It is widely acknowledged that incidents of rape and sexual assault continue to be seriously under-reported, but new research has revealed how few of the reported incidents progress through the justice system to be proven in court.
The research, from the Crime Statistics Agency, found that only one in seven incidents reported progressed past the stage of police investigation.
Based on analysis of the 14,910 sexual offences reported to Victoria Police between July 2015 and June 2017, the research found police identified an offender in half of the incidents reported to them but only one in four were charged.
The research revealed most incidents did not progress past the police investigation, with the most common reasons for this that the alleged offender was identified but not charged (22 per cent), the victim survivor withdrew their complaint (19 per cent), there was insufficient evidence a crime had occurred (18 per cent) while 14 per cent of the incidents remained unsolved.
Crime Statistics Agency's Chief Statistician, Fiona Dowsley, said the findings aligned with other studies on the attrition of sexual offences across the criminal justice system.
Ms Dowsley said rape and sexual assault were significantly under-reported but of those that were, most never reached court. For those that do, it can take years for the matter to be finalised and there was a low likelihood of them resulting in a conviction.
"This issue is not unique to Victoria: most studies of sexual offence attrition through the criminal justice system find less than one-fifth of incidents reported to police result in a conviction in court."
This issue is not unique to Victoria: most studies of sexual offence attrition through the criminal justice system find less than one-fifth of incidents reported to police result in a conviction in court.Fiona Dowsley
Of the incidents reported to police, 96 per cent of the offenders were male, with four out of five victim survivors female. Two out of five victim survivors were children.
One in three of the incidents reported were family violence, while one in five involved a perpetrator who was a stranger.
While 41 per cent of reported incidents involved rape, these were the least likely to progress through the justice system - with 10 per cent of rape incidents reported to police proven in court - compared with 15 per cent of indecent assaults.
Overall, it was incidents in regional Victoria, those where the perpetrator was a stranger and involved other non-sexual offences, such as physical assault, that were more likely to progress through the justice system.
The data is not a true reflection of the number of sexual assaults across Victoria, as it only includes reports to police.
The Australian Institute of Criminology estimated in 2007 that less than 30 per cent of sexual assaults and related offences were reported to police. Cases where the perpetrator was a current or former partner were less likely to be reported than where the perpetrator was a stranger.
"We have many adult victim survivors who access our service but choose not to make a report. We support them with whatever choice they make - if they want to report to police, but if they don't want to then they don't need to. They can access our confidential counselling and be supported in that process," Director of Ballarat's Centre Against Sexual Assault, Shireen Gunn, said.
"Sometimes people start it and want to put it on hold and that's fine as well."
Ms Gunn said the research did not surprise her as the judicial process could be very difficult.
She said the fact incidents of child sexual abuse or grooming offences were most likely to progress through the justice system was hardly surprising.
"That's because it's harder to blame children. And we know sexual assault survivors are blamed and that is the problem with getting convictions through the court."
She added the lines of questioning from the defence could traumatise survivors and trigger post traumatic stress, while the lengthy justice process could be "very demanding and overwhelming".
While CASA staff support people when they report to police and through the court system, Ms Gunn said sexual assault survivors felt a lot of shame as society tended to victim-blame.
"It's very hard for people to proceed knowing it is what they will experience and when they read the outcomes from other people, it can be very off putting as well.
"There is a lot of attrition through the courts right from the start because it's a really difficult process," she explained.
"There is the crime and how people respond to the crime. How people respond is really important to how people recover. If there isn't a good outcome in court, that can set people back further. "
Yet Ms Gunn said more people often reached out for support in response to coverage of cases and court outcomes in the media. This was evidenced in Ballarat, as incidents of historical child sexual abuse came to light, and as ribbons tied to fences showed survivors were not alone and were supported by the wider community.
"From the time of reporting to the time it gets to court and a result, the numbers really shrink. But they are improving, and that's what media exposure has done - it has helped people to come forward and address those myths."
Data from the Ballarat police service area, which includes Ballarat and Pyrenees shire, reveals there were 366 sexual offences recorded in the year ending March 2021, up from 342 the year before. Though these numbers are lower than when reports peaked at 631 in 2015 and remained high around 500 until 2018.
Offences reported in the Moorabool, Hepburn and Golden Plains area, meanwhile, have remained steady during the last seven years, with 126 offences reported in the year ending March 2021.
Victoria Police's officer in charge of the Ballarat Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Unit, Detective Senior Sergeant Darren Tanis, said police understood how challenging it was to come forward to report a sexual offence.
"It may take days, months or years after the incident has occurred. Our message to victims is that you will be listened to.
"We encourage victims to come forward and report these crimes to police. We want to assure the community and victims of sexual assault that police across the state, including in Ballarat, are committed to investigating these matters and holding offenders to account."
We want to assure the community and victims of sexual assault that police across the state, including in Ballarat, are committed to investigating these matters and holding offenders to account.Detective Senior Sergeant Darren Tanis
Detective Senior Sergeant Tanis said that whether the report related to an historical or a recent crime, it would be investigated by specialised detectives who would work closely with the victim-survivor to ensure they felt supported through the entire process - from the time of disclosure, through the investigation and in court.
This helps victim survivors to establish a relationship and trust with one or two police members without the need to continuously recount their experience.
There are 20 specially trained detectives working in the SOCIT unit in the Ballarat region, who strive to prioritise victim-survivors' needs when investigating the complex crimes.
Police understand a proportion of sexual offence reports do not result in a conviction and say this is due to a number of reasons, including a lack of evidence to prove a charge beyond reasonable doubt. In other cases, the victim-survivor may choose not to proceed with an investigation.
"While not all cases result in charges or progress through to the courts, victims have told us they can get a sense of justice from feeling believed and respected through telling their story," Detective Senior Sergeant Tanis said.
While not all cases proceed through the justice system, they stay on file and can be re-opened at any time - including at the request of a victim-survivor who may have previously decided to withdraw their report - and if new evidence comes to light.
Police also say there is no requirement for a victim-survivor to be willing to participate in the entire judicial process or for the complaint to be proven, in court or otherwise, when reporting. There is also no requirement to identify the offender or feel burdened by the belief that you must remain silent if you cannot or do not want to assist police in all aspects of their investigation of a report.
Lawyer Judy Courtin has represented victim-survivors of institutional and other sexual abuse in court and said people who reported were "hugely brave".
Ms Courtin said proving a case in court was difficult, especially for historical offences, as the burden of proof was very high and as there were not often witnesses it was often a case of one person's word against the other.
"These matters in the criminal courts are inherently very difficult and complex, particularly for historical offences and children," she said.
She said survivors did not have their own lawyers (they were represented by police and the Office of Public Prosecutions) and the issue of them feeling like they were on trial through severe cross-examination was significant.
"In our criminal system, the victim is not a party to the case - they are purely a witness for the state.
"So they don't have legal representation and don't have a lot of say in what evidence goes in and what doesn't."
This, coupled with how the prosecution often chooses one or two representative counts for what could have been years of abuse, can also be difficult for survivors. While deals between the defence and prosecutors to reduce the severity and number of charges if an accused pleaded guilty acted as a 'deterrent'.
While unsure of what exactly could ameliorate the situation, she has some ideas.
"If victims could have their own legal representation, it might assist more people to come forward. If they feel like they have someone advising them and letting them know what their rights are, so they don't feel like an appendage or a witness, I wonder whether that would help?"
Affected by this story? There is help available. You can phone the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, in Sebastopol, on 5320 3933, or free-call the crisis care line 24 hours on 1800 806 292. Or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380, or Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.