Child abuse libel trial

Submitted by on 16 August, 2002 - 7:01

How the system fails the innocent

Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie, the nursery nurses falsely accused of child abuse in a Newcastle City Council report, have won their libel case against the report's authors and, nine years on, cleared their names.

Theirs is the latest of a series of cases involving false allegations of sexual abuse which have attracted public attention. In 1998 campaigner Richard Webster published a book, The Great Children's Home Panic, arguing that there has been a modern-day witch-hunt of care workers. The mainstream media caught on.

A Panorama investigation in 2000 found serious flaws in the way police investigated allegations of abuse at children's homes. It suggested a number of convictions were unsafe. Former children's home residents, many of them now in prison, had made untrue allegations, it said, with the prospect of compensation in mind.

There is now so much public concern about the safety of convictions of former care workers that MPs recently held an inquiry into the conduct of abuse investigations. Its conclusions will be published in the autumn.

Critics, however, say the "false allegation" lobby and the attention it has received runs the risk of devaluing genuine claims of historical abuse. There is no doubt that children were sexually abused in care homes, particularly during the 70s and 80s. A number of offenders have pleaded guilty. Corroborating evidence has been found.
No-one wants a return to the days when allegations of abuse were ignored or dismissed.

Clearly, though, there is a problem with the way abuse investigations have been conducted. The case of former football manager David Jones (who was acquitted of child abuse), the Panorama investigation and the Reed and Lillie case show that.
One-third of the cases referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission concern sexual offences, a vastly disproportionate number. While a conviction is achieved in just one in 13 cases of rape, for child abuse cases the conviction rate stands at 90%.

Unfortunately, many of the groups campaigning against false allegations of sexual abuse do so in a politically very dubious way. The group AAFAA (Action Against False Allegations of Abuse) argues that the prevalence of false allegations is due to feminist excesses and the legacy of the "loony left" in social work departments. A number of more moderate campaigners call for the reinstatement of the requirement in rape cases - rightly scrapped several years ago because of its impact on cases where the defence is consent - for judges to warn juries that it is dangerous to convict on the word of the victim alone.

Despite the problematic politics of the false allegation campaigns, though, there is a genuine problem with the way the police and Crown Prosecution Service deal with allegations of abuse. Their priority - a priority exacerbated by the existence of Government targets - is not to investigate what really happened, but to construct a case that will play in court. In doing so, police forces have developed the "trawling" technique, designed to find evidence of "similar fact", i.e., other alleged victims of abuse, to back up their case which begins with the word of one individual.

The police claim that the trawling method is intended to deal with the problem that many allegations about abuse in care homes date back so far that it is hard to find other types of evidence. It is true it is probably more difficult to find other types of evidence, but that is not to say it does not exist. There may be diaries, medical records, social services records. Neighbours may have had suspicions. Or all this other evidence may point to a defendant's innocence.

However, if the police never bother to look for it, no-one is ever to know. And instead of beginning with a presumption of innocence, defendants faced with horrific allegations of abuse - to which they can only respond with a flat denial - must deal with the presumption of guilt and do what they can to investigate their own supposed case.

There is, of course, a danger that the concerns over child abuse investigations lead us into the conspiracy theories sanctioned by some campaigners, and into disbelieving children who have in fact been abused. The important thing here is objectivity. Of course the police or social services, when presented with an allegation of sexual abuse, should treat the complainant with sensitivity. But they should also investigate the claims impartially, without presuming they are either true or false. Investigations should be trying to establish the truth - not trying to sway a jury.

Cath Fletcher, Brixton

The writer's uncle was jailed in November 2000 after being convicted of sexually abusing a young girl between 10 and 15 years before. He says the accusations are false and is applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission for a re-examination of the case.

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