Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
The recent conviction of Carl Beech for perverting the course of justice has been long awaited, not only by the victims of his foul crime, but by the many, many others who have suffered the torture of being falsely accused of sexual abuse of children.
The story of how his fabrications were swallowed hook line and sinker by the Metropolitan police to the point where one of its top detectives Kenny McDonald, notoriously described Beech’s allegations as “credible and true” is dissected and analysed by Matthew Scott in his article for Quillette here.
Not all allegations are true
This episode has brought into the public domain that which the wrongly accused have known for decades. Wrongful allegations really do happen. As Ros Burnett of Oxford University Criminology Department states in her article in the Justice Gap, not only do some people make wrongful allegations maliciously or fraudulently, they also make “allegations that are unintentionally false (the mistaken identity of a childhood abuser, or the imaginings of a troubled person with mental health problems, or reconstructed memories of innocuous events in childhood)”. Dr Burnett explains how methodological reasons make it very difficult for researchers to find out the true incidence of wrongful allegations of sexual abuse. I was surprised to find out how many of my friends who had worked in caring professions such as teaching or health care had known someone who had been wrongly accused. Although this is only anecdotal evidence, it seems to indicate that wrongful allegations may be more common than officially recognized.
Wrongful allegations are devastating
The point is that however rare or common wrongful allegations are, their effect is devastating, (see Oxford University’s research here). We are well aware of the damage done to the reputations and careers of high profile people such as Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini and Harvey Proctor. For every person making the national headlines there are many, many more that will be unknown to most of us. They too have lost their reputations, their careers, and sometimes their freedom and their property. Even if they were never charged a cloud of suspicion may hang over them for ever. All too frequently they are left without support at a time when they are at their most vulnerable (see FACT’s survey data).
The wrongly accused become ‘collateral damage’ in the war against child abuse
It has never been reasonable or just to accept that some innocent people will be swept up with the guilty in the drive to bring justice to those who have suffered abuse. The innocent should not be ‘collateral damage’ in the fight against abuse. There needs to be a real shift in police attitudes in order to investigate allegations impartially. Unfortunately despite the Henriques report and Assistant Commissioner Rob Beckley’s report recommending that the advice to ‘believe the victim’ should be removed from police guidelines the College of Policing has not changed its view. Its most recent announcement on July 19th 2019 just added these words in italics to its guidelines.
‘The Standard directs a victim focused approach to crime recording. The intention is that victims are believed and benefit from statutory entitlements under the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime. This seeks to ensure that those reporting crimes will be treated with empathy and their allegations will be taken seriously. Any investigation which follows is then taken forward with an open mind to establish the truth.’
This advice sounds like a fudge if there ever was one. Why not remove the words believe altogether and let detectives do the job of impartial investigation like the trained professionals they are? In the words of Assistant Commissioner Rob Beckley, (the very person who the College of Policing asked to advise them on this issue), “the College of Policing and NPCC should approach the Home Office to amend the crime recording counting rules to remove the words “The intention that victims are believed” to “The intention is that victims can be confident they will be listened to and their crime taken seriously”.
This would be one small step towards a more just approach to the investigation of these serious crimes.