Saturday, May 21, 2016

Innocent until proven guilty

There is no crime other than murder which can do more devastation to the lives of vulnerable people than child abuse.

There is no crime including murder of which a mistaken or malicious accusation can cause more devastation to the lives of innocent people than child abuse - such harm including, of course, the genuine danger of being murdered by vigilantes who believe the accusations.

In the wake of a whole raft of scandals from the Saville Affair to Rotherham, most intelligent people have reached the ghastly conclusion that child abuse is significantly more common in Britain than we had until recently thought, that people of any colour, any creed, and any status in society many be perpetrators or victims, and that our society has failed too many victims by not taking genuine accusations seriously enough.

Sadly there is also far too much evidence that we have also failed those who through mistaken identity or malice have been wrongly accused of this awful crime. Danny Finkelstein had a very disturbing article in Thursday's Times called "Destroyed by false accusations of child abuse" which begins be reporting some of the findings of an academic study of the impact of mistaken or false allegations on a number of people who were accused of child abuse but against whom no charges were brought, who were acquitted, or had their convictions overturned.

The murders of  Darren Kelly and Bijan Ebrahimi, innocent men who were killed in two separate incidents  by people who wrongly thought they were paedophiles,  demonstrate only too clearly how harmful and dangerous being on the wrong end of  mistaken allegations of child abuse can be. The errors of mistaken identify which led to mistaken allegations against Lord McAlpine and the ignominious story of Operation Midland demonstrate how difficult this is to get right.

It is tragic that so many children have been failed in the past because action was not taken in many genuine cases of child abuse. It is also tragic that the justified reaction against this unacceptable situation has let to dire consequences for some people who were falsely accused. It would be a third tragedy if a further over-reaction were to cause future allegations of child abuse not to be properly investigated.

Britain must not alternate between opposite over-reactions, between on the one hand complacency which leaves real cases of child abuse not investigated and genuine victims unprotected, and on the other panic and witch-hunts which destroy the lives of innocent people.

We must find a happy medium in which child abuse is taken seriously and action taken to stop it without this becoming a witch hunt in which those investigating fail to treat the accused and their families like human beings or remember that they must be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

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