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A tale of sex, powerful men and the blind faith that masks their putrid culture

Opinion

This week’s sordid revelations about former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon shows that judges aren’t just blind to the abuse of power, but complicit in it. Michael Bradley explains

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They don’t get more eminent than Dyson Heydon QC AC. Except perhaps his actual eminence, George Pell.

But in this time of falling statues there are no certainties. Even Heydon, visage like an Easter Island monolith, could come down. And he has.

There’s no point arguing the toss about the presumption of his innocence; in The Sydney Morning Herald Kate McClymont and Jacqueline Maley have done him like a dinner, recording sexual harassment allegations by six of his former judge’s associates and allegations of indecent assaults by a number of other senior female lawyers.

The High Court appointed a former inspector-general of intelligence and security to conduct an independent investigation, and she found the associates’ allegations proved. Sure, they could all be lying but, let’s face it, they’re not. Nevertheless, I record Heydon’s denial of all the allegations.

It’s not shocking (not really) that a senior male member of an illustrious profession turns out to have been serially molesting and demeaning young women for decades. Two things really stand out, though, and they say much about how and why this keeps on happening.

The journalists discovered that Heydon’s behaviour was an “open secret in legal and judicial circles”, and reported sufficient first-hand accounts from senior lawyers to back that up.

The report identifies ten alleged victims of unwanted sexual advances (or worse) from Heydon in professional contexts, and not a single one of them complained formally or officially at the time. Each recognised that if she did raise the alarm the career in danger would be hers, not his.

Critical point to understand: for graduating law students, the single most prestigious job you can get is a one-year appointment as the associate to a High Court judge. Only the best students have a chance; for their future careers, it is a lottery win. Associates go everywhere with the judge, sit in court with them, help research and sometimes write their judgments.

Whether the particular case was that of a young female associate facing a sexual advance from her boss on her first day, or a female judge being indecently assaulted at a professional dinner, the common feature of the context is the power imbalance. The common feature of the behaviour is its brazenness.

This is the point where the lived experience of victims parts company with society’s response when they call out about what has been done to them. The problem is exemplified in the attitudes expressed with depressing consistency by, ironically, judges.

It’s instructive to note that recent sexual assault or harassment cases involving prominent men, including George Pell, the judges who ultimately ruled in their favour expressed deep reservations about the likelihood of the alleged offending having ever occurred.

The key aspect of Pell’s alleged offences were their brazenness. He was accused of raping two choir boys in the sacristy of a crowded cathedral directly after mass, then molesting one of them again in a busy corridor.

The point here isn’t whether he did it or not; the point is that the judges expressed serious doubts about whether he would have been so stupid as to risk his reputation by such extremely risky behaviour.

I want to be very clear about what I’m saying. I am not relitigating that concluded case, or any others. I am pointing to a pattern of comprehensive misunderstanding about the motivation and mechanics of sexual offending by powerful men, which will continue to protect them from consequences until it is corrected.

To state the bleedingly obvious: this is not about sex, it is about power.

Sexual violence, wherever it sits on the spectrum from unwanted workplace harassment to assault, is an expression of dominance. When committed by men in positions of power and prominence, it is a means of exploiting that position for a form of gratification that has very little to do with sex.

It is a short leap of comprehension from that to the appreciation that risk-taking is integral to the offending. That is not to say anything about any particular case, but we must urgently rid ourselves and our justice system of this pervasive misapprehension that men with a reputation to protect are unlikely to risk it by doing blatantly disgusting things in situations where they could easily be found out.

They do exactly that; it’s part of their game.

The end we are seeking to achieve (or should be) is that victims of sexual predation will be willing to call it out the moment it occurs, no matter how powerful the perpetrator.

They will do that when they feel that they will not be disbelieved simply because the institutions of society reckon that a man like that would never be so stupid.

They are that stupid. They do those things. All the time.

Michael Bradley is a freelance writer and managing partner at a Sydney law firm

This article was originally published in Crikey

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