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The Falsely Accused Have Their Truths to Tell

'All truth passes through three stages: firstly it is ridiculed, secondly, it is violently opposed, and thirdly, it is accepted as self-evident." Anyone who has attempted to bring a truth to public attention would agree with these comments from the philosopher Schopenhauer, writes Breda O'Brien in The Irish Times, 21 February 2004

Take the case of those who were abused while in the care of religious orders. Such claims were dismissed as ridiculous. After all, brothers, nuns and priests represented what was best in Irish society. The complainants were condemned as troublemakers, with hidden agendas. Then came the moment of shock when it was seen that yes, abuse did happen and children were robbed of their innocence and security in the most vile ways.

Yet perhaps Schopenhauer might have added a corollary to his comments about truth. Those who have travelled the arduous route of having their truth recognised, are not always open to others who also have a truth to tell. In Ireland, we moved almost seamlessly from denial of the reality of child abuse to believing all claims of child abuse, no matter how bizarre.

Two cases spring to mind, that of Nora Wall and Patsy McGlinchey. Nora Wall was sentenced to life for rape, and spent four days of that sentence in the old women's prison in Mountjoy. Patsy McGlinchey, a teacher in Limerick, was falsely accused of sexually abusing pupils with a mental handicap. He endures an ongoing hell, despite being completely cleared of all charges. He has not been reinstated by his school, which says it is going to conduct its own investigation, in contravention of Government guidelines.

The similarities in the situation of those who have been abused, and those who have been falsely accused are striking. They share a sense of powerlessness, and the frustration and deep depression engendered by the constant struggle to be heard and to be believed.

This week, Margaret Jarvis, of the British False Memory Association, suggested that the existence of compensation for abuse would inevitably result in false accusations. It would seem self-evident that this would be so. In recent years, we have seen videos of people who were claiming compensation from insurance companies for being incapacitated following accidents turning cartwheels and climbing roofs. We have had the experience of thousands of claims for Army deafness. "Name and shame" campaigns by local corporations and councils have seen a dramatic lowering of compensation claims.

Yet the response of the victim support group Irish SOCA (Survivors of Child Abuse) to Ms Jarvis's statement was to picket a joint press conference by the British False Memory Association and by LOVE. (The latter is an organisation of former residents of industrial schools who had positive experiences of their religious carers.)

Irish SOCA distributed leaflets claiming that the British False Memory Association and LOVE exist to "bring comfort and succour to paedophiles". They also claim that the two organisations are involved "in a diabolical alliance designed to attack the integrity of thousands of survivors of Ireland's industrial schools system".

These statements are extreme and intemperate, but even the well-respected Colm O'Gorman of One in Four was scathing in his criticism, suggesting that Ms Jarvis displayed "total ignorance" of the Irish system. However, is it not at least possible that we might have something to learn from someone working for 20 years in the area of falsely accused individuals, even if that experience is in Britain?

In recent weeks, former care worker Anver Sheikh had his convictions for serious sexual abuse overturned. Convictions have been overturned in Ireland, too, but in Britain, the media have begun to seriously query the methods used to establish guilt, and in particular, the role of often self-styled experts.

For example, in a different area of child abuse, that of Shaken Baby Syndrome, three mothers have been released who had been convicted following the evidence of Prof Roy Meadows. His theories have been discredited, but not before he influenced a generation of social workers and medics. Thousands of cases will have to be re-opened.

These cases have led to scrutiny of other expert witnesses, and whether it is possible, for example, for any expert to disentangle psychological and physical damage sustained while in care from damage sustained elsewhere in a troubled young person's life.

There is no reason for those who have been abused and those who have been the victims of false accusation to be in conflict with each other.

For example, Colm O'Gorman is on record as expressing surprise that the Laffoy Commission at one stage attempted to contact people with positive experiences of industrial schools. While professing himself delighted that those with positive experiences are being given other platforms, he declared that such experiences had nothing to offer those who have been abused.

He used the analogy of a broken arm. "It seems to me that the fact that you have never broken your arm and I've broken mine, makes very little difference to my broken arm." It is true that whether incidents of abuse are shown to be isolated, or common, it is of little comfort to the individual who is abused.

Surely, though, there is a value in examining the broader context, including the good along with the bad?

It is particularly important for the many demoralised people who worked so hard and never harmed anyone. However, let us accept Colm's logic and apply it to the falsely accused. If I am falsely accused, it gives me little comfort that others have made legitimate claims of abuse. My arm is still broken. In this case, providing a broader context, including positive experiences, may help to prove my innocence.

Not all victim support groups are as antagonistic as Irish SOCA and One in Four to the possibility of learning from experience from abroad. Representatives of victim support group Alliance attended the British False Memory Association meeting. Spokesman Tom Hayes said that unless you are willing to listen, you do not learn anything.

Balance is difficult to achieve. It is important that the pendulum should not swing back to disbelief of those who allege abuse. The safest way to ensure this is to apply stringently fair methods of investigation, and of reporting. Support groups for both those who have been abused and those who have been falsely accused have a common interest in preventing false claims, since every false claim damages those who have told only the truth.