In this post, Senior Research Associate Dr Ros Burnett introduces her new edited book Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse, Oxford University Press, published September 2016.

Currently, it is not possible to avoid news stories about sexual and physical abuse of children, women and vulnerable adults, recent and historical. Media coverage, government policies and public sympathies are largely concerned with the victims of such crimes and examples of heinous cases where the perpetrator was found guilty or where there are multiple allegations against the same person. But regardless of whether the accused parties have been convicted or merely accused, those who describe themselves as their ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ are accepted as such, with media discussion and inquiries proceeding on a presumption of guilt. Rarely do we hear the word ‘alleged’ to describe those claiming to be victims. When significant media attention is given to cases where the accused has been found ‘not guilty’ or when the veracity of the allegation has come under scrutiny, moral objections are raised by commentators.

Critics argue that publicising false allegation cases is counterproductive to encouraging reports of abuse with assurances they will be believed, to dispelling stereotypes and educating juries, and to achieving more convictions in these difficult cases. Moreover, they argue, it is distressing for survivors to have their credibility questioned and being cross-examined is like reliving the abuse over again. These arguments are understandable when we empathise with those who have suffered rape or childhood abuse but have not been believed, and have been silenced in the past. However, there has now been a reversal of attitudes, and police policies ensure that people reporting abuse are treated sensitively and their allegations taken seriously. Genuine victims can expect much support and that their identity to be protected. Police and CPS guidelines increase the likelihood that accused people will be prosecuted, and revised legislation makes it more likely that juries will convict. But, as Professor Andrew Ashworth points out in his Foreword to my new edited book, “Righting past wrongs (to those victims of sexual and child abuse whose complaints were not taken seriously until recent years) should not be allowed to produce more wrongs (to alleged perpetrators who are innocent of the accusations).

There are, quite rightly, numerous academic books which focus exclusively on victims of child abuse and victims of rape and sexual assault. But in order to fill a gap in the literature, ‘Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse’, published by Oxford University Press, is focused exclusively on those who are wrongly accused. The contributors, listed here, are academics and experts from various disciplines who have each thoroughly investigated issues that have a bearing on the key questions addressed by the book. The phenomenon of untrue allegations of abuse and their harms is introduced in Part I: The Reality of Wrongful Allegations of Abuse. The chapters in Part II: Culture; Ideology; Politics, discuss some historical, social, and political movements that have provided the backcloth for the rise of both true and false allegations. Part III: The Allegation: Causes, Motivations, Case-Studies, focuses on the causes and contexts for the making of allegations that are untrue. Part IV: Interrogation, Prosecution, Conviction, Appeal, moves onto criminal justice processes that reify untrue allegations and can trap an innocent person into the false identity of a convicted sex offender. Part V: Finding Ways Forward, seeks answers on avoidance or amelioration of the harms of wrongful allegations.

The contributors to this volume are dealing primarily with those cases of alleged abuse in which it is difficult to establish whether or not a crime occurred, because the only evidence is verbal. Obviously, these cases present a particular challenge for prosecutors, juries, and appeal processes, and the danger of getting it wrong, either way, leads to profound injustices for the parties who have told the truth but haven’t been believed. The adjective ‘wrongful’ is used interchangeably with ‘false’. The concept of ‘false’ applied to claims of abuse is problematic because it is too readily understood in its narrower sense implying dishonesty, whereas people can make false (untrue) allegations knowingly or unknowingly for all sorts of reasons. The scope of the present volume is across a continuum: from untrue allegations that do not lead to official action; to those that progress to prosecution and court proceedings; through to those that result in wrongful prison sentences and life as a registered sex offender. The types of allegations discussed in the book are of recent and non-recent (‘historical’) offences of sexual or physical abuse, of children or adults, and include allegations made by men as well as by children and women, and their supporters.

Some may wonder why there is no separate chapter on the prevalence of wrongful allegations of sexual and child abuse. That question is touched on by several of the contributors, but, until a methodologically rigorous, appropriately funded, exhaustive survey can be launched, the reality is that the extent of false allegations is likely to remain a ‘dark figure’. Prevalence can only be estimated by self-report surveys on a par with victims-of-crime surveys. No surveys have yet been conducted that would capture the range of false allegations of abuse addressed in the book, that would be methodologically comparable to official crime surveys and victim surveys. Making a false allegation of abuse is not a crime and therefore people cannot be prosecuted for it – unless it is classed as wasting police time or perjury. As a frequently cited CPS report makes clear there is seldom evidence of such offences, and those found out to have lied often have mental health problems or have been victims at other hands, therefore prosecutions are rare. Whether or not the prevalence of false allegations is much lower than those which are true should not matter. To the individuals concerned, the fairness with which their case is dealt is no less or more important relative to the number of cases that are similar.

The causes and reasons behind wrongful allegations are varied and complex (see especially the chapters in Part III). Those factors have to be understood in the broader cultural context, historically and in modern society, as discussed by authors in Part II of the book. Especially in the case of alleged historical abuse, or events that occurred when inebriated, the unreliability of memory can account for false allegations, supported by interpretations of others and individual suggestibility. Thus it is not only the accusers but also many other people who can contribute to co-production of wrongful allegations and to their sticking power.

Getting the book to the point of publication proved more challenging than I expected. I’ve edited books before with relative ease, but have not previously faced criticism from peer reviewers regarding the moral value of the subject matter being covered. As the publisher’s blurb notes, it is a controversial subject, yet, on the face of it, it is odd that a book whose subject matter is innocence should evoke such moral disapproval. Some invited contributors declined or withdrew because they were not comfortable with the book’s unilateral focus on untrue allegations. For the first time in a long working life – first as a probation officer followed by 20+ years in research and teaching on the rehabilitation of offenders and desistance from crime – I have experienced personal attacks telling me that I should be ashamed of my work and to refrain from it. Clearly, in a climate of heightened concern about endemic sexual offences and violence against women and children, and the difficulties in securing convictions, mention of false allegations can be deeply unpopular.

The book is decidedly not intended to downplay the enormity of child abuse or violence against adults, whether sexual or physical, and other cruelties that human beings inflict on each other. No-one can fail to be horrified by such heinous crimes wherever they are discovered and occur in the world. Ideally, a large enough volume would discuss both true and untrue allegations, including grey areas and middle ground. It remains the case though that both forms of suffering co-exist as overlapping yet distinct wrongs. Some concentration on false allegations is timely now that the weight of governmental and policy attention is on improving justice for victims, with the attendant danger of unbalancing the scales of justice too much in the opposite direction. Together with our recent study (Hoyle, Speechley and Burnett, 2016) on the impact of being wrongly accused of abuse, it is hoped that the book will encourage more research and scholarly writing on this subject away from the polemics of public debate, but also to inform that debate.