Book Review: Witness by Louise Milligan

Witness is an important book to read as it exposes gaps in Australia’s legal system.

Louise Milligan is an incredible investigative journalist who has spent years reporting on sexual abuse crimes. Her latest book exposes the toll on victims (known by the legal system as witnesses perhaps to dehumanise them) who attempt to seek justice using that very system. Milligan knows only too well what the experience is like when she took the stand in the case of George Pell’s trial. And although she was not a victim, the process she went through to protect those who had entrusted her with their experiences took a toll. She questioned that if she with resources and skills found the whole thing traumatic, what then of the actual victims of sexual abuse. And what she finds is enough to turn off most except for those who have the strength to take on their perpetrators.

Milligan’s interviews with barristers, judges, defence counsel, and victims together with meticulous research including transcripts, reveal how the wheels of justice operate, and it’s not pretty. It’s brutal and terrifying and more so for the victims who face the system.

“A system where, even if they received what is considered to be justice, they came away from the experience worse than when they went into it.”

 Milligan gives us Saxon Mullins case, a young eighteen-year-old girl raped in an alleyway. The trial itself raised the issue of what is consent but more importantly, what Saxon went through for five years to see her rapist brought to account can only be described as horrendous. The adversarial role the defence counsel uses to discredit, nit-pick and dehumanise a rape victim is put on show with Mullin’s case.

Then the legal system itself is dissected where the pattern of male patriarchy is still strong, where although numbers of women are growing, it’s an industry of self-employed barristers whose livelihood gives little encouragement for the female barrister who has a family or wants one.

Then there’s the environment of the legal industry and the challenges women face as workers. Who could forget Dyson Heydon who sexually harassed several women whilst serving as a High Court judge?

And Peter O’Callaghan QC who was on a retainer for the Catholic Church to manage their response to the hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by members of the catholic church. A man who received $7.8 million in remuneration from the Catholic church from 1996 to 2014 to administer and hand out compensation of a mere $9.7 m with an average of $32k for each survivor of paedophile priests. Few were recommended for police investigation.

“For victims of sexual crimes, the unquestioning decision to use O’Callaghan’s name for their gallery speaks volumes about the Victorian Bar’s attitude to victims of sexual abuse.”

Milligan paints a vivid picture of what being a witness is like even through her own eyes on the witness stand where the barrister was aggressive, demeaning and disrespectful. Or the room she explains where they put child victims who aren’t allowed to have their dolls or teddy bears in case that should remind the jury that the victim is indeed a child.

Milligan has also endured threats to her life and online twitter trolling yet without people like her, nothing would ever change. And change is happening and Mulligan give us a glimmer of hope that eventually perpetrators of sexual abuse will be brought to account and victims will be treated with care and compassion and consideration of the trauma they’ve gone through.

This book doesn’t hold back. It’s confronting, gripping, eye-opening and terrifying making you think twice about raising a complaint of sexual abuse. Which makes it even more incredible that victims who go through the court system must surely be lauded as true heroes. I thank Louise Milligan and every other investigative journalist who has ever put themselves out there. What they do is enlighten and educate us so that we can stamp our feet and yell out loud to get things changed. This is an important book for everyone to read.

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