Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…
It was 200 years ago when Jonathan Swift wrote those words; nothing has changed, merely the pace and coverage that the falsehood can achieve.
There is no worse falsehood than to fall victim to an erroneous claim of child sexual abuse. It carries with it a toxic all-embracing cloud of suspicion, caution, better-safe-than-sorry, no-smoke-without-fire, that chokes discussion, journalistic integrity, debate – and even serious academic analysis.
So academics who are prepared to tackle this lethal subject, to work their way through the serried ranks of ethics committees, ignore the ire of fellow luminaries who prefer to accommodate the ‘politically correct’ view, and risk their careers are rarer than an apology from Operation Midland. They are to be applauded when they do. Step forward Professor Carolyn Hoyle, Dr Ros Burnett and Naomi-Ellen Speechley, from the University of Oxford.
Their work gives a ‘voice’ to those other victims, the victims of false or erroneous allegations, and those who have survived such allegations.
The roar of outrage from the child abuse activists when Dame Lowell Goddard said that she intended to hear evidence at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse from those falsely accused, as well as those who had been abused, bears testament to the intensity of the atmosphere surrounding anyone daring to suggest that not all ‘victims’ can be or should be believed.
Sir William Utting, the former Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Social Work, commented: ‘It may be that innocent people are being convicted, but we ought to be more worried about the guilty who might get away’.
The report details how this ‘baleful remark implied that the abuse of children, no matter how long ago, was such a serious matter that it merited a reversal of the legal principle of the presumption of innocence in order to increase the prospects of securing convictions’.
No one, least of all the authors of this report, seek to deny that there has been sexual abuse of children in several towns, even though the children may not have recognised such activity as abuse until later. The more relaxed atmosphere in children’s homes that occurred in the 70s meant that staff were powerless to act if young teenagers decided, with the wisdom of youth, that they would take drugs, get drunk, or engage in sexual activity with those prepared to provide such drugs and drink in return. It was undoubtedly abuse by the perpetrator – but who was the perpetrator?
Certainly some of the perpetrators were employees of the care homes – but Richard Webster’s 2005 estimate of some 10,000 claims for abuse at the hands of care workers suggest that some at least of the accusations were being levelled at those whose names were remembered years later rather than the anonymous person who had actually committed the abuse.
It is understandable. That doesn’t make the burden borne by the care worker so accused any easier to bear. Nor does it make them any less a ‘victim’ – or ‘secondary victim’ as the report refers to them, carefully remembering that there is also a victim of sexual abuse in this toxic mix.
They quote the football club manager and ex-care home worker, David Jones, who was eventually acquitted of all charges, an innocent man – after months of being suspended, and the usual gamut of dawn raids, protracted periods of bail et al:
‘What those who sought to convict me did was take away something that I will never get back; my dignity. The whole experience felt like a dagger being continually stabbed through my heart. […] What I can never correct is the period of my life that was wrecked by the most horrific allegations any loving father could possibly face.’ (Jones, 2011, p.221)
Men – and women – must submit to the intimate physical searches demanded by the judicial process where the claimant has made reference to some physical attribute that was especially memorable. ‘He had I hate kids tattooed on his penis’ – and as unlikely as that might sound to rational minds; that 86-year-old respectable retired headmaster will be required to drop his trousers and expose his penis for the delectation of two young coppers to prove that he hasn’t. Not that this will be the end of the indignities by any means; the ‘witness’ may change their story, change their minds, change the dates when this act was supposed to occur, and still the defendant will be on bail, waiting for someone to agree that at best he has ‘no case to answer’.
‘Innocent’ is not a word the police will ever use in his presence.
For a care worker or teacher in a residential school: ‘The mere fact of having at one time been accused and investigated would generally exclude them from work with children or vulnerable adults’. They quote one innocent former teacher:
‘The Enhanced CRB/now DAB System, effectively bans me from ever working with children, because all employers insist on doing them, and will not employ anyone with any comments in the ‘soft box’ (Further Information). A standard disclosure ought to be sufficient because it would report actual criminality and barred lists, but the Enhanced ‘Further Information’ allows police to disclose all tittle-tattle, suspicions, innuendo, opinions and even imaginations of Social Services, and all false allegations as if they were true. Because they are reported by police, they are assumed to be both true and accurate, giving the impression that you are a really bad character and very lucky the police did not charge you.
