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Falsely Accused Also Have Right to Just Process

Irish Times, 23 June, 2007 by Breda O'Brien

Paul (Pablo) McCabe was a homeless man who was the co-accused along with Nora Wall in the alleged rape of a young girl, a case subsequently found to be based on lies, writes Breda O'Brien . Last year, when writing about him in Studies, the Jesuit magazine, I quoted from Death of A Salesman , the play by Arthur Miller.

Linda Loman, wife of Willie, the salesman of the title, admits that her husband is not the finest character who ever lived. "But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog." Paul McCabe, who died over four years ago, was indeed not the finest character who ever lived.

He had a string of convictions for petty crime and he also suffered from addiction and serious mental illness. He was still a victim along with Nora Wall of a terrible miscarriage of justice.

It has never been established how he came to sign a confession to a rape he did not commit. Even still, no attention is being paid.

By a coincidence, I was present at an excellent production in the Abbey Theatre of another Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, in the same week when another person, this time a priest, finally found himself vindicated of any wrongdoing when his accuser was found guilty of making false accusations.

The case got little attention, although this newspaper went to court and succeeded in overturning a ruling that the accuser, Paul Anderson, should not be named. But the case got relatively little attention, perhaps because of the general election and the formation of the new Government, or perhaps because vindicated priests are never as newsworthy as accused priests.

Anderson (34), of Crumlin Park, Crumlin, had claimed that when he was only six, the priest had raped him anally and attempted to rape him orally. He alleged this had happened when the priest was supposed to be preparing him for his First Holy Communion.

Anderson repeated his allegations while on trial for making false accusations, despite having admitted to gardaí that he had made it all up. He had also planned to implicate a nun and a Christian Brother. He claimed he became suicidal when gardaí attempted to get him to recant his accusation.

He persisted, despite the evidence being presented that neither he, nor any other pupil from the school, was ever sent to the priest for private sacramental preparation, and that the allegations were likely to have been motivated by his debts.

Given the case under way in the courts, The Crucible had eerie echoes. The play is set during the Salem witch hunts of 1692, and was written in response to the McCarthy era, when people lived in fear of being accused of being either a communist or a communist sympathiser.

A group of young girls is accused of conjuring spirits. In order to protect themselves from the consequences, they claim that they can identify those who have consorted with the devil. They get carried away with the power they have to accuse others. Mass hysteria results, hundreds are imprisoned and 20 people are hanged.

At a crucial moment in the play, Danforth the judge declares that in a normal crime, one could call up witnesses to defend the accused. "But witchcraft is, ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not?

Therefore, who may possibly be witnesses to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now, we cannot hope that the witch will accuse herself: granted. Therefore, we must rely on her victims, and they do testify, the children certainly do testify."

Sexual abuse of children is also a crime without witnesses, except in very unusual circumstances. Historically, it is the victims of sexual abuse who have suffered from this secrecy, and many victims kept silence for fear of not being believed. In the past, the Catholic Church was guilty of handling allegations very badly, and in some instances, merely moving a priest from place to place, thus allowing the perpetrator to continue his crimes.

Yet many priests today feel desperately vulnerable, because at the first hint of any misdemeanour, they will be asked to step aside from ministry. When Our Children, Our Church - the church guidelines on child protection - were first published, complaints were raised in some quarters that they were not stringent enough.

Some claimed that the fact that the guidelines state that any reasonable allegation would be acted upon meant, once again, that the church was making judgments as to what was a reasonable allegation or not.

In reality, it appears that these criticisms were unfounded, and that priests are being asked to step aside from their ministry almost automatically.

It could have been established very quickly whether or not the priest involved in this case gave children private lessons before sacraments or not.

In most cases, investigations appear to have been left to the civil authorities. Four years passed between the original allegation and the prosecution of the accuser. Yet this priest might be considered lucky that he was vindicated, and that his accuser was not better at fabrication.

In relation to sexual abuse, first came denial, when the rights of children who had been abused were trampled upon. Then came hysteria, when a deeply unreliable witness like Patricia Phelan could hold the fate of two people, Paul McCabe and Nora Wall, in her hand. The allegation that a religious sister would hold down a child who was being raped, was taken as not only possible, but likely.

Traces of that hysteria still remain, and most of it is still directed at priests and the religious. We do not want to face the fact that the problem of child abuse is society-wide. In The Crucible, anyone questioning the process of witch-hunting was automatically declared to be in league with the devil.

Today, anyone suggesting that the rights of the accused must be protected, especially when the allegations seem very dubious, is bound to be accused of being an apologist for child abuse.

The United States eventually moved beyond hysterical communist-hunting, but not before the lives of many had been irreparably damaged. All agree that sexual abuse of children is an abomination.

Yet no victim is helped if the system designed to protect children fails to protect the rights of all, including the right of those who have been falsely accused to a speedy and just process.