Britain is in the grip of a “new moral panic” over child abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair and the spread of false allegations is ruining innocent lives, according to one of the country’s leading criminologists.
Lessons learned from claims of institutionalised child abuse in the past 30 years have been forgotten, with dangerous consequences, she said.
Carolyn Hoyle, the director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, said that false accusations were a special category of miscarriage of justice. In a study of the impact of being wrongly accused of sexual abuse, she found that individuals and their families endured a “living hell”, suffering from the stigma and revulsion associated with sexual abuse.
Even cases that did not get as far as criminal proceedings had “life-changing effects” on those falsely accused.
Formal investigations often involve a police raid on the home in the early hours, unnecessary arrests, suspension from work and restrictions on contact with children plus a record of having been investigated, which can destroy future employment prospects.
Professor Hoyle interviewed 30 people wrongly accused of sexual abuse, including 12 teachers and eight who worked with young offenders. Half went to trial with the alleged abuser either found not guilty or the case dismissed. All were immediately suspended from their job or made redundant. Many were not allowed to work with children or vulnerable adults again.
A large proportion blamed themselves for the experience, eight of the 30 contemplated suicide and 23 suffered depression. “Their lives, to put it simply, were wrecked,” Professor Hoyle said.