Guilty until proven innocent

Implications of child abuse are hard to throw off, even after they are found to be totally untrue, as Julia Somerville may discover. Angela Lambert reports

Julia Somerville's harrowing few weeks highlight the dangers of political correctness. Excellent in its intentions - to protect the innocent and bolster the less powerful against exploitation by the dominant - the procedure by which the police are alerted to possible instances of child abuse has proved all too fallible in practice. Ms Somerville and her partner were accused, by a (no doubt) well-meaning employee of Boots, of taking "inappropriate" photographs of her young children. The children were in a bath - naked, as most people are when bathing.

That word "inappropriate" invariably sets one's teeth on edge. It is such a humble, guileless, bland little word. Come to think of it, rather hard to define exactly. "Inappropriate": not quite proper in the circumstances? No. "Inappropriate", when deconstructed, simply means "wrong", only the people who use such language, or jargon, are too timid or mealy-mouthed to say anything as direct and simple as "I think this is wrong". They hide behind a non-accusing, cautious word. But in this context, "inappropriate" meant "I think it is wrong to photograph children playing at bath time".

In perhaps one case out of a hundred - maybe one in a thousand, who knows? - it is wrong. The photographs are taken with prurient intent, to be pored over by people who are stimulated by the sight of small naked children. For the protection of those exploited children, the remaining 99 per cent of us have been made to feel uneasily self-conscious, and will think twice before photographing our children in the bath, at bedtime, or gambolling naked and unashamed on a beach or in the back garden. Meanwhile, photographs of little children with no clothes on will always remain available to paedophiles.

Ms Somerville and her partner have been told there is no case against them - which is not quite the same as the police declaring their innocence and offering an apology. Their ordeal is over but they may yet be haunted by the notion in some people's minds that "there's no smoke without fire". This is the real backlash of false accusations: in addition to the torment of weeks, even months of suspense while the allegations are investigated, even if those concerned are cleared, malicious voices will continue to whisper behind their backs.

The lives of Joe and Sheila Skitt have been shattered by an accusation they consider to be as false as that laid before Ms Somerville; an accusation all the more painful since it comes from their only daughter. Suffering post-natal depression after the birth of her second child, and hoping for advice on how to cope with tensions in her marriage, she sought help from a counsellor. Her father says that counselling changed her. "At the end of this therapy, when she was 29, she suddenly accused me and her mother and various other people of abusing her as a child, not just once but over and over again.

"How somebody can suddenly remember things that never happened after 20 years I don't know. I don't understand it. I don't claim we were perfect parents. We disciplined her, but not much. We never refused her anything. She claims that we emotionally, physically and sexually abused her. I've searched my memory and all I can come up with is that I was once over- zealous in smacking her when we caught her stealing. That's the only incident I can think of that even approached abuse."

The Skitts have reluctantly come to accept that a part of their lives is over: their daughter refuses to see them. "But I've still got two grand- daughters - now nine and seven," Joe Skitt says. "They were seven and five when we last saw them. We send them cards for Christmas, Easter and birthdays; we send them presents and photographs. We've had no acknowledgement, and I've no idea whether they receive them. Yet we practically brought them up. We saw them every day. We took them on holiday. I can't have them believe these accusations are true. I must get through to them.

"We've had two years of discussions with social services and they believe us; the police came to see us, and they believe us; we've been to see our local priest; he believes us; even my daughter's former school friends are on our side. But the damage is done."

The Skitts are not alone in their predicament. The British False Memory Society was set up to support parents who are victims of similar accusations. Women make 85 per cent of such claims, nearly always after becoming involved in therapy or counselling. Director Roger Scotford says: "What they all have in common is that suddenly they are very, very angry. Real victims of abuse tend not to have repressed their memories. They are more often sad, and paradoxically, they feel guilty. They also nearly always maintain an association with the perpetrator.

"False accusers often do very publicity-seeking things. They want to shout it from the rooftops; involve friends and relatives. We find it very difficult to believe that a history of repeated childhood abuse - and some people claim to be have been raped more than 100 times - could be stored away in some sort of psychic deep-freeze, to be recovered in incredible detail all these years later. A single incident, maybe; but a history of repeated abuse such as the Skitts' daughter claims - no.

"There have been 17,000 cases in the United States and nearly 700 in Britain. We are entitled to ask for some sort of corroboration or external validation to prove that it's not just a nightmare or a fantasy. There are fathers now in jail, serving long prison sentences, who are there on the totally uncorroborated evidence of an adult woman claiming to have 'recovered her memory'. It's just her word in court against his. In 86 per cent of cases the guilty parent, when confronted, admits their guilt. In our experience of false memory accusations, not one father has admitted it."

