An Australian View
Ian D. John*
EDITOR'S NOTE: At the request of Australian
psychologists, Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield recently presented
seminars in Australia on "Investigation and Trial Preparation in
Child Sexual Abuse Accusations." The seminars were held in
Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Hobart. Prior to the seminars
there was a TV program on a national network dealing with child sexual
abuse and the seminars in which Wakefield and Underwager described their
approach and responded to questions from the selected audience of
members of parliament, judges, social workers, attorneys, psychologists,
and law enforcement officials. The first seminar was held in Adelaide,
June 15,1989. There Professor Ian D. John, chairman of the Department of
Psychology at the University of Adelaide, introduced the seminar with
the following address.
The extent to which the topic of child sexual abuse
has emerged in public awareness over the last ten years or so and come
to constitute a salient issue of public concern and debate, as is
exemplified, for example, by this workshop here today and last night's
TV programme, is quite remarkable. The idea of child sexual abuse
engenders intense feelings of abhorrence since it violates norms and
values which are so basic in our society that we are not often required
to defend them or to subject them to any sort of critical analysis.
is not surprising, therefore, that public debate on this question should
be characterised by such passion.
I have no expertise or experience in this area so I
have had to watch this debate from the sidelines as a citizen with no
privileged views, but as someone with an interest in epistemological
questions and in the production of knowledge. Over time I have come to
feel increasingly apprehensive about the conduct of
this debate, or more precisely, about some of the unexamined assumptions
from which it proceeds.
From the perspective which most frequently seems to
inform these discussions there is an unequivocally obvious category of
behavior which can readily be distinguished, and which constitutes child
sexual abuse. It has recently been discovered, in much the same way as
an astronomer might discover a new star, that we are currently confronted
with an epidemic of child sexual abuse. This epidemic constitutes a
social problem which can be solved by expert interventions calculated to
remedy the harm done to victims and to cure or rehabilitate the
perpetrators. I believe that each of these assertions is at least
problematic if not manifestly false.
I understand that the focus of your interest today
will be centered on the first of these propositions, that is that there
is a category of behaviour which can readily be distinguished and which
constitutes child sexual abuse. I anticipate that Dr. Underwager and
Hollida Wakefield will be discussing with you the difficulties and
uncertainties associated with making such judgments.
I believe that judgments of child sexual abuse are
likely to have much in common with other judgments which we are called
upon to make, and that rather than thinking in simple categorical terms
of abuse and no-abuse it is more helpful to think in terms of a
continuum of behaviors ranging from innocent through uncertain to
frankly abusive. Such evidence as we come by is likely, for the most
part, to be cryptic, noisy and indeterminate so that there is a
probability of error associated with any judgment. The incidence of
correct judgments can only be improved by tolerating an increasing
proportion of erroneous claims or, in this case, unfounded allegations.
The making of decisions thus involves a dilemma occasioned by the
impossibility of reconciling two moral principles — one having to do with
the duty of care for the child and the other having to do with the presumption of innocence before
proof of guilt. This dilemma may be diminished by new knowledge but it
can in principle never be entirely eliminated.
Of necessity most judgments of child sexual abuse are
inferences based on young children's verbal accounts. For a number of
years I have had psychology students carry out a class exercise which consistently
demonstrates that small seemingly irrelevant changes of
context quite strikingly influence young children to construct different
accounts of what has transpired in a very simple situation so that they
are congruent with their perception of the examiner's expectations.
has forcefully drawn home to me the difficulties of situations which are
emotionally bland and neutral let alone those which are strongly
I find it difficult to regard present public concern
with child sexual abuse as a reflection of the scientific discovery of
an epidemic, although I freely acknowledge that child sexual abuse has
been rendered more visible and its incidence may previously have been significantly
underestimated. However, our social world is not made of
facts which are innocently revealed to our neutral gaze, it is socially
constructed and negotiated and to understand its changes we need to look
for the conditions which make them possible. Our present concerns need
to be seen against the background of recent developments in feminist
ideology which see the family as the primary site of patriarchal
oppression, of an increasing concern for individual rights including
children's rights, of changes in the structure and autonomy of the
family, and in particular of the rise of an increasing class of experts
or functionaries employed in the people processing professions.
