Who’d want to be a witness when it just means more trauma?
By Declan Fry
Sydney Morning Herald
February 12, 2021
|Louise Milligan learned firsthand how the adversarial system of cross-examination visits new trauma on the abused.|
Photo by Simon Schluter
“Groomers groom communities, not just children.” This sentiment occurs throughout Witness, veteran investigative journalist Louise Milligan’s follow-up to 2017’s Walkley Award-winning Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell. Working deep within the ninth circle of Dante’s hell, Milligan’s counsel interviewees (almost invariably men) seek to uphold the principle of “beyond reasonable doubt” at any cost – especially if the client is both monied and powerful.
Through her experience as a witness during the Pell trial, Milligan, who won the people’s choice award in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, learns first-hand how the adversarial system of cross-examination – with its indignities and seething manipulations, its brow-beating and haranguing – visits new traumas upon the multiply abused. Yes, multiply: first by their abuser; then by their trial; and finally by the aftermath of the process – perhaps the abuse whose pain lingers longest.
Although she acknowledges that there are counsel ready to engage in cross-examination without eviscerating witnesses, much of the old guard depicted here don’t trouble themselves too much. Among them, Robert Richter QC emerges as one of the more vain, tunnel-visioned, and immoderately foolish – not least in his own words.
During a chapter detailing the trial of a sports coach who groomed a young schoolboy, Paris Street, while working at St Kevin’s College, Milligan reprints parts of a letter that Richter, having acted as defence counsel for the coach, sent to Street post-trial.
It is a masterpiece of condescension. Richter complains, apropos little, of his own treatment, while advising young Street to “gather whatever strength of character you have to make something of your life rather than to define yourself as a victim and as someone with no agency over your future” (note the virtuosic self-pity and operatically needy hauteur).
I was reminded of nothing so much as Michelangelo, who once said that, in order to sculpt David, he had only “to remove everything that was not David”. Richter is eager to do the same, whittling away a young man to reveal a victim where none had been before, even after the trial has concluded.
Milligan draws incisive – and disturbing – parallels between the gaslighting and manipulation of abusers and groomers, and the courtroom behaviour of some defence counsel.
Many of Milligan’s witnesses describe cross-examination as more gruelling and arduous than the original trauma. As one puts it: “It’s like you are alive, and you’re having an autopsy done on you.”
The stamina demanded by this process, Milligan suggests, leads counsel to believe in an alternative and extravagantly colourful universe – one bustling with fickle, spiteful women; scheming, Janus-faced children; and abrasive, violently manipulative lovers.
At their most self-satisfied, some of the profession seem wholly enamoured of their role as hunters of these types, anxious to scope out the Mr Hyde within the Dr Jekyll for the benefit of indulgently pliable juries: the brutalised young woman who, despite appearances, is clearly a nymphomaniac, eagerly seeking sodomy in a back alley; the young schoolboy who, fresh-faced impressions of credulity notwithstanding, patiently and long-sufferingly wishes that the priest who could pass as his grandfather might someday molest him. It’s enough to make you puke (as many counsel do, attacked by anxiety – in the car parks, in the back alleys).
The overwhelming sense is of a glibly macho sphere that prides itself more on Yeats quotations and the study of Blackstone than self-reflection. Indeed, Milligan’s interviewees rarely miss a chance to hang themselves with harrowingly banal sonorities (Ian Lloyd QC: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”, et cetera).
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King suggested.
His theory of justice’s gravitational pull, however, was never meant to be viewed as preordained, a destination reached without action or commitment. Milligan’s expose is both robust and forceful enough to suggest all the usual cliches and commonplaces: a “call to action”, a “timely”, “very necessary” book.
Yet it is more than this. Witness is lucid, scathing and, often, exceptionally moving.