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Charges of child sexual abuse often false in domestic disputes

PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–The discordance of visiting his missionary sister in the Eastern European chaos of the Czech Republic, then — the next week — sitting in a cell amid the emotional chaos of a county jail was too much for the 34-year-old heavy equipment operator.
Eric Johnson wept.
The false allegations of child sexual abuse that derailed Johnson’s life for about eight months are not uncommon, even among church members, officials say. It’s a national problem.
A 10-person police SWAT team’s early morning unannounced arrival at the basement apartment he rented had startled Johnson awake. He was arrested, read his rights, handcuffed, hauled off to a crowded inner-city jail and told he’d been charged with 45 counts of sexual abuse of the son of the woman he’d been divorced from for eight years.
The alleged sexual abuse was said to have taken place during a three-year period before the divorce. The young man, now 17, had finally worked up the courage to talk about it, his hysterical mother had told an investigating social worker.
That was all the basis police needed for their arrest.
After spending more than seven months in Multnomah County (Ore.) Jail because he couldn’t post the $1.5 million bond (set because of the number of charges against him) Johnson, reared in a Southern Baptist home in Phoenix, Ariz., was completely cleared of all charges in a jury trial this spring. That makes him a statistic.
In an early 1990s study, it was determined that 75 percent to 80 percent of divorce-related sexual-abuse allegations are false. Social scientists Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager of the Institute for Psychological Therapies in Minnesota documented their findings and reported it in the September 1991 issue of the journal, Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
“There are very few safeguards in place to guard against false allegations,” said Darren Kessler, a child dependency and criminal law specialist in San Francisco, who has worked with the Pacific Justice Institute, which handles defense of religious freedom, parents’ rights and other basic constitutional civil liberties.
“The law in California is changing even more this year to allow almost complete power to social workers and other clinicians who respond to the allegations,” Kessler said.
Before 1973, child sexual abuse was rarely reported, said Richard A. Gardner, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, New York City. Gardner often is an expert witness in child sexual-abuse cases. With passage of the Mondale Act in 1974 (named for then-Sen. Walter Mondale), Congress provided matching funds for states to set up programs for child-abuse research, identification, prosecution and treatment.
“The law, however, has had results its authors did not intend,” Gardner said. The number of child sexual-abuse reports grew from 21,000 in 1975 to more than 319,000 in 1993; the overall number of child-abuse cases, meanwhile, soared from 669,000 to 2.9 million in the same time frame, according to government statistics.
“The Mondale Act has strengthened the child-abuse establishment, a network of social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and law-enforcement officials, that through its very existence frequently validates an individual’s charges,” Gardner said. “It behooves them to work together, because the greater the number of referrals, the greater the justification for the requisite funding. The current system generates an endless stream of referrals for investigators and validators.
“In other words, this establishment, unintentionally or intentionally, encourages charges of child abuse whether they are reasonable or not,” Gardner continued. “All this predictably fuels sex-abuse hysteria, hysteria in which an accused individual’s constitutional due process protections are commonly ignored.”
Armin A. Brott, who has written five books on fatherhood, including “The Single Father,” released in May by Abbeville Press, said, “State-funded social workers [often called child protective services workers], who are the first people called in when child sexual-abuse allegations are made, are trained to be child advocates who accept the word of their clients.
“They also don’t want to make a mistake that would enable a pedophile to be free to harm other children,” Brott observed.
“The ‘believe the children’ idea was popularized by Dr. Roland Summit in an influential article in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect in 1983,” Brott recounted. “He wrote that children never fabricate the kinds of explicit sexual manipulations they divulge in complaints or interrogations.”
But Brott noted that Lee Coleman, a child psychiatrist and frequent expert witness in child abuse cases, has written that such a belief never had any data to support it.
A San Diego County, Calif., grand jury in a “Families In Crisis” report published in 1992 said the “investigative” work of the biased state social worker, unfortunately, is often accepted unquestioningly by harried police officers who like most of society are horrified at the thought that a man would sexually abuse the children in his home.
“This specific problem has gotten so out of hand in this country, it has been given a name: the SAID Syndrome, Sexual Allegations in Divorce,” the report stated. “… [T]here is really only one word that describes the thinking of those who attempt to justify the conviction of the innocent: hysteria. Hysteria is nothing but a wild outbreak of feelings that greatly exaggerate what is real.
