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Sunday 2 March 2003

Guilt trip about past abuse could create new victims

Care workers and TV stars have a right to justice too, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards 

TWO stories last week, one big, one small, raised the same issue: through our guilt about past victims, are we creating new ones? 

The first story concerned Matthew Kelly, actor and TV presenter; the second the Aislinn Survivors group. 

On January 16, Kelly was arrested in a theatre on the word of an alleged victim who claimed he had been sexually abused in the 1970s. The tabloids enjoyed themselves hugely; it was reported that Granada had dumped him from Stars in Their Eyes and paedophile jokes whizzed around the internet. 

On February 24, the police said there was insufficient evidence to proceed against him. On that same day, the Aislinn Survivors group, which represents some victims of abuse in residential institutions, condemned the Laffoy Commission for inviting to come forward people who had positive experiences of industrial schools and reformatories in the words of the Aislinn spokeswoman "privileged people who were treated as pets in these institutions". 

In an article in the Irish Times a few days later, Evelyn Doyle talked of the abuse she has received because in her memoir she said that she and her five brothers experienced no ill-treatment whatsoever in their two years in Irish orphanages in the 1950s. She's been accused of faulty memory and outright lying by some survivors of industrial schools the very people who claim that their own word should be accepted without question. 

Is there to be no justice for people wrongfully accused of abusing children? 

Kelly, his wife and his children have had six weeks of hell, and there will still be those saying "no smoke without fire". He was the victim of the "Hound-a-Celebrity" scam, in which disturbed or malevolent people make accusations, some in the hope of selling their story to the papers, and policemen cynically sacrifice professionalism to public relations. 

IF there was insufficient evidence, why was Kelly ever arrested? Why didn't the police do their homework first? How could they possibly justify arresting Kelly in public? And why don't they conduct a rigorous investigation to find out which of their number tipped off the press and drum him out of the police force? 

Others have been unluckier than Kelly. It was a year before the name of David Jones, the former Southampton football manager and a care worker, was cleared of multiple allegations of sexual abuse. He was a victim of "trawling" a police investigation in which the police seek out former residents of institutions and invite them to make complaints: since compensation can run into tens of thousands of pounds, fraudulent claims are numerous.

There are at present thought to be dozens of men in Britain wrongly convicted of assaulting children in care homes decades ago: "an unholy alliance of psychiatrists, social workers, judges and lawyers," says the criminologist Dr Bill Thompson, "has allowed evidence which is demonstrably flawed, if not worthless, to be used to lock people up". 

Perhaps because the British public has become aware of miscarriages of justice, Matthew Kelly's denials were widely believed.

When he returned to the stage he was given a standing ovation, and actor friends wrote a public letter of support.

Similarly, some journalists are championing jailed care workers they believe to be innocent. 

Child abuse was once rife, says Dr Thompson: "Those who made accusations were not believed. But now we have gone to the opposite extreme: guilt at past failures has produced an uncritical desire to believe every allegation. That has produced a legal disaster. People are being sent down for 10 or 15 years on evidence that wouldn't even be good enough to produce a court hearing for an accusation of any other crime." 

Unlike the police, who seem infected by the hysterical culture of political correctness, the Laffoy Commission is seeking the truth: having listened to the alleged victims, they are now testing evidence. 

Abusers of children deserve to be punished, but not everyone accused of sexually assaulting children is guilty. Evelyn Doyle spoke of nuns who looked after her "being traumatised by the revelations being aired at the moment and distraught at the thought that they are being 'tarred by the same brush' and their life's work is being reduced to the level of sub-humanity". 

The Irish state behaved appallingly by consigning children to institutional care and doing nothing to ensure they were be properly looked after. Some people in those institutions behaved even more appallingly by abusing those children mercilessly. 

But many others did their best for their charges and find themselves unfairly reviled in old age. Those who worked in the institutions under investigation are as much entitled to justice as those who were in their care. In atoning for our old wrong, we have no right to create another.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards