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No Sign of Gratitude for a Life of Kindness

The Sunday Tribune, February 3, 2002

Moira Woods spent her life helping others, but her devotion is not being repaid, writes Susan McKay

MOIRA Woods is angry. She rejects the report which led to her being found guilty of professional misconduct in relation to her diagnosis of abuse in a number of children. She feels that she is legally restrained from responding to what she regards as inaccurate media reports which have been published since the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Medical Council made its decision before Christmas.

"She stands over her work and feels it will, in the end, be vindicated, " said one source close to her. "But she has been unable to defend herself in the media." Woods was always a woman who inspired strong feelings.

The anger and antipathy which some feel towards her has been well aired in the light of Medical Council's censure. But others feel she has been unfairly judged. "Moira Woods saw nearly 900 children in the Sexual Assault Unit, " said one colleague who worked with her in the unit in the Rotunda Hospital.

"She was a pioneer. She was ahead of her time. Questions have been raised over her handling of five children in three families. What about all of the others where her findings were correct? Any professional put under the spotlight will be found to have made mistakes.

But what about all the others who turned their head away and refused to hear children who spoke about abuse?" Those close to Woods said she was particularly concerned that some journalists had misinterpreted the report. "The council did NOT find that any of the children considered had NOT been sexually abused, " said one fellow health professional. Woods has three weeks to decide if she will appeal the ruling to the High Court. She took sabbatical leave in 1996 to write about cognitive distortions in sexual abuse, and lives abroad.

"She was always there, a solid rock of support when we founded the Women's Liberation Movement in Ireland. I can't tell you how much we relied on her, " said feminist veteran Máirín de Burca. "She was a wonderful woman, " said Anne O'Donnell, one of the founders and for many years the director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. "Her work in the Well Woman Centre and the Sexual Assault Unit was invaluable." Born in 1934, when her parents were on leave in London, she was a child of the British Raj. Her mother was Irish, while her father was English ? and high Catholic. He served in the Indian Civil Service. He was reported missing, presumed dead, while escaping the Japanese in Burma. The family took a grain boat to join him in India, surviving Japanese bombers on the way.

The children were fostered to a family in rural Wales. Woods was educated by nuns from several orders, and received thrashings and expulsions. She was a brilliant student, and, without telling her parents, matriculated for Oxford when she was just 15. She came to Trinity College, Dublin instead because they took undergraduates at 16. In the intervening year, she taught in a kindergarten.

She married a fellow student at Trinity and had two children.

After she graduated, they lived in Belfast and Leicester. The marriage was annulled and back in Dublin she worked as a lecturer in the department of physiology in Trinity College.

She later married the distinguished surgeon, Bobby Woods.

She used methods learned from him when examining children.

They married when she was 28 and he was 62, and had four children. "I never saw a happier marriage, " said journalist and feminist Mary Maher, a close friend of Woods.

Wanting to spend more time with her children, she decided to become a school teacher, did the Higher Diploma and taught at Muckross school for a time, before returning to lecture at the university. She wrote medical articles in the Irish Press and for women's magazines.

The Woods family was well off and lived in bohemian style in a big house on Ailesbury Road.

Bobby Woods died from cancer in 1971. She later had a long relationship with the official IRA leader, the late Cathal Goulding, and had two children with him.

By the mid-60s she was a committed pacifist and became involved in the Irish Voice on Vietnam, to which author Peader O'Donnell also belonged. She and Margaret Gaj, who ran the legendary Gaj's restaurant on Baggot Street in Dublin, were in the Irish Peace Movement. This was the era of the protest. She was also involved with the famous Dublin Housing Action Committee, where she and Máirín de Burca met. "She made herself an authority on Vietnam while many of the rest of us were just emotional about it, " said de Burca.

"She took dogs abuse from the bishops when she went around trying to get them to voice opposition to the US bombings. She was always there to bail us out of the Bridewell after we'd been arrested. She was incredibly generous. I once landed a homeless family on her and she just took them in." For one demonstration, wearing a judge's robes and a wig, Woods conducted a mock trial of the then US president, Richard Nixon, from the back of a lorry on Dublin's O'Connell Street.

During the early years of the North's troubles, when the IRA was tarring and feathering young women for going out with British soldiers, she shaved her head as a gesture of solidarity with the women.

She was one of the doctors who worked in the Dublin Well Woman Centre in its early days, providing "fertility guidance" when contraception dared not speak its name. She opened Ireland's first menopause clinic in 1980 and wrote about the postcoital contraceptive pill in 1982.

She later became a medical director at the Irish Family Planning Association.

She began to be aware of high levels of sexual abuse revealed by adult women at this stage, and was also seeing women suffering depression as a result of having been forced to give up their babies for adoption, something she regarded as far more traumatic than abortion. When the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre was set up in 1979, she was the doctor to whom many victims were sent. She was also involved in the Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI), a treatment centre for abused children.

Her supporters feel the Medical Council underestimated the breadth of her working experience, as well as the evidence given in her support during the hearings by renowned contemporary experts in the field of detecting and dealing with child abuse.

"At a time when the medical profession in general was terribly closed and hostile to anything liberal, or even to acknowledging that rape and sexual abuse existed, she was very supportive and a real leader, " said Anne O'Donnell.

She was prominent in the movement against the constitutional amendment of 1983 which gave the foetus equal rights with the mother.

"She was absolutely the guru on women's health, " said Maher. "So when Barry Desmond (the then Labour minister for health) agreed to set up the Sexual Assault Unit in the Rotunda in 1985, he appointed her to lead the team there. It was set up to help adult women, but after a couple of weeks, she rang me and said it was extraordinary, that they were getting all these people who had been raped as children." The unit was also seeing children, children brought by their teachers, their social workers, their mothers children who had been sexually abused and children who were behaving or speaking in such a way as to suggest that they had been sexually abused. This was a new field and Woods quickly set up links with others who were also developing expertise in it, particularly in Canada and the UK, sometimes travelling at her own expense to conferences and meetings.

The Medical Council report takes a dim view of the fact that she often made decisions alone.

It was not by choice, her supporters insist. "She believed children should be assessed by multi-disciplinary teams, but didn't have access to such services, " said a source.

"She had a great way with children, and she was a great campaigner for children's rights, " said her colleague at the Rotunda. "We were regarded as some kind of zealots, but the cases just kept pouring in. We worked from a single room, we were very under resourced." The girl at the centre of the X case was brought to the unit in 1992, and the controversy that followed led to Woods being targeted by extremists.

"She had fought for contraception, against rape and child abuse, for a woman's right to choose ? to these people she was the Whore of Babylon, " said de Burca. Posters reading, 'Moira Woods ? late of the Rape Crisis Centre, Women's Aid and the X case' and 'The Rotunda Scandal' were tied to trees in her garden.

"There was a high level of harassment, " said a friend.

The vast majority of diagnoses made by Woods and her colleagues have proved wellfounded. Children have been rescued and protected. One mother of an abused child said Woods had been "fantastic".

Woods, those close to her said, feels that the medical profession is still not well educated about child abuse. "It is a tragic fact that children are still, in general, not believed, " said one source.

"My fear, " said a colleague working in child protection, "is that what has happened to Moira will discourage others who suspect that there has been abuse from speaking out."