Rape survivor ignored by police delivers urgent message 20 years on

This International Women's Day marks 20 years since Karen's assault was reported to police, yet no person has ever been interviewed or charged.

WARNING – DISCUSSIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT: Karen Iles was just a child when she became the victim of one of Australia’s most serious alleged crimes ever reported to police. It was October, 1993 when the then 14-year-old was horrifically gang raped at the hands of up to 15 men and teenage boys, as more watched on.

Despite the atrocity she endured while holidaying with her family on the Gold Coast, it wasn't until over 10 years later, on International Women's Day (IWD) in 2004, that she built up the courage to go to the police to report the act of aggravated sexual assault.

Exactly 20 years to the day, this IWD, no person has been interviewed or charged. To mark the anniversary, she is again bravely speaking up to call for the government to take "drastic action" and implement a set of national standards to ensure no victim of a sexual crime is ever made to feel the "shame" of being ignored again.

"Violence against women, whether it's sexual assault or domestic violence, is such a defining thing — it's so widespread, and we've got to take drastic action," she told Yahoo News Australia.

Left image shows Karen Iles sitting on a road, turquoise table with her leg crossed. She is wearing a white top with floral patterns, jeans, and brown sandals. Right image shows Karen in a blue suit surrounded by cameras and sound equiptment.
Karen Iles has been using her rape as a 'case study' to fight for better support and justice for victims of sexual assault. Source: Supplied

Karen, a Dharug Aboriginal woman, sexual assault survivor and now a lawyer supporting women and Indigenous peoples, came forward to Newtown Police, NSW in 2004 when she was in her early 20s to report her 1993 assault — after years of "shame", "self-blame" and "minimising" what had happened to her.

In the initial statement, she told police that she was lured into a hotel room by a man — part of a local surf gang — before being held down in one of the rooms and gang raped. Fifteen days after her initial 2004 report, she provided a comprehensive, typed statement of her ordeal which included names, a photo of one of the rapists, the location pages from the diary she had written in at the time, and witness and co-victim information.

Yet, following this, both Queensland and NSW Police have not contacted a single person in relation to the allegations. In fact, in 2018 when Karen tried to follow up, Queensland Police told her they thought her case documents had been disposed of.

Then, in 2021, when Karen tried to seek answers again, she found out the documents were rediscovered but her case had been shut for over a decade without her ever being told. Freedom of Information requests showed Karen’s case had stalled due to inaction from detectives.

After the documents were rediscovered, NSW Police said they had conducted a review of the matter in December, 2021. "NSW Police understand that reporting sexual assault can be distressing and traumatic for victims," they said in a statement.

Photos of Karen Iles in her early teen years. Left shows her in a purple and orange dress. Right is a headshot from school photos.
Karen Iles was in her early teens when her assault took place on a family holiday. She reported it over ten years later Source: Supplied

Calls for national standards for reports of sexual violence

According to Queensland's Department of Justice and Attorney-General, about 92% of women who experienced sexual assault did not report the incident to the police between 2021 and 2022. And Karen says, for most of those who do, "the police do practically nothing". Due to this, she is calling for "our Prime Minister and Attorney-General" to introduce a "set of national standards" that would require police to investigate reports of sexual assault.

Karen isn't saying that "every" crime needs to meet this criteria. "But, the most serious crimes in our criminal statute, like aggravated child sexual assault at least, we would want to think that police are compelled to have to investigate to a minimum basic standard," she said.

State legislation governs police in each Australian state or territory, but generally, police in each jurisdiction will use their discretion to decide whether an investigation should be continued based on the nature and circumstances of the offence, the chances of solving the crime, the victim's needs and community needs.

Karen is fighting for "checks and balances" to be put in place that would remove conscious or unconscious biases — such as sexism, racism and homophobia — when police are making these calls. "That doesn't remove their discretion on whether or not to press charges," she said. "It simply says that where there’s a victim, take a statement [and] don’t destroy the statement. Where there is a witness [or] named perpetrator, please interview them. [It’s about] collecting the evidence properly and then making a decision on that basis."

Left image shows Karen Iles in a blue top while talking to The Project. Right image shows Karen in a purple dress, smiling at the camera.
Karen has been speaking publicly about her case for over 18 months now in a bid to fight for better justice. Source: The Project/Supplied

Response from the Australian government

Karen told Yahoo she has had meetings with the prime minister and attorney general’s offices to propose this before.

Yahoo reached out to both offices directly, and although the prime minister has not yet responded, a spokesperson for Attorney-General Hon Mark Dreyfus told Yahoo "women’s safety is a national priority, and while criminal law in Australia is largely a matter for states and territories, the government is committed to strengthening and harmonising sexual assault and consent laws."

"In January the Attorney-General asked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake an inquiry into justice responses to sexual violence," the spokesperson said. "The inquiry is an essential part of the government’s $14.7 million 2023-24 Budget commitment to strengthen the way the criminal justice system responds to sexual assault and prevent further harm to victims through the justice process."

According to the spokesperson, as part of this inquiry, ALRC has been asked to look into "policies, practices, decision-making and oversight and accountability mechanisms for police and prosecutors" and are due to report by January 22, 2025.

International Women’s Day a 'space to shine a light' on violence against women

In her ongoing campaign, Karen is using her rape as a "case study" to show why change is so desperately needed. "This issue happens to so many Australians and their families," she told Yahoo. "And I think why people don't speak up about it is [due to] a sense of shame.

"If the police don’t do anything then [we think] it must be because they don’t believe us, or we made it up, or we were to blame."

To help others who have experienced sexual assault, Karen is asking for people to do more than just back up women with "words and platitudes", but to use drastic actions and help create the change needed.

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is "Inspire Inclusion" and is urging people to:

  • Call out poor practices when women are discriminated against, and

  • to take action when the treatment of women is not equitable.

"This year's campaign calls for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected," IWD states. "Inspire Inclusion encourages everyone to recognise the unique perspectives and contributions of women from all walks of life, including those from marginalised communities."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, please call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

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