Some may argue that this is special pleading since an organisation called the British False Memory Society, set up to defend accused relatives, will naturally champion their cause. I asked Colin Newman, of the British Psychological Society, to comment on the Skitts, but he declined, saying that he did not discuss the details of particular cases.

However, the emergence of false memory has alarmed some within the profession. An article in the Lancet of 21 October this year by Dr Janet Boakes, from the Department of Psychotherapy at St George's Hospital, Tooting, says: "A new phenomenon within psychotherapy [false memory syndrome] threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire profession."

Dr Boakes goes on to criticise books such as The Courage to Heal (written by a social worker and a creative English teacher), "whose authors have neither academic, psychological, nor clinical backgrounds. They claim that forgotten sexual abuse lies at the root of almost all adult problems and must be remembered for psychotherapy to be effective. Inability to remember being abused is taken as proof of abuse, which is being denied through the process of repression." If Dr Boakes is right, this is indeed a world turned upside down, in which anything I want to think is true because I think it.

Dr Boakes recognises that therapists believe they are acting for the best: "Therapists refuse to meet family members and hold that it is a betrayal of the patient to look for corroboration." But, she writes, "They believe that unquestioning acceptance is the only appropriate response ... Psychotherapists should beware of the dangers of collusion with unlikely or impossible scenarios ... The tenacity and sincerity with which a belief is held is no guide to its factual reliability ... Caught in the midst are families whose lives have been devastated and patients who have been misled." The article concludes: "It is vital that the mental health professions ... stamp out political correctness and poor practice, at least within their own ranks, in order to preserve the credibility of psychotherapy overall."

A psychiatric nurse who must still protect his name by maintaining anonymity told me of the hell he went through after a disturbed 16-year- old in the adolescent unit in which he worked suddenly accused him of having raped her several times. The first he knew of it was when the police arrived on his doorstep at breakfast-time. He was arrested, held in a cell, and questioned for several hours. "It was the worst day of my entire life. I kept asking myself, 'Is it possible that I might have done what she claims?' - and yet, I knew I hadn't. I thought I was going mad. I thought I might have made myself forget."

He was suspended for weeks while the accusation was investigated. In the end he was allowed to return to work although never formally cleared or declared innocent. He was lucky. His co-workers and his local health authority stood solidly behind him. Yet more than a year later, it is still a nightmare that makes his voice shake as he recalls it. Months afterwards he learned that the young woman concerned had in fact suffered multiple sexual abuse: although not from him.

The cases of Julia Somerville and her partner, the Skitts and the psychiatric nurse, although all very different, are linked by the subjective nature of the accusations against them which, in every case, the claimant believed to be justified. There is no way to measure their accuracy; no jagged jeweller's window with a brick inside, no visible blood, no stash of cash. It is one person's word against that of another: our problem is, who are we to believe?

The complicating factor is a genuine desire to protect the innocent - whether a child, a damaged teenager, or an unhappy adult - at the risk of harming the accused. When the accused is in fact innocent, the moral ground is cut from under their feet by the knowledge that, had they not been, a vulnerable person, often a child, would have suffered great harm.

In a society that has been made pathologically aware of child abuse and pornography, the most innocent images can take on a sinister tinge. "To the pure in heart, all things are pure" - but which of us is pure these days? The Orkneys affair, the Cleveland affair, the murder of Jamie Bulger, and countless films and videos that exploit children have, in their very different ways, opened our eyes to the menace, real or imagined, that lies in wait for innocence. Social workers, ever on the alert for a battered or abused child, are trained to spot risks before they become reality. Rather than risk damaging a child for life, people like the worker in Boots' photographic department may in all good faith accuse ordinary families of unspeakable things.

Meanwhile Julia Somerville, thrust into the spotlight in this most destructive way, whose career and closest family relationships have hung in the balance for the past month, must somehow contrive to put the whole harrowing experience behind her.

What can we, the public, do: we for whose private titillation and public indignation these private nightmares become a media sensation? We must keep a sense of proportion and remind ourselves that most people who photograph their children do so for sentimental, not sexual, reasons. And we must never allow ourselves to look at Julia Somerville, next time she reads the news, and murmur, "You never know ..." Sometimes there is smoke without fire.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links