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Questioning the Doctor's Orders

The Irish Times - Monday, January 28, 2002 by John Waters

The issue at the core of the Dr Moira Woods case is: should doctors, or indeed anyone, be given the powers of God?

Tomorrow, the Medical Council meets to discuss whether it will make public the report of its Fitness to Practise Committee, which it is now known has found Dr Woods guilty of professional misconduct in relation to her handling of certain child abuse allegations in the 1980s. To a large extent the matter is academic, since the main details of the report, and indeed the hearings, have already been published. There had been some concern, perhaps occasioned by the tardiness of a process which began with a complaint to the Medical Council 10 years ago, that there existed some reluctance to satisfy the public interest in this appalling case, and that the in camera rule, intended to protect families, might be used to protect those who had damaged families. This, thankfully, is no longer a concern.

There was cause for worry, too, about the seeming reluctance of the mainstream media to highlight what had occurred in this case. The news that Dr Woods had been found guilty received the most perfunctory reporting when it became known in December, and was immediately followed by a silence on the subject.

It may be argued that, since the in camera rule applied, the media were reluctant to report or comment for fear of inviting contempt proceedings against themselves. And yet, nothing substantial has changed to permit the detailed reporting of recent days. The legal position is that the April 1998 High Court judgement of Mr Justice Barr remains in place, and this states quite categorically: "It is contempt of court for any person to disseminate information derived from proceedings held in camera without prior judicial authority." No such authority has been granted to anyone.

The Fitness to Practise Committee was permitted under Justice Barr's order to publish its findings, but has not yet done so. This suggests that confronting the in camera rule is a matter of moral courage.

ONE HOPES that nothing worse than timidity has been at play. A fairly common response among the chattering classes to opening gambits about the Moira Woods affair has been along the lines of, "But surely she was one of the good guys". This logic extends to a soft-focus sketch of Moira Woods in the 1980s, gamely struggling on her own to combat a wave of child sex abuse, overworked and deprived of resources, forced to take short-cuts because of the sheer numbers of children she was called upon to protect.

It has been interesting to observe the responses of those offering such rationalisations to the proposition that the same logic could be applied to the behaviour of the police in the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Sallins train robbery. Because of the hue of the politics at play, those concerned invariably do not want, as the Americans would have it, to "go there".

It has now been established that Dr Moira Woods did not follow appropriate procedures in her investigation of a number of allegations of child abuse. This should have been obvious from the fact that her confirmation rate of child sex abuse was 100 per cent in the first six months. It has been established that she placed the blame summarily for such abuse at the feet of fathers, at least one of whom was living in a different country, without interviewing either the accused parties or, in some cases, the other parent.

In some cases, Dr Woods appears to have interviewed nobody except the child alleged to have been abused and used anatomically correct dolls to obtain information from children as young as six. It has been established that, in the course of such interviews, Dr Woods tended to ask leading questions, and conflated the content of the "game" she engaged in using dolls with a real-life scenario involving, invariably, the child's father. Favourable material gleaned from children in respect of their fathers was omitted from reports.

What this case illuminates above all is the danger of placing such enormous power in the hands of one individual, particularly when that individual is protected to such a high degree by the allegedly necessary secrecy of the child-protection system.

IT IS a clear requirement of a doctor to ensure that his or her conduct does not give rise to a child being unnecessarily and/or inappropriately removed from his or her parents' custody. It appears that the manner in which Dr Woods prepared her reports, carried out her investigations and testified in court was such that she did not have sufficient regard to the fact that a child should not be unnecessarily or inappropriately deprived of his or her father.

Dr Woods was in practice the sole arbiter of the allegations of abuse in the cases at issue here, because her word was taken as gospel by the health board and the courts. This meant that, irrespective of the manifest visible flaws in her methodology and approach, no dissent was possible against her sentence of infamy. Given such arbitrary powers, such total authority, such blanket protection from scrutiny or appeal, it is unsurprising that such an individual has been able to visit hell upon parents and children.

And given that this is what has occurred, it would be deeply inappropriate if the thrust of discussions over the coming days and weeks was to be directed at exonerating or excusing Dr Woods's behaviour in these appalling cases.