Book Review: “Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse”

by Clary Jaxon, CAFE Volunteer and Advocate for men wrongly accused and wrongly convicted of sex crimes

January, 14, 2017

In a bewildering time where the social mantras ‘believing all survivors’ and ‘women (and children) never lie about being sexually abused’ have taken hold of the Western systems of justice, community policing, politics and the media, the recent UK release of the book entitled “Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse” is aptly timed. The originations and consequences of these mantras are meticulously scrutinized and thoughtfully analyzed with a lengthy disclaimer that it is not meant in any way to discredit or belittle true victims of sexual abuse.

The point of the book is to shine a spotlight on a dark corner of social theory and policy that gets little exposure or public discussion in any meaningful way. Wrongful allegations of sex crimes do occur. Wrongful allegations can and do lead to wrongful convictions. Such a conviction can be a lifetime sentence expanding beyond any amount of jail time. In Canada, for example, any sex crime conviction involving a minor automatically excludes the convict from an eventual pardon (record suspension), and often results in a lifetime obligation to the Sex Offender Registry. Once such an accusation is made, particularly against males, whether prosecuted or not, it is akin to wearing a pejorative scarlet letter and can lead to further shunning and even violence inflicted upon the accused and their loved ones. For the wrongly accused and their loved ones it is an existence more isolating and traumatizing than one can imagine. The book delves into this misery by including statements from victims of wrongful allegations and their supporters.

While the book acknowledges this problem as an international one, it mainly focuses on the UK and the US. The parallels to what’s going on in Canada are undeniable. The book does make mention, however, of an important and relevant Canada Supreme Court Decision.

In Chapter 6, “Rape Culture Narrative, State Feminism, and the Presumption of Guilt,” the discussion of due process conflicting with rape shield laws highlights the case, R. v. Darrach (2000, SCC) where the Supreme Court dismissed the defendant’s argument that his constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the rape shield provisions. The highest court of Canada ultimately ruled that the interest of the public is to ensure sensitivity is extended to complainants, and that that sensitivity should override the state’s obligation to provide the accused with a fair trial and (condescendingly) “the most favourable procedures that could possibly be imagined”. Thus in Canada, this precedent contributes to the difficulties in overturning a wrongful conviction where the only evidence in court was the testimony of the complainant. The book discusses the hopelessness of exoneration while offering solutions to prevent such tragic miscarriages of justice from occurring in the first place.

Ros Burnett, Editor of the book and Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, UK, does a wonderful job of rounding up highly respected and credible professionals from the US, UK and New Zealand (sharing similar common law legal structure as Canada) as contributors to this book. Given Burnett’s prior experience as a Probation Officer, it makes her own contributions to this topic all the more insightful. The contributing roster includes psychologists, law professors, sociology professors, defence attorneys, criminologists, and some from social work and forensic psychology disciplines who all have eye-opening insight on how complaints of sexual assault or child abuse have moved from objectivity to subjectivity. This subjectivity has resulted in the erosion of the fundamental principles of justice we expect to be upheld and the contributors do not shy away from making this point.

Here in Canada, all too often the people dominating discussion and policy-making on the touchy topic of sexual abuse allegations are sponsored by the government in one way or another, skewing the realities of wrongful allegations. So it is extremely refreshing and due time to have a reference book such as this that honestly talks about the fallibility of the justice system, misguided police officers, harmful social policies based on errant moral crusades, and the devastating human consequences of wrongful allegations and convictions.

In conclusion I would urge that this book (available on be absorbed not only by the Canadian public, but by Canadian journalists, police officers, politicians, attorneys, law students, and judges. Our legal community, politicians, and media have yet to be propelled to effectively and frequently counter-balance arguments of treating alleged victims of sexual abuse with kindness and fairness against the realities of wrongful allegations and convictions of innocent people. As discussed in the book, the media in particular has a powerful influential role in swaying public perception. After all, it is members of the public that will eventually have a role in deciding the fate of the wrongly accused by becoming police officers, prosecuting attorneys, defence attorneys, jury members and judges.