The suffering of the wrongfully accused
If you have been wrongly accused of sexual abuse you will be only too familiar with the description that follows, but it may help to know that others have had the same experience.
If you have not been wrongly accused it is hoped that this page will give you insight into the affect of a wrongful allegation.
The suffering of the wrongfully accused can be worse than a bereavement
The wrongly accused and their family and friends suffer horribly. The experience of a wrongful allegation can quite reasonably be compared with the loss of a loved one.
A bereaved person may have lost their life partner or child. The wrongfully accused may lose their reputation and sense of self-worth, their respect, their place in their community, their career, their friends, partners, and sometimes their freedom. They may have to spend their life savings on their legal defence and even their pension can be at risk.
Whereas time may dull the pain of bereavement, the fallout from a wrongful allegation can last for ever. Both the bereaved and the wrongfully accused are in dire need of support. However, while the bereaved are usually supported by their families, friends, and communities, many wrongfully accused are vilified and isolated and alone.
The landmark study from Oxford University titled ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voices’ made the following comment.
“The majority reported high anxiety levels, severe depression, ill health and associated symptoms of trauma, with short and longer-term symptoms, with some experiencing permanent behavioural and personality changes. The effects of false allegations were felt by their partners and children too, with anxiety and depression experienced by many family members, in addition to consequential financial burdens. The stigma of a false allegation is felt by the whole family and can lead to family breakdown, or permanently damage the relationship”
The wrongly accused go through many stages in their suffering
The victim of a wrongful allegation, together with their family and friends may go through different stages following the trauma of a false allegation. The coping strategies that have been found helpful vary according to the individual and the stage they are at.
Shock, withdrawal and panic
Initially it is not unusual for the victim to be in shock, sometimes being paralysed into inaction. Some may remain in this state of paralysis right throughout the investigation and possible trial.
‘From the word ‘go’, he went into a kind of cocoon… you would think that [someone with his knowledge and experience of criminal justice] would leap into action and start gathering evidence left right and centre… not ever. I did all that… he removed himself from the process and zoned out during court proceedings…. The whole thing was distasteful in the extreme to him… we never discussed his mental health, there was no point talking about it.’ (1)
The victim can experience panic attacks, insomnia and be extremely anxious about the future (2).
However, after the initial shock, many will react to the grievous hurt that has been done to them. Most will be incredibly angry against their accuser, the police, the justice system, the state, and maybe their employer and colleagues. Their extreme anger and combative attitude can be misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation and may cause an unfavourable impression when they try to defend themselves.
Loss of self-confidence and fear
The victim will feel they have had their reputation and sense of self-worth destroyed and the result of this is that their self-confidence can be wrecked. (3). Some will feel anxious, hypervigilant and even paranoid in public places, believing that they are being judged by others.
Depression and guilty feelings
Depression and unwarranted self-blame (‘what is it about me that would lead someone to make such a vile accusation?’), even to the point of feeling suicidal, are common feelings (4).
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Some experience symptoms of post-traumatic distress disorder with panic attacks and flash backs.
Long lasting trauma
Even if the victim is exonerated the damage can be long lasting. For some this may be lifelong.
One person who was never prosecuted said ‘the wounds do, now and then, re-open and throb painfully. We will never be quite the same again.’ (5)
Find some strategies for coping with the distress of a false allegation
This FACTsheet offers advice and ideas on how to cope after a wrongful allegation of abuse. It was composed with help from a psychiatrist and a GP who had both experienced the trauma of a wrongful allegation. Additionally, the results of a questionnaire of 43 FACT members and their partners on their own coping strategies was distilled into this information sheet. Download “How to cope emotionally after a wrongful allegation”
1. The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voices Carolyn Hoyle, Naomi-Ellen Speechley, and Ros Burnett. 2016. University of Oxford Centre for Criminology. P38
2. Ditto, p16
3. Ditto, p31
4. Ditto, p34
5. Ditto, p32