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How Common are Wrongful Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse?

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Home » How Common are Wrongful Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

So how common are wrongful allegations of child sexual abuse (CSA)?

The short answer is nobody really knows. The long answer is a lot more complicated, but if you want a thorough understanding of the issue, it’s worthwhile taking the time to read on.

There are serious problems in determining how frequently wrongful allegations occur because there are many different ways of defining them and counting them.

How is child sexual abuse (CSA) defined?

The way in which CSA is defined will clearly affect the numbers. Some researchers include peer on peer abuse in their figures (when one person under 18 abuses another person under 18). Some may count ‘non contact’ sexual abuse, for example, showing pornography to a child. Others may only count abuse where there has been sexual contact.

A spectrum of different ways of measuring the incidence of false allegations of CSA

Once we have defined CSA we need to decide how to decide how to measure the number of false allegations of CSA. At one end of the spectrum we might count only those cases of CSA which were proven to be false. It is exceedingly difficult to prove that an allegation is false, because, especially in the case of claims of historical CSA usually, the only evidence is testimony. We could perhaps decide to count as false allegations only those cases where an adult claiming historical CSA was convicted for perverting the course of justice. However, even when there is evidence that an allegation is false, a complainant won’t necessarily be prosecuted because they may have made the allegation for a variety of reasons, not necessarily with malicious intent. Therefore convictions for perverting the course of justice do not include all those allegations known to be false.

Diagram showing the spectrum of ways of counting false allegations as described in the text when trying to answer the question 'how common are false allegations of child sexual abuse'
The extreme ends of the spectrum

At the other end of the spectrum the researcher could count all those who have not been convicted as being the victim of a wrongful allegation. Of course being found not guilty in court does not prove that a wrongful allegation was made because a jury is only supposed to make a guilty verdict when they are sure ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Therefore this definition of wrongful allegations would overestimate the numbers.

The truth is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum

In between these two extremes are many other possibilities. We could measure false allegations as:

  • An allegation proven to be false and a deliberate lie
  • An allegation proven to be false, including deliberate lies and those made without malicious intent
  • An allegation resulting in an arrest but no further action
  • An allegation dismissed by an internal investigation in the workplace and not reported to the police could be counted as wrongful. This often happens in the teaching profession.

Once a decision has been made on how to measure the number of wrongful allegations there is still the problem of defining the total number of allegations made (true and false). There are a number of different possibilities.

  • The total number could be defined as all the complaints of abuse that were made to an institution, such as a school.
  • It could also be defined as the total of cases referred to social services, or the total number of complainants who went to the police.

Only when the total number of allegations and the number of wrongful allegations has been defined and measured can a percentage can be calculated.

Different definitions give different figures

Congratulations if you have read this far. You could be forgiven for feeling confused by now.

The point of this discussion is to show that figures produced by different studies can give very different results and this depends on how false allegations are defined and measured. This in turn can cause much misunderstanding when various advocacy groups, either for the victims of abuse or the victims of wrongful allegations, state what they believe to be the number of wrongful allegations.

What does the research say?

This is not a complete review of all the evidence, but what is offered here illustrates the difficulties of answering the question and gives some indication of the extent of wrongful allegations of CSA.

Professor Steve Herman

Professor Steve Herman (2016) argued that about 25% of uncorroborated reports of child abuse made to paraprofessionals in a study of 1,249 cases in 1989 in the USA were wrongful allegations.

A research review published in ‘The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse’ in 2018

In 2018 William O’Donohue and colleagues wrote a review of the research into the incidence of false allegations of CSA in ‘The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse’. They looked at 10 studies in the USA between 1978 and 2014.

One study in the review was performed by Oates in 2002. He found that of the 551 cases referred to Denver social services in 1992, in 21% ‘sexual abuse did not occur’ according to the social service case workers.

In the same review, Thoennes and Tjaden investigated CSA allegations when there was as dispute over child custody. They asked court staff how many children they thought were making false allegations in that context. The researchers found the court staff believed 44% of children aged 4 – 6 had made wrongful allegations.

At the other end of the spectrum, a review of all cases referred to the Child Protection Services in 2014 deemed that only 0.06% of allegations were intentionally false. However this study included all kinds of child abuse, not just sexual, and it didn’t measure unintentional (non malicious) false allegations.

