Acquittal of stepfather on sex assault charges based on stereotypes: Appeal Court

MONTREAL — The Quebec Court of Appeal has overturned a man's acquittal on eight charges of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter, ruling that the trial judge was too quick to dismiss the testimony of the alleged victim.

Asserting that "nobody saw anything" to assess the credibility of a young complainant is not in keeping with the law, the Appeal Court concluded in a unanimous decision released Thursday.

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"Certain comments of the judge suggest a stereotypical attitude concerning sexual assaults of children," Justice Simon Ruel wrote for the three-judge appeal panel.

Ruel said the trial judge, Denise Descoteaux of Quebec court, was wrong to imply the testimony of the alleged victim had to be corroborated to be credible. The assaults are alleged to have taken place over a period of six years when the girl was aged between six and 12. She was 15 when she testified at the trial in 2017.

In her ruling, Descoteaux was skeptical of the stepfather's claim that he was never alone with the child because he spent the entire day on his land cutting wood, year-round. The judge called his testimony "not transparent, not reliable, not sincere and not credible."

Yet she acquitted him, finding a reasonable doubt because of the limited reliability of the testimony of the girl, who had been unable to provide many details of the alleged assaults. The judge also questioned how the abuse could have gone on for so long without anyone noticing.

The Appeal Court said the trial judge evaluated the complainant's testimony as if she were an adult. It noted that it is understandable that a young child would not have the words to describe what she had suffered. And it said sexual abuse is a crime committed away from the view of others, often in the context of a relationship of trust or authority.

It has ordered a new trial for the accused, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the alleged victim.

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