I now have difficulty seeing myself being remotely employed, sociable, and relaxed enough to pursue any kind of relationship. The deterioration of my physical appearance caused neighbours and family members who visited to approach me differently. I feel like I have become a failure.
— Rhys, a man wrongly accused of children abuse
On Sunday, I got a note from Professor Carolyn Hoyle of Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology. She said that she hoped that “despite the doom and gloom” I was enjoying myself in the sunshine. She knew well why I might not be.
Earlier that day she had sent me a report she had been working on with her colleagues Naomi-Ellen Speechley and Ros Burnett. The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voice is a relentless and depressing study. She rightly thought I would be shocked by it.
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. Our past treatment of this issue has been exposed as scandalous. And I am not one of those who thinks the passage of time makes things better. It is right to pursue cases even after decades have passed.
Here, though, is another lesson of history. It is precisely at the moment when we are on the strongest moral ground that we make the biggest errors. When the entire population has risen together to combat some social ill, all doubts are swept away and the truth can become inconvenient. The broad brush sweeps before it the guilty and the innocent.
Have we learnt nothing from the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six — and Stefan Kiszko, who spent 16 years wrongly imprisoned?
Our current, entirely justified, concern about child abuse carries with it particular dangers. It is an extremely difficult area in which to establish guilt and innocence and we are using very alarming techniques.
First there is a dangerous principle: the accuser must always be believed. This goes far beyond the idea that the accuser must be treated with respect and their allegations taken seriously, which is correct. The new principle is dangerous not just because it defies common sense. The real problem is that police don’t seek the truth, they construct cases. Starting with a rock-solid assumption that the victim is indeed a victim and that the victim’s story is correct, the temptation is strong to fit the facts to the story rather that test the story with the facts.
The police trawl for other victims, informing one person of the accusations of another. Catastrophically, the sheer number of allegations then becomes a strong part of the case against the accused. It is not necessary for these allegations to be all that similar, a common alleged perpetrator is sufficient.
Little account seems to be taken of the fact that those making the accusations need not be lying to be wrong. They may have identified the wrong person or allowed old memories to become confused with things they have read or heard or been told about in counselling.
There have been many reports, official and unofficial, that have questioned these techniques and warned of the potential for miscarriages of justice. Yet still we use them. Now more than ever.
The accused feel alienated and lose their trust in institutions
One reason that this continues is that we all, let’s face it, find the fact that someone has been accused of a large number of crimes pretty compelling. 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.
Which leaves one further point to be made. Some view these dangerous techniques as acceptable because the impact on the abused child is too grave for us to worry all that much about the suffering of those wrongly accused. And it is this view that the new report makes untenable.
Interviewing people who have been found legally innocent — there was no further action against them after their arrest, they were found not guilty at trial, their conviction was overturned — the academics uncovered the terrible toll that the accusations took.
Much coverage has been about celebrities, but these were carers and teachers, often people who had spent their lives working with disturbed children. There was the practical impact. Many of the accused were dismissed from their jobs or suspended, even when this was against their employers’ rules. It proved incredibly hard to find other work, even voluntary work. The accusations may have gone nowhere but the fact of them meant that job applications went nowhere too.
It was sometimes possible to obtain justice — end a suspension, gain a clean records check — but only after years in limbo. During this period there were often legal bills to pay with no chance of compensation for the costs. People earning modest salaries, and sometimes no longer any salary at all, faced thousands of pounds in fees. Many lost their homes.
Yet, difficult though all this was, the psychological impact was worse. The quote from Rhys with which I began this column is typical. The wrongly accused feel that, as another interviewee called Josef puts it, “I changed completely who I was after the first knock on the door in 2009. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s as if it happened yesterday . . . I am not the same person physically or mentally.”
Many consider suicide (I “contemplated swallowing bleach” said James); most reported severe anxiety or panic attacks (“It’s the first thing you think about in the morning, it’s the last thing you think about at night,” said Rob); others saw their relationships deteriorate and their families suffer (“I also suffered from shock that turned into depression. I lost two stones in weight in about six weeks,” said Jack’s wife).
Then there is the anger and the frustration. The feeling that no one ever apologises. Not for the trauma, not for breaking the door down when arresting them, not for anything. The accused feel alienated, embattled and lose their trust in institutions. Particularly their trust in the police, who often retain their belief in guilt and let the accused know it.
To record this is not minimise the suffering of the abused. It is not to deny the undeniable truth about abuse. It is just to urge that we don’t add miscarriages of justice to the historic errors we have already made.