Email Us My Blog

Recognising Woods' Good Efforts Does Not Mitigate Her Wrongdoing

Irish Examiner, 05 February 2002 by Ronan Mullen

ONE evening in December 1996, Dr Patricia Casey, then a member of the Medical Council and chairperson of the Council's Fitness to Practice committee, received a visit from journalist Susan McKay.

The case of Dr Moira Woods, who had been accused by a number of families of professional misconduct in her diagnosis of child sexual abuse in the 1980s, was the subject of McKay's visit. As director of the Rotunda Hospital's Sexual Assault Treatment Unit, Woods had confirmed that sexual abuse took place in a number of families, in some cases resulting in the removal of children into care.

McKay's interview with Casey didn't go well. The doctor felt the line of questions had taken an unusual turn when she was asked for her views on contraception and divorce. She later wrote to the Sunday Tribune complaining of this. As things turned out, Casey had completed her stint on the Medical Council by the time the Fitness to Practice Committee heard the case. But when the verdict came in last week it was clear-cut: Woods was judged guilty of professional misconduct.

Her supporters have rallied to her cause. Last Sunday, the same Susan McKay who made Dr Casey realise that investigating Woods was no ordinary fitness to practise case, published a lengthy article reviewing Woods' background. It covered Woods' protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, her long relationship with the official IRA leader, Cathal Goulding, and her involvement with the Dublin Well Woman Centre, the Rape Crisis Centre and the Irish Family Planning Association.

Woods campaigned against the 1983 pro-life amendment, and believed abortion was less traumatic an option for women than adoption. Despite this, in 1985, Barry Desmond appointed her to head up the new Sexual Assault Unit at the Rotunda Hospital. According to McKay, Woods told a friend that "it was extraordinary, they were getting all these people who had been raped as children".

What McKay does not mention is that Woods' methods of verification left a lot to be desired. The Medical Council has pointed to practices which included the use of anatomically correct dolls to obtain information from children as young as six, asking leading questions of the children and omitting positive comments by the children about their fathers. It was also found that she failed to gather all the evidence available, failed to review cases or findings and failed to act in the best interests of children involved.

Nor does McKay mention that Woods' work resulted in misery for some families. One father spoke about the missing years when "birthdays were missed, Christmas wasn't the same and children's milestones passed by unnoticed". As a result of the Rotunda investigations, children were taken into care who were later returned to their parents. One man was accused of abusing his daughter and it was a long time before he was allowed even supervised access. Even now, he feels branded. "People will always look at me and say: 'There's no smoke without fire.'"

Clearly, Woods did not take up her post in the Rotunda to ruin innocent people's lives. And when she began examining children in the late 1980s, it must have seemed like there was a huge task to be completed - to free as many abused children as possible from their exploiters. Time was of the essence and resources were few. But this cuts little ice with the medical profession because, in law and in ethics, doctors are responsible for how they deal with each individual case. A kidney specialist who removes the wrong organ is not going to be excused on the basis of the number of times he or she had done the operation successfully. Yet some journalists seem to think Woods' forays into sexual politics somehow mitigate her wrongdoing.

Emily O'Reilly even hinted, citing Woods' friends, that the fitness to practice investigation might be connected with Woods' involvement in the handling of the X case. O'Reilly's evidence for this was that the complaints against Woods were lodged just a month after the X case became public. With respect to O'Reilly, and to McKay, they are missing something. Of course, they are right to bring to light the good things Woods did. And it would be wrong to portray Woods as a monster who saw abusers under every family bed.

Rather, her story is very human, and thus very complex. She was overworked, under-resourced, under-trained and she was guilty of errors that had unspeakable consequences for the victims. For all sorts of reasons, not least to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we cannot shirk the truth. And if Woods feels that the Medical Council got it wrong, she should appeal to the High Court and, arguably, journalists should show some restraint until then.

Unfortunately, many in the media seem to presume that a person with liberal views on sexual issues cannot make mistakes in the same way as a conservative person can. The Woods case is one instance, but last week RTE's Morning Ireland gave us another example. Mary Raftery, producer of the States of Fear series, was interviewed by her colleagues about the agreement by religious orders to pay €138 million in compensation to former residents of orphanages and industrial schools. Raftery was presumably brought on to give an impartial expert perspective but what we heard was highly partisan.

The religious orders were "very experienced in trying to get out of their legal responsibilities", she told the nation matter-of-factly. Her interviewer, Aine Lawlor, who interestingly was the narrator on the States of Fear series, barely interrupted Raftery in the nine-minute interview.

Neither did she seek evidence for any of Raftery's wilder assertions, including the claim that Michael Martin was moved from the Department of Education for having facilitated access to department records during the making of States of Fear. Raftery implied that Martin was replaced by Michael Woods because the latter was "a very well-known conservative" who went on to do a deal with the religious orders.

What sort of nonsense is this? The same sort of nonsense, it seems, that says Woods is the victim of some dark conspiracy, rather than face the unpalatable, unglamorous truth: that she made mistakes that doctors are not allowed make; that innocent people's lives were ruined as a result and that she has now been censured by her professional peers.

Raftery has done the State some service by publicising the evils of abuse in residential institutions, even if some of her evidence in specific cases has been shown to be shaky.

Likewise, Woods did good in the many cases where she properly found abuse. But the issues are wider than that and campaigning journalists and doctors who do pioneering work should also be subject to scrutiny. Perhaps they might read the latest Sunday Tribune which contains the harrowing tale of one of Moira Woods' mistakes.

A woman who the Tribune calls Fiona Walsh had her children taken away after Woods judged that they had been abused by their father. "These people with education can do nothing wrong," says Fiona. "All we were trying to do was tell the truth."

Isn't it interesting - how Fiona unconsciously linked the fact that the truth went unheard, with the misery loaded unto her family. If journalists are to be faithful to their self-declared mission to serve the truth, and we'd better hope they are, then personal prejudices must be parked at the door of the office, not brought into the newsroom.