Life Health & Wellbeing

Friday 18 October 2019

The imprint of false allegations pervades long after the matter

Mind matters

Priests are an easy target for false allegations. File image
Priests are an easy target for false allegations. File image

Patricia Casey

News items filled with details of sexual abuse allegations are well known to the Irish public. Throughout the 1990s our airwaves were filled with details of priests being charged with sexually abusing children under their charge as far back as the 1970s. We were horrified by these revelations, and several reports headed by judges on various diocese followed.

The possibility that there could be any false allegations was not countenanced and to have had the temerity to suggest this would have evoked public opprobrium and charges of being in denial about the reality of paedophilia.

Then there was the Fr Reynolds case. A priest on the missions was said to have raped a teenager and fathered a child on an RTÉ programme. Ultimately the allegation was false and he sued RTÉ. According to the Association of Catholic Priests, a number of their men have been falsely accused of child abuse by anonymous complainants. The gardaí have then been notified and with only the most cursory of attempts to verify the accuracy of the complaint, the priest is removed from duties and is left in an isolated state.

Removing a person accused of sexual abuse from duties is correct, provided that the possible veracity is established.

There then follows a lengthy assessment period during which the priest is in limbo. Priests are an easy target for false allegations, and there is a common perception that large numbers of priests are/were abusers.

A survey conducted by the Iona Institute, of which I am a patron, found that a majority of the public believe that 20pc of priests were sexual abusers, while the figure identified by a report from the US-based John Jay University found that between 3-6pc of priests had allegations of abuse made against them.

Most of the false allegations of child sexual abuse take place in the context of family disputes. Fathers are overwhelmingly the victims. The motivation is invariable revenge driven by a desire to hurt the father where he will most experience pain and sorrow: the loss of his children and the permanent fracturing of their relationship.

The possibility of false memory syndrome leading to false allegations has also been raised in some legal settings, and has been shown to be responsible for some false allegations. This arises in the context of particular styles of psychotherapeutic interviewing in which a vulnerable person, subjected to certain styles of questioning, arrives at the belief that they have been victims of child abuse.

What is abundantly clear is that false allegations of sexual crimes are incomprehensible, devastating, and unfathomable to those at whom they are directed. For the individual concerned, allegations of this type induce feelings of hopelessness and, more powerfully, helplessness.

Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible with no control over the outcome is unbearable. The role of faceless people, conducting an investigation involving others who are strangers and often nameless, must be terrifying. It is easy to imagine how a false confession might arise simply to escape the endless questions while held in custody. Clinically I have experience of those accused taking their lives.

If the person lives in a small community, questions asked of locals as part of the investigation may lead to ostracisation and even violence against the individual and their family. Even in less obvious circumstances, such as when a priest or teacher is removed from duties, the finger may be pointed in the wrong direction, damaging the person's good name irrevocably.

Families often fracture due to the strain of dealing with such allegations as a result of the understandable fear among spouses that they may in fact be married to a paedophile. When the allegations arise in the context of extracting revenge, the children suffer especially as they become teenagers and recognise that their missing parent was the victim rather than the perpetrator of any wrongdoing.

False allegations of paedophilia are easily made, but their imprint pervades long after the matter has been resolved on the legal and public domain.

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