Why do elderly Australian men keep getting jail for raping young boys?
Why do elderly Australian men keep getting jail for raping young boys?

Stop unfairly jailing old men over child rape claims

How many elderly Australian men must be unfairly jailed for raping boys before we cool this hysteria?

Trevor Spurritt last week became the fourth in four years to be freed - too late to save his reputation.

Yes, child abuse is one of the cruellest crimes. But jailing the innocent is also cruel.

Spurritt last year was sentenced to 11 years for abusing four students some 50 years ago, while a maths teacher at Victoria's Camberwell Grammar.

Ah-ha! Four "victims" seems too many for a jury to doubt, right? And in a witch hunt, that's how it works: the plural of allegation becomes "proof".

But Victoria's Court of Appeal last week decided the jury was wrong, and pointed to real problems with the accusers' evidence.

For instance, one accuser said Spurritt indecently assaulted him at a school camp in 1969, 1970 or 1971. But there were no such camps in 1969 or 1970, and Spurritt did not go in 1971. Yet the jury still convicted him. It's as if no one dares disbelieve anyone claiming to be a victim, for fear they may be accused of being "soft" on paedophilia or cruel to "victims".

Former Camberwell Grammar School teacher Trevor Spurritt. Picture: David Crosling.
Former Camberwell Grammar School teacher Trevor Spurritt. Picture: David Crosling.

What's frightening is that it's not just juries - or the media - that seem keen to believe what they should question.

"It's incumbent on us to believe what complainants tell us," said the lead detective in a rape case in which he wrote the accuser's story 15 times to make it fit the facts - only to still have it crumble in court.

This same detective was also involved early in the investigation of Cardinal George Pell, who was eventually jailed on the uncorroborated claims of one man.

How bizarre his claims were: that Pell raped him and a friend at the same time, in Pell's cathedral, right after Mass decades ago.

Last year the High Court freed Pell, pointing out - seven judges to nil - the obvious.

How could the rapes have occurred as alleged, given witnesses agreed Pell was with them at the time and could not have slipped away unnoticed immediately after giving Mass, nor raped boys in a busy change room without being interrupted? What's more, the second "victim", now dead, said he had not been abused.

Then there's Peter Higgins, a retired Patrician Brother and teacher. He was jailed for raping a student in 1976, but the NSW Court of Appeal quashed his conviction last year, saying the evidence against him "contains discrepancies, displays inadequacies, is tainted and otherwise lacks probative force".

Significantly, it also tore strips off the judge who'd convicted Higgins, noting she'd misstated his evidence, falsely claimed his accuser's claims were "corroborated", made findings against the evidence, and wrongly rejected the "powerful" testimony of seven witnesses that Higgins was a good man, by claiming their evidence was "coloured" by the fact that they knew him.


Former Catholic Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson.
Former Catholic Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson.

And what chance did a fourth man - John Francis Tyrrell - have at his own trial? His jury convicted him of sexual abuse on the word of a single accuser, trying to remember what happened in a Geelong school some 50 years earlier.

Frail and partially blind, Tyrrell was jailed for 11 years.

But two years ago, Victoria's Court of Appeal freed him.

It said the verdict was unsound, not least because his accuser claimed Tyrrell repeatedly raped him from 1965 to 1968, stopping only when the "victim" confronted him at the school in 1969. Yet Tyrrell had left in 1966.

So why was the jury apparently so eager to convict? Is it now a sin to doubt anyone claiming to be a victim?

It's a good time to reflect. You see, they last week held a funeral for Philip Wilson, former Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide. He, too, was convicted on a charge so shaky that an appeal court freed him three years ago.

His accuser had claimed that 40 years earlier he told Wilson he'd been abused by another priest, and Wilson's crime was in not reporting this alleged conversation 28 years later to police then investigating that priest for other sex offences.

Wilson insisted he couldn't recall being told, and the appeal court judge listed 14 reasons to doubt the accuser's evidence, which he called inconsistent.

He also accepted the evidence of a memory expert that even "entirely honest individuals" could form "false memories".

And when a mob treats such memories, reconstructed decades later, as more convincing than the hard evidence that contradicts them, who is safe when the finger points?

Originally published as Stop unfairly jailing old men over child rape claims