“Depend on the fact that hysteria exists among child protective agencies, investigators, prosecutors, the courts and a great deal of the overall population,” the report continued. “It is usually because of this hysteria that innocent people are found guilty of the sexual abuse of a child when in fact no such sexual abuse has ever taken place.”
Heavy equipment operator Johnson lost his ability to earn a living and even his unemployment benefits because he was out of work — in jail — for more than seven months after he was falsely accused of child sexual abuse.
He lost his apartment, reputation and sense of personal safety in the community, even in jail: A neighbor hung a noose on the back of Johnson’s pickup truck; a fellow inmate threatened him upon learning of the sexual-abuse charges.
One of Johnson’s most disconcerting losses was the comfortable and close contact with family and friends that had been part of his normal routine. Christmas in jail was especially hard, he said.
He — and his family — lost money. The $60,000 attorney’s fee came from Johnson’s retirement fund ($17,000; all he had), his parent’s savings and the refinancing of their home.
Family members spent an additional $15,000, primarily for dozens of collect telephone calls each month, and for air travel from the Czech Republic, Arizona, California, Missouri and Kansas to testify in the trial.
Johnson also lost trust in a justice system he’d previously thought would protect a person who lived honorably, and he almost lost heart, he said.
Even in the last few weeks before his trial, Johnson considered accepting a “sure bet” plea bargain — three and a half years of prison if he would admit guilt to one count of child sexual abuse — instead of the possibility that a jury could find him guilty of all counts and sentence him to 800 years imprisonment. Accepting a plea bargain would save the expense of a trial, and it would spare his family the anguish of testifying and bring everything to a quick conclusion, a weary Johnson contemplated during some sleepless early-morning hours.
But despite his other losses, Johnson never lost his faith.
“As I was laying on my bed the week before the trial, the Lord gave me a symbolic message,” Johnson said. “It was very vivid. Remember when the children of Israel on the banks of the Red Sea were complaining to Moses about coming so far, but the Egyptians were so close, coming after them? The trial to me was the Red Sea; the Egyptians, the lies; and I was like the children of Israel. God caused the Red Sea to part, the children of Israel crossed to the other side, and the Egyptians were killed.
“Then, on the last day, as I was going to hear the jury’s verdict, I picked up [the devotional booklet] Our Daily Bread,” Johnson said. “The Scripture that day was from this very passage and with it, the Lord tied everything together. It [the booklet] said, ‘God will make a way.’ Even now, remembering that is really encouraging to me.”
During his time in jail, Johnson started a Bible study of the New Testament Book of Acts for about a dozen inmates, which was led by a jail chaplain. He was interested in Acts because in it, the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked, and he felt as though his life had been shipwrecked, Johnson said.
The Bible study is continuing and lives are being visibly changed, Johnson added.
“What the Lord did for me he could do for everybody, but it took a lot of prayer and a lot of support from people,” said Johnson, a member at Milwaukie (Ore.) Baptist Church. “The Lord moved in an awesome way in my life. I feel for the people in prison who are innocent but who have been found guilty.”
Child psychiatry professor Gardner recommends eight “severe modifications” of the Mondale Act to douse the flame on sex-abuse hysteria that ignores a person’s constitutional rights, including dropping the mandated reporting clause. This is the law that requires people to report to the state’s child protective services entity any accusation of child sexual abuse. Gardner would like this to be changed so mental health professionals would have the discretion to file a report based on their conclusions.
“As it is now, people are using this law as a way to get old dad out of the house or out of any possibility for custody,” Gardner said. “That’s a flagrant misuse of the purpose of law.”
Barrett Duke, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recommends Christians treat rumors as gossip.
“Because sexual abuse of a child is such a repulsive act, it is understandable that people would be suspicious about anyone accused of this terrible activity,” Duke said. “However, it is tragic that a person’s life could be destroyed by a false allegation of sexual abuse of a child. While we must treat sexual abuse with all of the gravity it deserves, we must also be certain not to judge an individual on unsubstantiated rumors. We must find out the truth before we condemn anyone.”