(Dr Ros Burnett is a Senior Research Associate, formerly Reader in Criminology, at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, which she joined in 1990 after gaining her doctorate at Oxford (in social psychology). Before then she was a probation officer.)
Laura Perrins: Thank you for discussing your incredibly important book, with other contributors, Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse. This is a very sensitive area, what prompted you to research, collaborate and write the book?
Dr Ros Burnett: If, by ‘sensitive’, you mean the subject of false allegations upsets people or is politically incorrect, that is why it needs research. Sensitive subjects are likely to be given a wide berth by researchers and by sources of research funding, but without research we can’t gain sufficient evidence-based, critical understanding. It is sad that the subject of innocent people being vilified and sometimes imprisoned should be regarded as sensitive in that respect. While there are rightly many researchers and books covering the converse subject of child abuse, rape and their victims, there are scarcely any books that address the subject of false allegations of sexual and child abuse more broadly. My purpose was to bring together experts on different aspects of the subject in order to present a unified collection of essays that together shed light on the context, causes and consequences of false allegations. I’ve employed the concept of ‘wrongful allegations’ to emphasise the harm caused and to move away from the pejorative sense of ‘false’.
My research on this was a departure from my previous research on offender recidivism and desistance from crime, but I had been coming to this subject all my life. I could be simplistic and say that I saw Alfred Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man when I was a teenager and the horror of an innocent man being thrown into jail for someone else’s crime was seared into my soul. It is true that I found that film haunting but it mirrored smaller more insidious injustices one sees in everyday life where people are maligned for bad deeds they did not do, or actions which are grossly misconstrued; or where young people get labelled as offenders after one minor teenage transgression; or, after the breakdown of a marriage, the way that one parent may be unjustly vilified by the other and therefore rejected by their children.
Growing up in a deprived neighbourhood in a North England city, one encounters many people who use various forms of deception as a means of day to day survival and some who are habitual liars. My years as a probation officer, a relationship counsellor and a social psychologist researching personal relationships, then desistance from crime, taught me that people tell stories all the time, sometimes deliberately deceptive or embroidering facts, but more often biographical narratives that are used to make sense of our actions, what has happened and to find a way forward.
So, for example, people move on from broken relationships, using self-justification and sometimes vilification of their ex-partner, in order to rebuild their self-esteem. People move on from persistent offending via the stories they tell about themselves, using that to understand and reframe their past and find meaning for their present and future life. The narrative alters over the passage of time with new perceptions and as memories fade and become revised.
The introduction of victim-centred criminal justice processes, and movements to recognise the scale of past sexual abuse in institutions, and to bring closure to people abused in the past by bringing the perpetrators to justice and providing compensation, have presented a golden opportunity for many people with messed-up lives. They may well have been sexually abused during their childhood or otherwise mistreated physically and psychologically within their families, neighbourhoods and institutions. If they came from a troubled, deprived background, they may carry much anger and resentment about their past and continuing disadvantages. Leaving aside the possibility of financial compensation, speaking out as a victim, thereby helping to bring rapists and child molesters to justice, can be a hook for a change of life-course for someone whose past has been one of criminality, substance addiction and perhaps failed relationships. Joining ‘survivor’ groups can be a vocational calling, bringing respect, a sense of purpose and camaraderie if not paid work.
LP: The Henriques report into Operation Midland on false allegations of child rape and murder made by ‘Nick” demonstrate again how false allegations of sexual abuse can cause such harm.
The report also criticises decisions and actions by officers involved in the high-profile and complex investigation, and says it should have ended sooner. Is this case a textbook example of how police mishandled allegations of sexual abuse?
RB: Operation Midland had some unusual characteristics: it was focused on VIPs – public figures, former politicians at the heart of Westminster, and celebrities. Police services probably seized on opportunities to publicise and televise searches at the homes of establishment figures to demonstrate that they regard no one as above the law. But most allegations of sexual abuse, true or false, are made against ordinary people without the kind of money now generally needed to pay for the best defence.
It is textbook though, for allegations of non-recent (‘historical’) abuse to involve fishing for witnesses to report that they too have been victims of an accused person or at a residential school or other institution. This has occurred in co-operation with personal injury solicitors with adverts on websites, in local newspapers and in prison newspapers. Also, textbook is police turning up in large numbers to search homes and make arrests, trapping those who are innocent in a Kafkaesque nightmare (wondering what and by whom they were accused), their jobs and sometimes contact with their own children put on hold.
Over-enthusiastic policing of reported sexual abuse, unwittingly stoking up suspicion and encouraging allegations, goes back decades. Following claims in the 1990s of widespread abuse of children in care, police ‘trawling’ methods resulted in some sex offenders being rightly convicted, but many more were hauled through the mud of claims being made simply because they had worked at some time in the same approved schools or community education homes.
Some were wrongly prosecuted and convicted. Others were acquitted, or exonerated on appeal. The subsequent report by a Home Office Select Committee[i] concluded that ‘overzealous police operations working in conjunction with personal injury lawyers to seek out claimants, combined with the promise of compensation, had resulted in a new genre of miscarriages of justice’. Yet it continued to be an area of injustice that was discounted. It is particularly awful that those who experienced house searches, arrests and trials in the 1990s had to endure the experience a second time around, when Operation Pallial was set up on the back of the Savile Scandal.
[i] Home Affairs Select Committee (2002) The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children’s Homes: Fourth Report of Session 2001–02, London: HMSO.
Read the second half of Laura’s in-depth interview with Dr Ros Burnett on TCW tomorrow.