A flavour of how long-lasting and intensive the effect can be, of one accusation, is given by another interviewee:
‘I was first accused of abuse some 20 years ago. I was never subject to an arrest but was dismissed by my employer (for whom I had worked in excess of 30 years). For me, the process of inquiry has been exhausting. It started with a police inquiry lasting about 18 months, followed by a further inquiry by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, which created considerable work for me and lasted about 2 more years. This was then followed by my suspension from work and an investigation by my employers lasting nearly 4 years, which was complicated by a parallel ‘independent’ inquiry by the NSPCC. There was a further investigation by POCAT (a listing Tribunal), which lasted about 2 years. I was rearrested last year as part of the new investigation into these matters by the National Crime Agency. The alleged misconduct was said to have occurred some 15-20 years prior to the complaints being made – with the passage of time it is now some 35-40 years ago.’
The sheer cost of being subject to such an accusation is covered:
Several reported estimated losses of around £50,000 in legal fees, and much larger amounts for the loss of earnings while unable to work. In addition, many had significantly reduced pensions, given that they needed to take early retirement. Two participants’ legal costs were estimated at £100,000.
The stigma attached to being accused of abuse cannot be underestimated. ‘David reflected that ‘the biggest shock is how differently you’re treated by those around you’, and Catherine explained, ‘people whisper and talk behind your back there’s no smoke without fire. I feel I have to fight back and put this right but this also feels very lonely … I feel criminalised.’ Those who are never charged faced an added burden – they never got the chance to speak up for themselves.
People felt that, notwithstanding the DAB checks which prevented them working with children again, even though innocent of any wrongdoing – they would not chose to do so, they no longer possessed the altruism, the trust or the wish to give anything back to society. Not surprisingly, eight of the 30 participants revealed suicidal thoughts, 16 were profoundly depressed.
‘I went through this horrible process of wanting to kill myself in order to escape the trauma that happened to me’.
They described the ‘weird horror’ of being in public, feeling that everyone was looking at them, and feeling panicked about whether they knew about the allegations, whether they would say something, and judge them.
The section discussing the effects on health, both mental and physical is particularly distressing. We are talking about entirely innocent men and women – downing a cocktail of chemicals prescribed to them to deal with the mental and physical effects of the extended legal process that follows an allegation of abuse, and the subsequent loss of job and financial penalty.
People with permanent changes to their physiology. This is not limited to those accused. Their husbands and wives also suffer mental and physical changes – scarcely unexpected with one person detailing how the police had raided their house in the middle of the night, removing computers and personal items, in respect of an event claimed to have occurred some 35 years before. Couple become isolated, paranoid, anxious – denied contact with colleagues and sometimes their own children and grand children.
We have moved from a Victorian atmosphere denying that some sexual acts even exist, to the modern Elizabethan version that denies there could be such a person as the ‘falsely accused’. Yet they are truly ‘victims’ too. None more so than those who were deceased before accusation. Whatever changes may be made to the law, or the mood of the public, in the future, they will never be able to answer their accusers. They, their family and colleagues must live with a stigma that will forever sully their name and damage the careers of those left to live on with that name.
One particular comment stuck with me all day:
‘I was disgusted at the way in which some members of the public were quick to make assumptions. The press only covered the prosecution stages and even though there had been no verdict, people assumed I was obviously guilty… The press is another group I am now suspicious of – and this is why I have never contacted them to tell my story.’
The media have undoubtedly had a major part to play in this unfolding tragedy befalling justice and fairness. They are only interested in the prosecution’s lurid varnishing of already lurid claims. If they bother to report that ‘x’ has been found not guilty, it will be a small news item on the inside pages. However, the comment and opinion pieces in the media are just as guilty.
I was shocked to see this morning, that the Baron Finkelstein, former Executive Editor of the Times and still a columnist, had been given an advance copy of this superb and exhaustive research – he used it to promote his opinion that:
In the years after the death of Jimmy Savile we have finally realised how big a problem child abuse has been and we are determined to do something about it.
Seven paragraphs later, he moves to the defence of a friend of his:
The case of the late Greville Janner provides a good example. The coverage of his case generally assumes his guilt. Yet actually we know little (me included) of the accusations one way or the other apart from there being quite a number of them and that the police and prosecution think that the case is strong. They thought that, too, with Bill Roache of Coronation Street and the six charges against him. He was found not guilty on all of them.
Everything that he says of Lord Janner is equally true of Jimmy Savile – we know little of the accusations one way or the other apart from there being quite a number of them, some of them patently untrue, and that the police and prosecution think that the case is strong – but Jimmy Savile was not a friend of his. Lord Janner was.
Dominic Lawson has pulled the same trick in his varied defences of Lord Bramall. It’s the ‘just because Savile was guilty don’t accuse my friend’ line of lazy journalists, pandering to the peanut gallery whilst trying to exonerate their friends.
Justice is like Free Speech. It should be there for everyone – not just those with highly placed friends in the media.
*I shan’t bother to link to ‘Danny the Fink’s’ piece – it is behind a paywall anyway – but here is a link to the excellent academic piece available today, and as well researched and well written as anything Richard Webster did. High praise from me!