Survivors of sexual assault are furious after it was discovered changing a Victorian government law had the unintended consequence of silencing them from telling their own stories without an expensive court order.
The law, which quietly passed state parliament in February, means that any survivors whose perpetrator was convicted will be unable to speak out using their real names, including in the media.
The change applies to all cases, including historical ones - the only exception, according to the Let Us Speak campaign, is if the survivor obtains a court order to authorise publication of their identity.
NEED HELP? PHONE THE BALLARAT CENTRE AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT ON 1800 806 292
According to the state government, the law was changed in February because victims did not have a clear mechanism to seek the removal of court orders protecting their identity, which caused uncertainty for those who wished to speak openly about their experiences.
These changes were recommended by former Court of Appeal Judge Frank Vincent in his Review of the Open Courts Act.
Justice Vincent recommended that adult victims of sexual assault and family violence should, on the conviction of the offender, be able to opt for the disclosure of their identity and, if there is more than one victim, the court would be required to refuse permission where the disclosure would reveal the identity of a non-consenting victim.
However, this has had a "silencing" effect on survivors, according to Let Us Speak, and have led to a situation where only people involved in cases that have not resulted in a conviction, or where police did not lay charges, can speak out.
There are heavy penalties involved for survivors, and for organisations, including media, who breach the rule, while court costs are estimated to be in the thousands.
The change was revealed by journalist Nina Funnell, part of the Let Us Speak campaign, after months of work.
One Ballarat, Victoria, survivor who has long pushed for justice against paedophile priests, who cannot be identified for this story, described the law as "throttling" survivors.
"I don't understand the motivation," they said.
"This seems to be a clear overreach on the part of those who would want to cross Ts and dot Is, this is beyond that, because if they knew that it would make things difficult for victims to get justice, why would they do it?
"It must be recognised that the only way that there has been so much action on sexual assault, child sex crimes, over the last 20 years, is because victims have been screaming for it - it's not because police have been more active, or the church or institutions, or because the government has been active - it's because victims have been screaming for it, they have been dying."
They pointed out that survivors speaking out often led to others finding courage to tell their own stories, which in turn led to legal action and in some cases convictions for paedophiles.
"This silencing, yet again, of victims - why would the government want this?" they said.
"They've been so proactive in supporting victims - if it is some crazy obscure legal reason behind it, it should have been explained very clearly."
Ballarat's Blake Curran is the son of a sexual abuse victim, and said his initial concern upon hearing the news was for survivors who are already facing other issues while in isolation.
"It's part of the healing process, people need to share their story - if that's taken away from them, how are they supposed to work toward healing?" he said.
"Have they bothered consulting CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault) or any other victims groups to determine the flow on effect?
"How many victims are sitting at home with anxiety issues already in lockdown who can't reach out for social connection? They're sitting at home, stewing on their own thoughts, hoping they don't get fined or locked up for speaking out."
Other institutions which look to help survivors and promote their stories, such as St Patrick's College in Ballarat, are in the dark as to how to proceed.
"Our College believes the time for silence is over," Acting Principal Stephen Hill said in a statement.
"If brave victims and survivors wish to have their voices heard and their story told, it is incumbent upon all of us to listen.
"It is already difficult enough for people to tell such harrowing stories without creating new legal barriers to prevent them."
State Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said in a statement the changes were not made to intentionally hurt survivors, but gave no commitment to change the law, or when this could take place.
"I acknowledge the strength and resilience of victims who come forward and tell their stories - it is an incredibly brave and difficult thing to do," she said.
"The changes that took effect in February were about reducing barriers and improving clarity for victims who want to talk about their experiences, not about introducing new restrictions for survivors who want to go public with their story.
IN THE NEWS:
"I am aware of the concerns raised by victims and advocacy groups regarding the effect of these reforms and have asked the Department of Justice and Community Safety to urgently look at whether further changes are needed to ensure they are effective.
"I remain concerned about the barriers, both cultural and legal, that continue to exist for victims of sexual assault - that is why I've also asked the Victorian Law Reform Commission review Victoria's laws relating to rape, sexual assault and associated adult and child sexual offences, and provide advice on opportunities to further improve the these laws."
The state government was contacted with further questions relating to how the law will affect people who have already spoken out, and a timeline for closing the loophole, but no response was received by deadline.
Affected by this story? There is help available.
You can phone the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, in Sebastopol, on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292. Or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380, or Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
- Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
- Mensline: 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au
- Survivors of Suicide: 0449 913 535
- headspace Ballarat (for 12-25s and parent support): 5304 4777
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
- Soldier On: 1300 620 380
- Ballarat Community Health: 5338 4500
- QLife: 1800 184 527 (Support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people)
- Family violence: 1800 RESPECT
- Veterans support: Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or openarms.gov.au
- Ballarat Mental Health Services: 5320 4100 or after hours on 1300 247 647
- Aboriginal crisis support: Yarning SafeNStrong, 1800 959 563 (noon to 10pm)