The Nation’s Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse has begun to highlight not only the shocking cases of genuine child abuse which have taken place in England and Wales, but the very real need to address everyone’s part to play in ensuring investigations are fair, thorough and completed properly.
This latest news item, in which Ken Macdonald QC warns the police not to take allegations of child sexual abuse at face value, exposes some unpleasant truths about the way these allegations are being brought to light.
Macdonald goes on to advise that detectives set with the task of investigating child sexual abuse claims which occurred in the distant past, should not indulge “narcissists and fantasists” in the process. At first glance, that seems like a fair comment. The difficulty however, is in the implication that those narcissists and fantasists have been identified and quantified, and that they, in the nuance at least, make up a large percentage of people that we should be afraid of and allow to dictate attitudes and reactions to allegations of child abuse.
The truth is less simple. No one really knows the true percentage of false allegations made in this setting. Depending on where you look, some research suggests false allegation as a phenomenon, especially in the realms of domestic violence and rape, is high and others that it is markedly rare. Turn your attention to false allegations of child abuse, and the waters are even murkier. Plenty of research on abuse allegations and children exists, and much of it suggests that false reports are unusual, but data on allegations of child sexual abuse made by those same children as adults is almost unchartered territory.
Ironic then, and perhaps not altogether sound, for a former director of public prosecutions to issue a stark warning against an unquantified threat to the legitimacy of child abuse investigations. But it’s not just the unknown that people fear, it’s the way in which seemingly volatile variables are reported by the media.
High profile individuals recently charged, and subsequently acquitted of child sexual abuse have begun to make a case for anonymity of defendants in such cases, at least until a person is charged with an offence. There is a lot of very interesting debate in this area, with some taking the view that no one should be entitled to anonymity, including any victims, and others, that anonymity must be afforded to both the defendant and the person making the allegation. Currently anonymity is only afforded to the person who makes the allegation. There is though, a case to be made for careful media reporting of defendants and the allegations they face. Responsible reporting does no damage to child abuse investigation as a discipline. Irresponsible reporting though, distorts perception and invites the public to select an object for demonisation, whether alleged victim or alleged abuser.
What makes Macdonald’s statement so unpleasant is that it is not a neutral offering, but a tipping of the scales in a debate which requires balance. To suggest that false allegations are somehow so prevalent as to merit prioritisation in an investigation process, is no different to suggesting that most defendants must be telling the truth. Neither position is tenable. It would have been far better to admit that the current criminal law processes for getting to the bottom of abuse allegations are woefully basic, but that would have taken a certain amount of courage, and an admission that the justice system is outdated and slow.
The real issues are not that Britain is full of attention seeking psychopaths – if that were true, it would reflect pretty poorly on years of government policy in this country and serve as en excellent example of how to induce crippling mental health problems in a nation – but that we need to have an intelligent and multi faceted debate on how to address child sexual abuse in the media, and inside the justice system.