The prosecution of abusers is an important part of their victims' healing process
The "witch hunt mentality" of those seeking justice for children alleging historic abuse in care makes miscarriages of justice inevitable, argues Fay Wertheimer (History revision, November 29). After 10 years of working as a lawyer on behalf of victims of child abuse, I don't recognise the picture she paints.
Every category of crime has its associated miscarriages of justice, and historic child abuse is no exception. Yet by far the greatest miscarriage is that 90% of victims of child abuse, historic or otherwise, will never see their abuser convicted. Child abuse allegations often take years to surface: abuse leads to shame, fear and silence. But contrary to
Wertheimer's claims, this doesn't make it easier to convict the accused. It makes it harder - defendants argue that the truth has been lost in the mists of time. Wertheimer also conflates physical and sexual allegations, apparently believing that careworkers are being prosecuted for minor physical chastisements inflicted decades ago. Personally, I've come across very few prosecutions of care staff for physical assaults, and these have always involved serious abuse.
Is the "lure of lucre" a factor in false allegations, as Wertheimer suggests? Very occasionally, yes. But campaigners on behalf of the accused have been able to produce no more than a handful of false allegations linked to compensation. Which is hardly surprising: only around a quarter of complainants attempt to claim compensation, and many of those who do find their cases frustrated by archaic, irrational rules relating to the statute of limitations.
"Opening up the past may simply perpetuate an adult's past pain and prove destabilising rather than healing," says Wertheimer. That's sometimes true; but for the vast majority of the child abuse victims I've worked with over the last 10 years, the pain is ever-present, and the legal system's recognition of the harm done by abuse is part of the healing. Financial compensation can't guarantee happiness. Decent awards, however, can help a victim move away from victim status, as specialist therapy (rarely available on the NHS) can be accessed, and a support structure put in place.
Wertheimer writes movingly of the idealism and decency of careworkers - all too easily forgotten. But we also need to accord children in care the same humanity - Wertheimer comes dangerously close to stigmatising kids in care as so hopelessly damaged that, somehow, basic principles of justice and legal accountability should be abandoned.
The broader problem - and here Wertheimer might agree - is that as a society we are getting the balance wrong on child abuse and sexual crimes. We obsess over whether the Father Christmas at the school fete has been CRB checked, yet the rate of successful prosecution in cases of rape and child abuse remains shockingly low.
It's wrong that a teacher's career can be wrecked because of some trivial physical chastisement inflicted on a recalcitrant pupil; it's also wrong that most victims of child sexual abuse will never get justice.
We need to change this, and simply closing the book on the past is no way to do it.
· Richard Scorer is a lawyer who has acted for victims of historic child abuse
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