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.

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