The view that the objects of our social concern are
to be construed as problems for which, by definition, solutions must be
available is an article of faith associated with prevailing optimistic,
progressivist, modernish world view rather than a validated empirical
proposition. Many situations which we typically think of as problems are
more satisfactorily characterised as dilemmas, predicaments or messes,
and interventions are more appropriately thought of as efforts at damage
control or containment rather than as enduring solutions.
Child care workers are charged with the
responsibility of protecting children and the costs and payoffs under
which they operate are not necessarily the same as the long term costs
and payoffs for others involved in situations of alleged abuse. A major
cost to child care workers is the possible public condemnation likely as
a consequence of failure to intervene, but there are predictable costs
to others involved in the situation associated with such interventions and
sometimes uncertain gains. In cases of alleged child sexual abuse as
soon as these allegations are formalised, control of the situation moves
out of the hands of those most immediately concerned and certain
processes are inexorably set in train whatever the truth of the
allegations. Such evidence as we have questions the possibility of any
long term psychological benefits and suggests the likelihood of
deleterious consequences of taking children into care even if other
considerations may dictate this from time to time. The consequences for
the resumption of normal family life in the future after formal
allegations of child abuse have been made are not difficult to imagine,
and finally there is no rationally based and clinically proven therapy
for the remediation of the psychological consequences of child sexual
abuse or for the rehabilitation or cure of perpetrators.
The views that I have outlined are cautious and even
pessimistic and may well be disappointing or displeasing to some,
however, I would maintain that they are realistic and responsible.
occasions we may have to come to terms with our limited ability to
change the world and to advance those goals which we earnestly seek.
may have to confront the possibility that our well intended endeavours
may exacerbate those situations whose effects we seek to eliminate.
I commend your interest and concern with this issue
and hope that your deliberations and discussions here today, facilitated
and enlivened by the broad experience drawn on by Dr. Underwager and
Hollida Wakefield will be productive and rewarding.
Conducting these seminars in Australia led to several
observations. In addition to finding Australians remarkably open,
friendly, and warm, it is clear that the polarization of views and
approaches to child sexual abuse characteristic of the United States is
present in Australia. Emotions run high and generate difficulty in
carrying on rational discourse about trying to do a better job in
responding to accusations of child sexual abuse. In each seminar, in
response to presentation of areas needing improvement, someone would say
that while it may be true in America, it is better in Australia. This
would immediately be followed by someone else saying, "No, that is
exactly the way it is in Australia." A vigorous debate then
Americans prominent in presenting and developing the
sexual abuse system in the USA have toured Australia frequently for lectures, meetings, and
contacts. American literature is well known and often cited.
Australians attend meetings of international societies related to child abuse and
seek training in doing what Americans do about sexual abuse allegations.
In effect we have exported to Australia our system and the intense
conflicts that it generates.
While there may be some differences between Australia
and the USA in the procedures of the justice system, the basic
structures and concepts of both derive from English common law. In
Australia, as in the USA, the locus of response to allegations of sexual
abuse has shifted to the justice system. USA methods of investigation,
interrogation, examination of children, laws, and adult behaviors toward
children during this process have been incorporated into the Australian justice system.
The result is the same also. There is intense and often bitter controversy about true and false
Everywhere we went in Australia many people came up
to us on the streets, in restaurants, shops, hotels, museums, little
country inns, and airports, said they had seen us on the TV show,
recognized us, and expressed their agreement with our approach and their
perceptions that the system had gotten out of control. Some told their
own story of knowing friends or neighbors whom they believed had been
falsely accused. While people who disagreed may not have approached us,
the experience suggested that a significant proportion of the populace
has a troubled perception of the process of responding to allegations of
child sexual abuse.