Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Defining Violence

Meet James Robertson Parker.

James was a deputy principal at Pamapuria School near the Northland town of Kaitaia. He ran the kapa haka group.  He'd have been a role model, a hard-working member of the education machine.

He's also a convicted paedophile, pleading guilty on 74 charges of indecent assault, 25 of which he pled guilty to today. The charges included indecent assault, performing indecent acts and sexual violation on young boys (source).

During the trial details about how he had got away with it for so long seeped out, including his close relationship with the principal, how sharing a bed with the boys in his care was passed off as "sleeping marae style", and his having an adult girlfriend which was seen as putting him above suspicion. In his fifteen year tenure at the school concerns were raised several times, but allegations were retracted or never taken further than a "strongly-worded letter" sent by Kaiaia police to Parker telling him to stop the sleepovers (source)

If you're a sane, decent human being you'll be reading the details of this case with the bile rising at the back of the throat and a feeling of horrified familiarity. The position of trust. The close links with the families of the abused. The casual attitude of the police. One would assume that, now his brutality and deception had been uncovered, a long jail term would be a certainty, where he could sit and consider all the lives he had destroyed at his leisure. Surely no-one, not even a defence lawyer, could argue otherwise?

I was sitting getting some work done and watching the news when I heard one of the most despicable utterances ever said on TV (and the bar is pretty damn high, let's face it). Parker's counsel, Alex Witten-Hannah, stood on the court steps after the verdict today and made this pronouncement:

"It has to be borne in mind that the charges James Parker has pleaded guilty to are not charges that involve violence or brutality. He is not a Beast of Blenheim. He breached the trust of the boys, but it didn't involve intimidation or violence," (source)

Uh, what? Sexual violation is not brutal or violent? The legal definition of sexual violation in New Zealand is:

“Person A has unlawful sexual connection with person B if person A has sexual connection with person B –(a) without person B’s consent to the connection ;and(b) without believing on reasonable grounds that person B consents to the connection.”This means that unlawful sexual connection covers any sexual contact that happens without consent: ie. Male to female, female to male, male to male, and female to female.  Sexual connection includes anal and genital penetration of one person by any part of another or by an object held or manipulated.  It also includes oral sex, which is the touching of the lips to the genitals (either giving or receiving). (source)

I'm not reading anything in that definition that is neither brutal nor violent. Penetration without consent is never, will never, be anything other than a brutal, violent act. Breaching the trust between an adult and a child in there care is an act of deep emotional brutality, let alone the violence of the act itself. 

One expects very little in terms of empathy from defence lawyers, but this deeply disturbed me. Could he truly, really believe this? And if he does, do others? Just how widespread is this notion that sexual violence is somehow "less bad" than causing non-sexual physical harm? 

Judge Greg Davis obviously doesn't agree, having passed sentencing from the District to the High Court as they have the ability to pass a sentence of preventative detention, which could keep him locked up indefinitely. Whilst I am not of the Sensible Sentencing Trust in their "Jail for everyone!" campaign, but for someone who had orchestrated a horrendous, prolonged campaign of violence and brutality against vulnerable young people whose stories were unheard because he was seen as beyond reproach, it seems only right that he spends a long time away from society. It won't make everything better, but some closure if better than no closure at all. 

I'm optimistic that the High Court will do the right thing on May 2nd and locks him up, with one would hope the chance at counselling and the opportunity to understand just how deeply his crimes will have affected his victims and their families. However, that a member of the bar is willing to espouse this view of sexual assault leaves me with less to feel optimistic about. I just hope he's the only one.

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