N.L. averages 90 cases of sexual interference every year — but what is it?

It’s a safety net in a system where sexual assault can be difficult to prove in court

This week alone, 10 people — all men — will stand before a judge in courts around the province to face accusations of sexual interference.  All of them will have other serious charges, like sexual assault, listed on the docket. But the sexual interference charge may be of more concern to them because it’s designed to stick.  In a justice system where consent is debated in courtrooms, the charge of sexual interference is a safety net for children to increase the odds their predators get a lifelong designation as somebody who hurts kids.  “If there is a next time … it will be clear to anyone reading the record that the last offence involved a child,” said lawyer Lynn Moore, a former Crown prosecutor.

Moore described sexual interference and sexual assault as “suspenders and a belt.” When one is difficult to prove, the other is there to provide backup.  By definition, a sexual interference charge is laid when somebody has physical, sexual contact with a child under the age of 16. Unlike sexual assault, it doesn’t matter if the victim expressed any sort of consent.  “And if the element of age is somehow difficult to prove or whatever, you can always fall back on sexual assault,” Moore said.  It’s not just a sound idea in theory. The “suspenders and a belt” method has worked in  Newfoundland and Labrador before.

In 2011, a man was acquitted by a jury in Corner Brook of sexually assaulting his brother’s stepdaughter when she was 12 years old. In the same trial, they found him guilty of sexual interference.

While juries do not give reasons for their decisions, Justice Alan Seaborn speculated consent played a role in the case.  “I would note that in order to obtain a conviction for the offence of sexual assault, one of the essential elements the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the complainant did not consent to the force the offender applied to her in circumstances of a sexual nature,” he wrote.  “In connection with the offence of sexual interference, given the age of the victim, consent is not an essential element or an issue.”  In the end, the man was sentenced to 18 months in jail and was slapped with a sex offender designation for 20 years.

The province sees a steady stream of sexual interference charges, averaging 90 each year for the last five years. On a broader scale, crimes against children have been keeping the RCMP busy in Newfoundland and Labrador for decades. According to the latest numbers available from Stats Canada, the province sits above the national average in police-reported sexual offences against children. While the national average was 205 cases per 100,000 people in 2012, Newfoundland and Labrador had a rate of 248.

According to media relations officer Cpl. Jolene Garland, they get tips from a wide range of sources about instances of inappropriate sexual behavior between adults and children. “Oftentimes it’s third-party information, so it can be a parent or family member that’s found out about this and knows it’s illegal and wants to make a report. Even if the child is consenting to the relationship, they can’t consent because they are under the age of 16.” Prosecutors are also burdened with the cases — weighed down by the sheer number of them and the details contained within.  In Moore’s first year practising law, she did 12 jury trials. Eleven of those involved children who were sexually abused.  That was in the early 1990s. More than 25 years later, the number of people being abused remains the same.  “We’re seeing a lot more people reporting but the problem itself of the sexual violence has never changed. It is pretty widespread. One in three women, one in six men,” she said.

“The way we are responding to that problem in all these years has not changed. We are not attacking the problem in the right ways, as far as I am concerned.”  These cases are not often the shadowy figures lurking in a dark alleyway or public park. In some of the recent decisions listed in an online database, it shows the perpetrators are mostly family — by blood or marriage — to the victims. That rings true for Moore, who now works as a private lawyer representing sexual abuse victims as they sue the institutions they feel let them down. “The stranger assaults are very rare,” she said. “It is because of the trust that certain people have that they are able to abuse children. Pretty well all of my clients were sexually assaulted as children by people they trusted.”

The cases with written judgments posted online read like horror novels. The facts are repetitive. In many instances, it’s a man who has become close to the family, often through the mother. After the offences are committed, threats are common — speak up and watch as your family falls apart.  During her years as a prosecutor, Moore was also a mother to young children. What she saw at work shaped the way she raised her kids.  “We would have regular conversations around consent. I would tell my children that sometimes it was OK to be rude to adults,” she said.  “Some people believe that childhood is a time of innocence. That was a difficult decision to make. But I wanted them to have knowledge and I wanted them to be as safe as I could make them.”