Efforts to protect child sex abuse victims from the trauma of courtroom appearances suffered a serious and troubling setback this week.
The 6-2 U.S. Supreme Court verdict overturned the conviction of an Iowa man, who was forced to sit behind a one-way screen so that two 13-year-old girls would not have to see him.The decision casts doubt on similar steps by other states - including Utah - to protect young witnesses from face-to-face confrontations with someone who may have abused them.
More than half the states have laws providing ways of controlling the testimony of child sex abuse victims. They include one and two-way closed circuit TV, videotaped depositions, and one-way mirrors and screens.
Utah has several such provisions. The most frequently used is videotaped testimony, a high-tech version of a written deposition. Such practices have been challenged in several instances and the cases are pending before the Utah Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court decision is bound to have at least some impact on those cases.
The high court held that the Fourteenth Amendment right to a fair trial, and the Sixth Amendment right of the accused to face his accuser, were violated by separating the defendant from the witnesses.
While the rights to a fair trial must be protected, there are times when other issues must be considered as well. The fact that so many states have passed laws to protect young victims of sexual abuse from being further traumatized in court shows the depth of concern.
It can be an awful experience for a young child to have to go into court, face an adult who may have sexually abused the youngster, talk about the sexual abuse, and be questioned and challenged by another adult, while under the gaze of the accused.
Some are unable to cope. The prospect of that experience has caused some victims and their families to refuse to take part - with the result that the molester goes free.
State laws have recognized that the right to a fair trial must not be jeopardized, but the various rules were designed to balance that right with protection for the children involved. Such balance is not easy to achieve.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court verdict said the defendant's rights were not outweighed "by the necessity of protecting victims of sexual abuse." Clearly, such situations present a real dilemma for courts, but in this case the justices came down wholly on the side of fair trial and against the young victims.
In the interest of children, couldn't some slight watering down of the right to face the accuser have been tolerated? After all, the right to face one's accuser does not seem like it should include the opportunity to intimidate a child witness.
Let's hope it does not turn out this way, but the ruling may make it more difficult to bring child sexual abuse cases to court.