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Bendigo 'Notorious' For Abuse Acquittals- Report

A LANDMARK report has identified Bendigo as an area notorious for the number of accused sex offenders who escape conviction.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission released its "The Sexual Offences Final Report" yesterday.
The report revealed lengthy waits for victim support services and medical examinations were more prevalent in regional and rural Victoria. Delays in court proceedings, from charge to trial, was also identified as an area of concern statewide; with one incidence of a 641-day wait and the average waiting period being 317 days.
Tabled in Parliament yesterday, the report makes 201 recommendations for positive change in areas including: funding for victim support, reducing time taken for child sexual assault cases to reach trial, and better education for police and legal professionals.
The report contains statements from a police officer in charge of a regional sexual offences and child abuse unit, who stated: "areas such as Bendigo are notorious for acquitting those accused of sex crimes." A police source said the number of sex offenders who had walked free from court with a "not guilty" verdict in Bendigo was a matter of grave concern.
In one case in the Bendigo County Court last year, a 56-year-old man was found not guilty of seven sex-related charges on a 12-year-old girl.
During the trial, evidence was given by both the victim,and a co-offender who had earlier pleaded guilty.
"Prosecutors say they dread coming up here because they know how hard it is to get a conviction," a police source told The Advertiser yesterday.
"There are members of the community who don't think sexual assault happens in small country towns - they need to open their eyes to the wider picture," the source said.
Victorian Law Reform Commission chairperson Professor Marcia Neave said anecdotal evidence suggested access for support services for victims of sex crimes in rural regions could be less than that offered in metropolitan areas. She said shortages in medical forensic officers meant victims often faced delays in obtaining examinations and some victims also risked facing hostile juries if their cases went to court.
"Focus groups involving police have identified jury attitudes in some rural areas as a problem, singling out Ballarat and Bendigo as places where it was very difficult to get a conviction for sexual assault," Prof. Neave said.
Centre Against Sexual Assault manager for Loddon Campaspe region Judy Flanagan said conservatism in rural communities could have an impact on trials against sex offenders.
She said it was devastating for victims and their families when an offender was found not guilty. "Generally, they, the victims, expect justice and for the truth to come out, so there can be an incredible sense of disappointment when the offender isn't convicted," she said.
The findings of the Report - commissioned by the State Government, are expected to initiate a major overhaul of sex offence laws.
Ms Flanagan said changes to sex offence laws were particularly important in the case of child victims and those with intellectual disabilities.
"Any changes that can increase community confidence in the legal system is going to be a step in the right direction," she said.

AAP (26-8-2004)

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