Content warning: Sexual violence
It’s been almost three years since the hashtag #rhymeswithwrong trended and brought attention to sexual violence allegations against Vhong Navarro. The hashtag also stirred conversations on the type of culture and systems that seemingly protect rapists and abusers. With the Supreme Court (SC) Third Division’s dismissal of Navarro’s cases of rape by sexual intercourse and acts of lasciviousness “for lack of probable cause” on Mar. 13 and the varied reactions to it, let’s revisit the conversation.
This isn’t the first time that the cases filed by model and stylist Deniece Cornejo against Navarro were dismissed. It was in 2022 when the Court of Appeals (CA) overturned the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) previous dismissals of Cornejo’s case in 2018 and 2020, citing that it was erroneous to dismiss her petitions “on the ground that her statements in the complaint-affidavits are inconsistent and incredible” and that “the admissibility or inadmissibility of the parties’ evidence should be ventilated before the trial court during the trial proper and not in the preliminary investigation.”
Justice and fair play, in the words of the court
In Monday’s 42-page decision however, the SC reversed the CA’s ruling and reinstated the DOJ’s findings—saying it “gravely erred” when it granted Cornejo’s appeal. “The noted inconsistencies in all three complaints reveal Cornejo’s highly deficient, unclear, and doubtful accounts of her purported harrowing experience in the hands of Navarrro,” the SC wrote.
“Here, the prosecutor had reasons to doubt the veracity of Cornejo’s accusations, as the glaring and manifest inconsistencies pointed out in her complaints are readily discernible by common sense without need of rigorous examination or an expertise of a trial court judge for such purpose,” the SC said through Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting. Joining him in the vote in favor of the dismissal were Associate Justices Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, Samuel Gaerlan, Japar Dimaampao, and Maria Filomena Singh.
The SC added that the CA “substituted its own judgment for that of the prosecutor’s finding” without any finding of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the prosecutors and that the determination of probable cause during preliminary investigation is an executive function of the public prosecutor. Courts cannot compel prosecution.
Listing the inconsistencies in Cornejo’s three affidavits, the SC stated that “justice and fair play dictates that Cornejo should not be permitted to materially change her theory in two previous complaints in a deliberate attempt to rectify weaknesses of her theories.”
From the point of view of women’s rights advocates
What followed the decision was a wave of posts from Navarro’s fans throwing accusations of “extortion” and making crude generalizations against sexual violence plaintiffs. But should this case be a precedent for similar ones?
Jelen Paclarin, executive director of the Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau, told Preen, “My personal concern with this case is that the issue being addressed by the SC was not on the issue about rape and the misconceptions about the victim but mainly focused on technicalities. As mentioned in the decision, the issue being resolved by the SC was on [the] grave abuse of discretion of the prosecutor.”
“The case rests upon the resolution of the core issue: whether the CA erred in finding that the DOJ committed grave abuse of discretion in sustaining the findings of Prosecutor Gafia and dismissing the Third Complaint against Navarro for lack of probable cause,” Paclarin quotes the decision.
“As a feminist, the society and the legal system must not use the Navarro v Cornejo case to automatically correlate rape victims’ inconsistent statements with this case. Therefore, the case should not set as precedent to future rape cases and must not dissuade victims from reporting the violation committed against them,” Paclarin asserts.
“WLB still believes that an accusation for rape is not easy to make. It takes tremendous courage for a woman to collect her wounded dignity, her sullied clothing, her bruised body, and report the rape to the authorities,” she quotes WLB’s published review of Supreme Court decisions titled, “Making Sense of Rape.”
Making sense of inconsistencies in rape plaintiffs’ statements
Much of the decision was concerned with inconsistencies in Cornejo’s statements. Perhaps unsurprising to many, there are lawyers like former U.S. federal prosecutor and former head to a Sexual Assault Reform Advisory Committee for New Orleans police Tania Tetlow that don’t find it unusual and believe that rape plaintiffs’ statements almost always have inconsistencies for a variety of reasons.
“First, victims’ memories are distorted by trauma. The flood of stress hormones dulls the frontal cortex, responsible for rational planning and memory, and turns on the more primitive part of our brain responsible for survival. Given a choice between accurately witnessing a horrific event or living through it, our bodies choose survival,” explains Tetlow.
“Rape victims also suffer PTSD at extraordinary rates, like soldiers returning from war. They use denial as a psychological tool of survival, blocking memories they cannot afford to process. When forced to recount the rape, victims act in ways that challenge their credibility,” Tetlow adds. “Carefully trained officers recognize these symptoms as evidence of trauma. Most confuse it with lying. Worse yet, when officers ask questions dripping with judgment, they change victims’ stories.”
Against trauma in the court
The burden of proof will always rest on the plaintiff but how can we help make sure that court proceedings aren’t traumatic experiences for sexual violence plaintiffs moving forward?
Paclarin suggests supporting the push for the amendment of the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 that redefines rape by focusing on lack of consent instead of requiring the use of force, threat, intimidation, fraudulent machination, or grave abuse of authority by the offender for a violent act to be considered as such. Amending the law will make it less difficult for victims to press charges.
Paclarin also mentions that we can assert to strengthen gender sensitivity in courts and the addressing of the psychological needs of sexual violence plaintiffs in order to avoid causing further trauma.
The prevailing culture we have now stigmatizes victimhood and abandons abused women. In 2022 alone, the Philippine National Police documented 7,197 rape cases and we are well aware that there is much sexual violence in the country still left unreported. One acquittal shouldn’t be used to invalidate our fight against abuse.
Photo from Vhong Navarro’s Instagram
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