Irish Times

February 4, 2002

When reason gives way to psychobabble

It will have come as a surprise to many people that one of the supposed "sanctions" imposed by the Medical Council on Dr Moira Woods, following its Fitness to Practise Committee's decision to find her guilty of professional misconduct, was that she should in future engage in child protection work only as part of an expert multi-disciplinary team, writes John Waters

John Waters
Irish Times

Most people would imagine this should have been happening in the first place. It is utterly incomprehensible to the layperson that investigations into allegations as serious as child sex abuse can be carried out by a single individual whose word becomes holy writ. In the Ireland of the 1980s, Dr Woods, alone and unscrutinised, was vested with the powers of God, and given licence to accuse, usually on the basis of the most cursory investigations in which virtually no objective standards of proof were required.

In even minor criminal matters, it is incumbent upon the authorities to show that they have gone to every length to show fairness to the accused. They must judge whether the accuser is credible; whether the story is consistent and believable; whether the accuser has an ulterior motive such as revenge or reward; whether previous unsubstantiated allegations have been made; whether there is physical evidence of the alleged misdeeds, i.e., conduct a thorough and impartial investigation in which all possible knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing is obtained and considered.

The standards laid down by the medical profession in cases of alleged sexual abuse are even more rigorous. Practitioners are required to be impartial, to be aware both of their own prejudices and the possibility that other investigators may have agendas and/or identify strongly with the accuser. Doctors are reminded that they must never, even where forensic proof appears to exist, make judgments concerning matters which fall outside their expertise.

When forensic proof is lacking, as it frequently is, investigators are required to be even more cautious. Conclusions should only be reached after a thorough examination of the available facts and a sustained trawl for corroborative material, if possible from disinterested sources. Final opinions must be couched in terms of relative probability rather than certainty, and cautions issued in respect of the weaknesses in the assessment process.

It now transpires that in many of the investigations carried out by Dr Woods in her time with the sexual assault trauma unit in the Rotunda Hospital in the 1980s, such standards were flouted as a matter of course. It has been established that she failed to apply acceptable standards of clinical judgment and competence, and consequently advised the relevant authorities that certain named children had been sexually abused when she knew or should have known that there was insufficient basis for such advice; and that she showed what was, to say the least of it, an alarming propensity to finger the fathers of children as sexual abusers without affording them any opportunity to defend themselves. These circumstances are not unique to this case. Similar methodology to that employed by Dr Woods is in everyday use throughout the Irish family law system.

THE secrecy afforded this system by the in camera rule has created a veritable industry in psychobabble and mumbo jumbo, in which so-called techniques involving "psychological assessment", dream therapy, guided imagery, figure drawing and the use of anatomically correct dolls are employed to "prove" some of the most serious allegations that can be made against a parent, and to inform some of the most far-reaching decisions concerning the lives of human beings.

Although it is acknowledged by medical authorities that such tests should be regarded as no more than aids in assessing allegations for which there is substantial pre-existing circumstantial and other corroborative evidence, and that such techniques on their own are far too unreliable to be the basis for professional opinions about real events, they are increasingly becoming the primary tool in the weaponry of the expert witness. Worse, those with the final authority to decide on the plausibility of accusations appear either too lazy, too ignorant or too cowardly to do other than put their rubber stamps to risible nonsense, thereby consigning decent people to lifetimes of horror and despair.

Too many judges, considering themselves inexpert in matters of child welfare, are willing to accept even the most preposterous constructions by so-called experts rather than take personal judicial responsibility for deciding matters of child welfare on the basis of common sense. The absence of public scrutiny means reason has no jurisdiction where voodoo rules.

Most citizens discover too late, on finding themselves at the mercy of this system, that they are in the power of utterly unaccountable, arbitrary and often, it seems, irrational forces; that there are no objective standards which can be called upon; that logic and fairness have no currency; and that they are in the hands of people with the power and freedom to destroy their lives and those of their children on the basis of prejudice, ideology, expediency or whim. They discover, too, that the normal requirements of evidence are suspended in favour of procedures in which a so-called expert witness, acting alone and unaccountably, can mix and match the facts in accordance with some unseen and unstated purpose, while those in authority look beyond the facts to the letters of qualification attached to the alleged expert's name. This has contributed much to turning the term "family law" into the most laughable oxymoron in the land.

© The Irish Times

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