Patricia Casey: 'One false allegation doesn't mean other abuse victims should not be believed'
Sexual offences are heinous and especially so when perpetrated against minors. In recent years panic has been the result of the disclosure of offences committed by revered "national treasures" such as Jimmy Savile and others.
The cover-up of these, by state institutions, generates disbelief, anger and, at times, public hysteria. In such a climate there is a danger false claims will mushroom as innocuous actions are misinterpreted as sinister. So an older man holding the hand of a distressed child trying to loosen the grip could easily be mistaken for a sexual abduction. In such a fraught and febrile atmosphere it is tempting to lower the threshold for belief when allegations are made, so that even the most unlikely scenarios are accepted as true by investigating authorities.
This would appear to be what happened in the case of 51 year-old Carl Beech in the UK, whose falsehoods came to light last week. He was a former nurse who claimed that his stepfather, a senior ranking British army officer, abused him and took him to parties in an exclusive private members' club, frequented by a former prime minister, a former home secretary and a number of other senior figures in parliament and government. He also declared other children were abused and that three had been brutalised and murdered.
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These claims were made by Beech in or around 2014, at a time of public disquiet following the publication of a report into Savile's extensive history of abuse.
Against that background, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the UK's Labour Party, met Beech and supported his story. The police officer leading the investigation also described Beech's account as credible and raided the homes of some of those named, looking for pornography and other evidence of their collusion. This was known as Operation Midland.
The story pushed by Beech began to unravel when the police could not find any evidence and a retired judge, Richard Henriques, was retained to review the investigation. He was scathing in his report published in late 2016. He extended particular opprobrium to over-zealous social workers. In the past week, Beech has been found guilty of perverting the course of justice and fraud, for which he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Charges of police incompetence and gullibility became headline news.
There is a danger lurking behind this case, as there was following the earlier cases of the so-called satanic abuse scares in Rochdale and Orkney. There is a real prospect that false allegations may create an impression among the public that these abound. They do not and this perception is dangerously inaccurate.
True, research and clinical practice shows there are some false allegations, particularly in the context of relationship breakdown, where false claims are made, most commonly by women against men but occasionally in the other direction.
Occasionally the children are coached, with devastating consequences for the accused party and their relationship with the child. In my experience, coaching can be detected provided the professionals are willing to accept that this can happen, particularly when the allegations stretch the boundaries of belief and border on the surreal.
Allegations of sexual abuse are invariably true and should be listened to and explored thoroughly. Collaboration from others to whom the person may have disclosed it, such as family members or GPs, should be sought. For older victims, who had no voice in the silent world that surrounded sexual abuse in the past, this level of basic corroboration may be more difficult. Nevertheless, sympathetic concern should be extended to them as well, as most are likely to be true although the detail may have changed with the passage of time due to the fallibility of memory.
There is a mistaken view that what we recall is like a video recording, untarnished by the passage of time. But memory changes and it is a highly inaccurate vehicle for confirming the historic details of specific events. Police officers, doctors, social workers and judges need to know this. These professionals also need to be aware that, occasionally, people deliberately exaggerate events for financial gain or they do so manifestly with the intention of grabbing news headlines internationally, as Beech did. They may also be prompted by a vendetta. But most who make allegations of sexual abuse are telling the truth, although over time the detail may become blurred. This is not faking, but a real phenomenon and one of which memory experts are aware.
Acting on claims driven by a particular mind-set within a professional body, or by the media focus at the time, is dangerous, as the families in Rochdale, Orkney and those linked to the Beech allegations are all too aware. By contrast, the victims of clerical abuse scandals and the cover-up of abuse by high-profile celebrities has made many all too conscious of the turbulence that neglect and disbelief has caused in their lives.
Over-zealousness on the one hand, and laxity on the other, a conflicting narrative and both pushed by the fashion of the time. Resolving this remains a challenge that requires caution, reflection and professionalism. We clearly have not reached this point and our learning continues.
- Patricia Casey is a consultant psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital Dublin and emeritus professor of psychiatry at UCD