Women from a broken home?

Refuge, the charity which helps abused women, looks to be in need of some aid itself. Three of its eminent trustees have resigned over the question of where abuse exists and where it has been planted.

There was a time when wife-battering was unheard-of - not because it never happened, but because it was not discussed. The perpetrators thought nothing of beating their wives or children, while the victims were too frightened or too ashamed to protest. But then, in 1972, Erin Pizzey founded Chiswick Women's Aid in west London and everything started to change.

Thanks to her group, relaunched in 1993 as Refuge, and to the women it has helped, most of us now acknowledge domestic violence as unacceptable, and our police officers are trained to recognise it and to prosecute.

But in this, its 25th anniversary year, Refuge has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Three of its trustees - Lady Parker, wife of former British Rail chairman Sir Peter, Lady Rayne, sister of Lady Annabel Goldsmith and wife of property tycoon Max Rayne, and Lady Browne-Wilkinson, a solicitor and member of the Press Complaints Commission - have resigned from Refuge, drawing attention to rifts in the charity rather than its continuing good works. At issue is the question of whether memories of abuse that emerge during therapy are "recovered" or "false".

Women, we now believe, have the right not to be beaten or raped - not by their husbands, nor by their fathers. For that is the other hideous secret that we have uncovered over the past 25 years: the sexual abuse of children on a horrifying scale, by relatives, step-parents and others in authority.

The "battered wife" is known now as the "abused woman" - an indication of the central role "abuse" of various sorts plays in our lives today. Some might say that we are positively encouraged to identify the ways in which we feel abused; others, including the British False Memory Society, argue, forcefully, that some therapists are planting stories of abuse in their patients' memories.

The Society says that 90 per cent of the cases on its books involve women in therapy, most of whom are accusing their fathers of sexual abuse in childhood. The premise on which they operate, and from which they take their name, is that such allegations are, in the first instance, false.

So can one support the False Memory Society, which is essentially sceptical of victims' stories, while simultaneously working for an organisation whose guiding principle is that it gives unquestioning sanctuary to women who say they have suffered at the hands of men? Or rather, can one be seen to promote both organisations?

That was a question raised by Sandra Horley, the dynamic boss of Refuge, in reference to an article published in February describing the work of Lady Parker, retired GP, trustee of Refuge - and chair of the False Memory Society.

The answer, at least according to Lady Parker, was a resounding "yes". Yet when Lady Parker's dual role was made public in the Daily Telegraph in February, Ms Horley received several complaints, from staff, donors and others. The magazine, Women At Work, for example, said it would withdraw support for Refuge rather than be associated with the False Memory Society.

According to another trustee, Ms Horley, who had issued a statement to Women At Work pointing out that Refuge had no formal links with the False Memory Society, passed on the complaints to Lady Parker. Lady Parker felt the Society had been misunderstood and maligned and that Ms Horley had exceeded her authority; she resigned.

The trustees met on 30 April - sadly without the presence of trustee Cherie Booth, who was otherwise engaged - and discussed the dispute. The meeting ended with the resignation of two of Lady Parker's friends from the 11-member board: the ladies Rayne and Browne-Wilkinson.

In their letters of resignation, Lady Rayne, whose main role was fundraising, wrote to Ms Horley that "the philosophy you expound is incompatible with the more liberal views that I hold", while Lady Browne-Wilkinson could not "represent an organisation which was so intolerant of other opinions".

Their views are understandable if they accept the False Memory Society's claim to support parents wrongly accused of sexual abuse "discovered" during psychotherapy. But how can the Society know that such parents have been "wrongly" accused?

This was one of the problems for Ms Horley (who refused to comment on the issue until it had been aired, to her detriment, in the press) - the assumption that the accusations were false unless proven.

It might seem bizarre to reject the "innocent until proven guilty" stance, but for two facts cited by opponents of the Society: first, that many allegations of sexual abuse are almost impossible to corroborate, and second, that for most of this century women's allegations of sexual abuse were routinely denied by men, be they abusers or therapists.

"I'm not saying either side is right or wrong, just that there is a conflict between the two approaches," says Ms Horley. "We are operating in a climate of debate and uncertainty and we have to take a stand which is consistent with existing policy and practice, and this is to believe, respect and validate the experience of women who tell us they have been abused."

The False Memory Society starts, she says, "from a premise of disbelief". Because of that, "we were afraid that any report that Refuge supported the False Memory Society would upset abused women we help."

It is not impossible to imagine a situation in which a woman who sought shelter from Refuge might accuse of sexual abuse a father who sought help from the False Memory Society. It would not matter in the first instance who was telling the truth: both groups would try to help their client.

Lady Parker says that she does not accept the possibility of a conflict of interest: "The False Memory Society is not to do with domestic violence," she says. "It is to do with trying to raise the standards of psychotherapy training ... because it's found to be very easy to suggest to vulnerable young women that all her troubles are due to being sexually abused by her father in childhood."

This of course assumes that therapists as a rule have an interest in suggesting such an explanation, a view hotly disputed by professionals who have studied the issue. Dr Bernice Andrews, an undoubted opponent of the Society, believes there is strong evidence - not least from a survey she conducted - that patients can recover memories. She also believes some such memories are false.

So does Professor Peter Fonagy, who has resigned from the advisory board of the British False Memory Society because, he says, "the more recent evidence that has been coming through ... has been somewhat inconsistent with the position of the False Memory Society."

The presence of the well-connected is vital to charities like Refuge. Ms Horley's group was on the brink of closure in 1992 when she appealed for help to Diana, Princess of Wales. The Princess made a donation and several private visits to the shelters for women, undoubtedly adding credibility and chic when the organisation was relaunched as Refuge.

Domestic violence is not a sexy, trendy cause, Ms Horley says, and Refuge relies on rent from the 600 women it houses, on small local authority grants, and on donations. "The women I see every day have visible scars, and despite that visibility, despite that irrefutable evidence, people still turn a blind eye to domestic violence," she says.

James Duffy, one of Erin Pizzey's first backers and a Refuge trustee, backs Ms Horley to the hilt. "I just can't see, myself, how you can belong to two organisations like this," he says. "This organisation [BFMS] which in principle believes the accused, and Refuge, which will believe the abused in the first instance."

Roger Scotford, director of the BFMS, disagrees: "Obviously we accept that abuse occurs and that's why we believe Refuge's policy is a misguided one, driven by a political correctness that harms everyone."

Lady Parker, asked why she chose to stay with the new charity that deals with a very unusual problem rather than the old, said she had no choice. "I didn't choose one group or the other. I believe both things desperately need help and because it is felt in Refuge by some people that the two present a conflict of interest I had no option" [but to quit].

Ms Horley feels the same way. "I was concerned about the effect it would have on women in the refuge who had been abused as children," she said. "None of those who have resigned have any quarrel with the work of Refuge ... it's just very sad."

Ms Horley and the remaining board members at Refuge felt compelled to act on the issue only for fear of driving

away donors and alienating staff and potential clients in

the charity's 25th anniversary year. They must now hope that the controversy over the issue does not have an equally

bad effectn

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