This week's problem: Louise and Roger have an old friend whose 20-year-old daughter 'remembered', through therapy, that he had abused her when she was five. The girl's accusation, which he denies, followed her parents' acrimonious divorce. Louise and Roger have supported him - but when he visits and takes the kids for an ice-cream, they get panicky. What should they do?

On the whole most people's sexual tastes are shrouded in secrecy. Unless we're in on the act, or we're told, we'll never know how many friends indulge in nightly orgies, or hang themselves with the aid of oranges and plastic bags on their own of an evening. Yet someone interested in children must surely find it hard to keep their interests entirely to themselves.

Louise's husband was at school with this man. Children are less adept at hiding their sexual preferences than adults. Even now, unless Louise's husband is exceptionally insensitive, no matter how secret his friend's interior life, if he is interested in children, then something - a longer look at a schoolgirl, some tiny sinister sexual seepage - will have leaked out over the years. After such a long friendship, Louise's husband must have a pretty good idea of whether his friend is interested in little girls.

But some people would say that nothing, but nothing, is worth the risk of leaving anyone tainted with the tiniest whiff of an abuse accusation alone in the presence of children for so much as the blink of an eye.

So let's take the logistics first. Say the friend is a secret child-abuser. It is highly unlikely that he is going to abuse one of Louise's children in a public street, on a trip to an ice-cream shop, in the presence of the other. Second, child abusers are reputedly cunning and manipulative, busting with self-deception and fiendishness. So Roger's friend would have to be a pretty dumb old child-abuser to risk trying anything so much as the slight brush of a child's bottom. He would risk not only prosecution, but losing his best friends and supporters.

But the risk factors and the practicalities are beside the point. It's the friendship that is in trouble here, rather than the risk to the children. Louise and her husband are unable to pick apart the intuitive feelings that he is innocent from the possibly justified feelings that there is no smoke without fire. Suspicion is corroding the friendship.

However painful, the subject must be aired. Louise should confide her feelings honestly to this man, and say: "What's so destructive about this accusation is that even we, your closest, most trusted friends, suddenly find ourselves nervous about leaving you alone with the children." At least then the subject would be out in the open and, if he's sensitive, he'll understand Louise's fears and avoid being around the children on his own, to spare her feelings. It will hurt, of course, but if he really has nothing to hide, after a year or two the children will be older; trust in this man will, one hopes, have been restored by his understanding behaviour; and life can get back to normal.

readers' responses

The acrimonious divorce may have had something to do with child abuse. As one who suffered at the hands of a father and uncles, don't let him near your children on their own. You wouldn't let them near a dangerous animal - this is the same. Abusers are clever, subtle and manipulative, and full of self-deception. You have been warned!

PS: Children "remember" these painful memories because they have been helped to face the horrors of their past. There is nothing in it for a therapist to introduce falsehoods.

Anon, Norfolk

Do please continue to give your friend all your support, and your confidence too. Your friend has suffered an appalling blow to his self- respect, and you must not let him have any intimation that you do not trust him with your own children; he has been hurt enough and he needs love and sympathy.

I know only too well the heartbreak of false accusations and the effect it has on a family. My daughter also "remembered" childhood abuse after seeing a counsellor, and arbitrarily cut off all relationship with her father and me. We have not seen her for the past three years.

Trust your judgement, Louise, based as it is on many years of friendship. In my opinion, Freud has an awful lot to answer for.

Anon, Bath

I have daughters, aged 10 and 6. In the presence of the friend, I would tell my daughters what had been said about him, that my husband and I did not believe it, and that people might misinterpret anything he said or did, because of his daughter. So we would all know where we stood: if my friend were a child molester, he would be warned off; my children would be aware that they should accuse him if he did anything, and they should not, on any account, accuse him if it were not true.

I trust my children's instincts about people's motives. I do not intend them to be abused (particularly by "counsellors"!) and am arming them against this possibility on an ad hoc basis. They know about bullies, cheats and thieves, and are forced by the media to know about war, famine, and genocide: a mere bagatelle about lying should not warp them.

Chris Bell, Bristol

It is unlikely that your friend's daughter was sexually abused by her father, but the fact that she is in therapy indicates some deep unhappiness. I suspect it is related to her parent's "acrimonious divorce" and her father "losing touch with her", a delicate expression which, in normal English, means "dumped".

Here's the crux of the matter. You have adopted a morally neutral attitude to your friend's appalling divorce, and his dumping of his kids. You have only become excited when the fashionable accusation of sexual abuse has come into the frame. The long-term emotional abuse that your friend's dumping of his kids entailed didn't move you at all.

Someone with the morals of your friend shouldn't be anywhere near your kids, or anyone else's. He is a selfish, opportunistic, egotistical, self- satisfied toe-rag: dump him.

Caroline Owen, London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Our children, aged 9 and 10, seem to watch television all the time - so, if I'm honest, do I. We have had family talks about how to limit its use, by putting it in a faraway room, or allowing the children to watch only for a couple of hours a day, but their demands are always so reasonable that my wife and I find it impossible to limit their viewing. I'd like to get rid of the television completely, and my wife is willing to give it a try, but my children are really upset and say they'll have to live round at friends' houses in order to catch up with their programmes, that they'll be "different" at school. I really hate the hold it has over all our lives, but at the same time I don't want to make my children suffer by my rather idealistic actions. What should we do?

Yours sincerely,

Mike

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171- 293 2182), by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.

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