her case was dominated by delays and the behaviour of her uncle leading up to and during the trial itself.
Court documents show that during Dudley’s police interview he remained mute the entire time.
Once the case came before the Country Court of Victoria, Ms West says he caused many delays.
“Delaying things and firing legal counsel etc and having to push court dates back as a result.”
She says she often learnt of delays at the last minute — and while she coped with the setbacks, she says it did take a toll on her family.
“I certainly feel that the process is not geared towards the experience of the victim in that case.”
These delays were also referred to by Judge Gucciardo in his sentencing remarks after the trial.
Judge Gucciardo said the prosecutor had noted that Dudley “caused delays by sacking two teams of lawyers” and “taking time in deciding whether to accept assistance of counsel to cross-examine protected witnesses” when he represented himself at trial.
He also spoke about Dudley’s behaviour during the trial.
Judge Gucciardo said Dudley’s “lack of participation or co-operation in a trial process needs no further comment, your obstinacy even in your address to the jury is reflective of a contumacious self-absorption.”
At the time, Ms West says she just accepted these delays, but added it was left to the detective in her case to apologise to her again and again for what was occurring and the impact it had.
Dudley sentenced to prison, but released with little notice
For Ms West, the trial outcome was important.
“I felt happy only because the guilty conviction was needed for my wider family I think,” Ms West says.
Judge Gucciardo sentenced Dudley to four years in prison with a non-parole period of three years.
But three years after that sentencing Ms West received a letter in the mail alerting her to Dudley’s release.
She says it told her Dudley would be released from prison in a fortnight’s time.
She contacted the Victims Register seeking more information.
“Because he was let out early I assumed he participated in rehabilitation activities, that type of thing,” she says.
“I really wanted to know that he got support and help and access to rehabilitation.
Ms West says all she was told was that Dudley was going to be released and the release date.
“I really feel like that process needs to be improved,” she says.
“I feel like people need to be contacted by phone, not just get a letter in the mail.”
Call to improve justice system for victims
Both Ms West and Ms Snape are grateful for the work of the detective in their case, who they say was empathetic and understanding.
But they felt like he was often trying to cover for gaps in the justice system.
Ms Snape would like to see specialist courts created to deal with sexual offences, “Because they would have the right people in the job, they would have the right people who had that emotional intelligence that would help the victim through the process.”
It is an idea that is being investing by the Law Reform Commission in Victoria, which is reviewing how the justice system deals with sexual offences in that state.
Ms Snape would like to ideally see the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) assign a single prosecutor to a case and for prosecutors to be better resourced to spend more time with complainants.
In a statement, the OPP said: “Before allocating prosecutors to a case the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) first assess the type of case and its complexity and will then brief counsel who have commensurate experience.”
Ms West believes there are both small and large changes that could be made to improve the justice system for sexual assault survivors.
She noticed when the courts communicated with her it would be through formal letters requesting her attendance and there would often be a brochure sent with the phone numbers for helplines included.
To her, the brochures felt like a “box ticking” exercise rather than real support.
She says she understands that the court process does need to be fair and that does involve the difficulty of victims giving evidence about traumatic events.
But she wants to see complainants better supported through that justice process so they can tell their story and have a better experience than her aunt did.
Ms West would have liked access to a liaison officer at the court who could have been a point-of-contact and a person who could answer questions about the court processes and what to expect.
But one of the bigger issues that she noticed was the lack of options she had as a victim.
She says it felt like her only options were to report her abuse to the police and go through a criminal trial or to do nothing about the abuse.
“If they had said you have the option of sending him to jail or send them somewhere to get rehabilitation and support, I would have chosen rehabilitation and support,” she says.
It frustrates Ms West, that after all this time, she still doesn’t know if the man who sexually abused her did access any rehabilitation services.
She says it left her without the closure she always sought.
Thank you for dropping by My Local Pages and checking this article about Victoria and Australian news published as “Tabitha and Michelle spent years seeking justice, now they want the legal system to change how it treats sexual assault survivors”. This news article was posted by My Local Pages Australia as part of our Australian news services.
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