O’Donahue concluded that false allegations do occur at a ‘non-negligible’ rate with studies demonstrating rates usually in the 2-5% range but with some studies finding nearly a third of children were making ‘false claims of touching’.

His final comment is very revealing.

Thus, it seems that false allegations of CSA do occur and thus ideologies such as “believe the children” which may be construed to mean “always believe every child” need to be tempered by this information. Admitting this fact can be difficult, as it makes the investigatory process more complex. However, this fact in no way ought to be considered “anti-child,” in the sense that providing a child with a false autobiographical memory of being a sexual abuse victim is itself iatrogenic.

Editor’s note, ‘iatrogenic’ means ’caused by a healthcare provider’

Our experience is that false allegations are not rare

FACT receives a large number of requests for support from people who say that they have been wrongfully accused of abuse of some sort. We have met them and remain convinced that they are innocent.

A colleague from another group that supports the falsely accused has kept a record and there were over 240 wrongful allegations of child abuse and sexual assault of adults in 2017 alone. The list of false allegations in 2017 is available here . It makes sad reading. Included in it are the 13 who were wrongly accused of downloading child pornography because of “typographical errors” in connecting IP addresses (used to trace a computer downloading such material) with the right person. 120 known to the same organization could not be named in this document because of their desire to remain anonymous (publicity would be damaging to their families). These recorded cases may be the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who is arrested is charged. We will never know how many of these people are actually innocent, but it is our experience that some of those arrested and not charged are factually as well as legally innocent.

Why accurate information is vital to decision makers

Confirmation bias

Beliefs about the prevalence of wrongful allegations of child abuse influence decision makers. Incorrect knowledge of the prevalence of wrongful allegations could cause ‘confirmation bias’.

Confirmation bias occurs ‘when people seek out or evaluate information in a way that fits with their existing thinking and preconceptions‘. This bias could influence a jury, they may give less credence to evidence that the defendant is innocent if they have a prior belief that wrongful allegations are rare.

Confirmation bias might have a stronger influence when cases rest solely on the testimonies of the complainant(s) and defendant without any corroborating evidence such as DNA samples or witnesses. Concerns about confirmation bias and other factors that can influence the verdict of a jury have also been expressed in an article by Willmott and Boduszec in the Justice Gap. Additionally, the belief that wrongful allegations are rare could bias the thinking of those investigating allegations of child abuse. They may give more weight to evidence in favour of the complainant because that would fit in with their belief that false allegations are rare.

Disciplinary hearings and risk assessments

Even if someone is not convicted they will be subjected to disciplinary hearings and risk assessments at their place of work, and again if there is a preconception that wrongful allegations occur rarely, the outcome for the accused may be more likely to be unfavourable.

Finally, policy makers may be less likely to put into place legal safeguards that would reduce the risk of innocent people being convicted if they believe that wrongful allegations and therefore wrongful convictions are rare.

Rare doesn’t mean unimportant

Obviously, it has proven very difficult to measure how many allegations of child sexual abuse are false. Estimates vary from 2% to as many as one third of allegations in some contexts.

Even if wrongful allegations were very rare, which we don’t believe, it doesn’t mean that they can be ignored. The damage caused by a wrongful allegation is considerable. A false allegation will cause considerable harm not only to the victim, but also to the victim’s friends and family. For many the fallout will be worse than that of a bereavement. Read our page on the suffering of the wrongly accused.

See Also

Just How Rare are False Allegations of Sexual Assault, by Dr Ros Burnett, senior research associate at the centre for criminology, University of Oxford

Wrongful Allegations of Sexual Assault are not Extremely Rare

Why False Allegations Happen

The Suffering of the Wrongly Accused

Child Abuse Statistics Need Careful Interpretation

A New Zealand Campaigner for Victims of Wrongful Sexual Allegations (with a link to his well researched and comprehensive article on the prevalence of wrongful allegations of sexual abuse)

References

Herman, S (2016) Reducing harm resulting from false allegations of child sexual abuse. In: R. Burnett, ed. 2016. Wrongful allegations of sexual and child abuse.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers surveyed their members in 2015 and found that around 50% of recent allegations of wrongful behaviour towards their pupils were dismissed after investigation by their place of work, without being reported to the police (this information has now been removed from their website but is quoted by gov.uk here. ).

William O’Donohue, Caroline Cummings & Brendan Willis (2018) The Frequency of False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: A Critical Review, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 27:5, 459-475