High price for the moral panic over historical sexual abuse

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The figures are extraordinary. Two years into our National Redress Scheme (NRS) for victims of institutional sexual abuse, over $500 million has been paid to 5,920 of 10,000 applicants who have so far applied – a mere blip compared to the 60,000 victims assumed to be eligible.

The total cost of the scheme is estimated at an astonishing $4.01 billion, according to the Royal Commission’s report on redress. Responsible institutions, like the churches, are paying out part of this money but the Commonwealth Government has already handed out $55 million to social security to run the scheme, and state governments are also forking out for compensation for institutions like reform schools, which in NSW accounted for over a third of the payments to survivors.

Many would see this costly reparation as entirely appropriate compensation for the failure of our society to protect children from such suffering. Who could not have been moved by witnessing these troubled souls reveal horrific stories of abuse, which were paraded before us in nightly news programs throughout the Royal Commission?

There’s no doubt such abuse took place, and many children had their lives destroyed by dangerous people exploiting their vulnerability and the institutions which protected them.

That said, it is still troubling that this entire enterprise has been swept up in a moral crusade which prohibits any questions being asked about how many of the people who came forward were indeed survivors.

Richard Guilliatt, well-respected writer for The Australian Magazine, wrote in 2107 about disquiet in the legal community about the way the Royal Commission was being conducted. He reported the story of a man, BYA, who claimed for 40 years to have repressed his memories of being sexually abused by five leaders of the Church of England’s Boys Society – memories which he claimed resurfaced during therapy. As Richard pointed out, numerous authorities have warned that repressed memories can be false or unreliable, yet the Royal Commission accepted any number of similar recovered memory cases without questioning.

Indeed, the policy of the commission was to ask only “minimal questions” of the people coming forward with allegations. The commission went on the record assuring Guilliatt that “but for a few witnesses, evidence of individuals has not been challenged before the commission.”

That’s the pattern which has emerged in similar public inquiries across the world. Survivors are applauded for their courage in coming forward and telling their stories, their allegations not subjected to any proper examination and even the most inconceivable stories accepted as fact.

And woe betide any professional who asks too many questions about what’s going on here – particularly if he happens to be a well-known social work professor.

Intrepid Scottish social work professor, Mark Smith

I spoke recently to Mark Smith, professor of Social Work at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. See the video of our long chat together.

Having started his career working as a social worker at a residential school, Mark told me of a school he knew where over 90 workers ended up being accused of historic abuse. This led him to become involved in examining and writing about the wave of allegations then sweeping the UK, including the Jimmy Savile saga.

During our conversation Mark describes how, following the “Giving Victims a Voice” investigation into Savile, conducted by the Metropolitan Police and a large children’s charity, police simply declared the man to be one of the UK’s most prolific known sexual predators – based primarily on a flood of allegations often with no attempt whatsoever at verification.

In fact, some of the allegations made about Savile were highly improbable, when accusers gave factually incorrect information about dates and other details of Duncroft school, which he was alleged to have treated like “a paedophile sweet shop”.

Like America’s McMartin preschool scandal where allegations of satanic abuse of children were ultimately disproved, many recent child abuse moral panics in the UK proved grossly exaggerated, if not based on total fabrications like Carl Beech’s infamous pedophile accusations about high-ranking members of the British establishment.

But in the current climate no one wants to subject these witchhunts to proper scrutiny. Mark mentioned being asked to write a review for a professional journal of a book which forensically deconstructed evidence supporting allegations of a huge Welsh pedophile ring. Mark wrote a favourable review of this careful, eight-year analysis only to have it knocked back by the journal editor who announced he didn’t think the social worker readers would like it.

Meaning, it challenged the “believe all victims” script which was capturing so much of his profession. That’s a mighty dangerous career move in this current climate – as the good professor has indeed discovered.

Yet, as our long conversation reveals, this thoughtful man continues to write about the risks of our current course: “Failure to question in a reasoned and suitably reflexive way allows other abuses of, for instance, due process or the presumption of innocence to seep, unquestioned, into the body politic which, in turn, leads to false allegations and wrongful convictions. Furthermore, from an academic position, failure to subject contested subject matter to rigorous scrutiny, just because it is sensitive, leads to the debasement of social scientific research.”

There are numerous false alarms

I first came across Mark Smith’s work in an excellent book, Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse, edited by Dr Ros Burnett who is a senior research associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Ros has written about why it is too easy for innocent people to be wrongly accused of sexual abuse.

Her article made the following point: “When the beep goes as a person walks through the airport metal detector, we don’t immediately assume that a terrorist has been caught. We know there are numerous false alarms. But when someone is caught in the spotlight of publicity after being accused of historical child abuse, s/he will be cast in the image of a sexual predator with usually no forensic means of revealing the error.”  And usually cast in that image for the rest of his life.

Ambulance chasing lawyers

I had the most extraordinary chat recently to one of the many lawyers competing with the NRS for victims seeking compensation. Law firms across the country tout for business promising far higher payouts for survivors. MoodyLaw boasts online that they’ve settled civil clams “at five times the amount that the NRS would have paid”.

One of other key lawyers cheerfully explained to me that it is a piece of cake filling in the online NRS forms, needing just a few paragraphs to hop the low bar required for the average payments – currently running at $84,000. Say you discover someone who was at school with you received a payout after making an accusation about a particular Rugby coach, then, “… there’s nothing to stop you saying the same thing happened to you,” he said.  Get the accused’s name right, dates rights, and you’ll just sail through.

The civil claims took a bit more, he explained, with his clients having to go through psychiatric reports and front up to alternative dispute resolution but even here lawyers for the institutions are under orders “to just roll over”.  Provided you were in the right place at the right time, and dates and names line up, no one questions the accuser’s story. And here institutions and our governments pay out far bigger bucks.

A recently published book – Child Sexual Abuse Inquiries and the Catholic Church – examines at length the question of false claims to the NRS. The author, Charles Sturt research fellow, Dr Virginia Miller, compares national inquiries in Ireland, the US and Australia, analysing findings, methodologies and conclusions. Walker concludes the Australian Royal Commission in particular has undervalued the need to safeguard against false claims, noting that 77% of the complaints of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church were made after the creation of redress schemes in the late nineties.

The price of keeping our heads in the sand.

The money is one thing but the dreadful damage to the reputation of these men, some of whom are being falsely accused, is even more worrying. And then there’s the corruption of our legal system as due process rights for accused men are undermined.

We all understand the moral hazard at play here, with such major incentives encouraging false accusations and faulty recollections.

It is most troubling witnessing this hijacking of our society’s good intentions of compensating people who suffered when we turned a blind eye to the abuse of little children. We’ve allowed this worthy cause to be overrun by a moral panic which has forced our institutions, our politicians, our professionals to cower before the baying mob while the rest of us are intimidated into silence.