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.  It 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 highly 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.  This has forcefully drawn home to me the difficulties of situations which are emotionally bland and neutral let alone those which are strongly emotionally toned.

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.  On 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.  We 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 followed.

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 allegations.

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.

Ralph Underwager
Hollida Wakefield

* Ian D. John is the chairman of the psychology department of the University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia.  [Back]

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