The Irish Times
February 2, 2002
Parents were devastated by false accusations
by Alison Healy
What's it like to be accused wrongly of sexually abusing your children? Some of the victims of Dr Moira Woods's faulty diagnosis told Alison Healy.
One father described it as "the missing years". Birthdays were missed, Christmas wasn't the same and children's milestones passed by unnoticed.
He was just one parent denied full contact with his child following findings of child sex abuse by Dr Moira Woods, who was then acting in her capacity as director of the Rotunda Hospital's sexual assault unit.
This week it emerged that the Medical Council had found Dr Woods guilty of professional misconduct in relation to the diagnosis of sexual abuse of children in three families in the 1980s.
Five families had complained about her to the Medical Council, but the council found that there was not enough proof of misconduct in relation to two families.
In 1998, the High Court ruled that the anonymity of the parents and children should be protected in this investigation. At least one parent is happy to waive his anonymity. He plans to return to the High Court as soon as possible to have this order lifted.
Diagnoses of sexual abuse have had long-term implications for these families. In one case, the children were taken into care but later returned to their parents. In other cases, parents separated, or were in the process of separating, when the allegations were brought forward.
Despite the Medical Council's ruling, one father believes he will be forever branded as a paedophile, a pervert and a child abuser. "People will always look at me and say 'there's no smoke without fire'."
In December 1986 this man was accused of abusing his daughter. He had been living in England since August 1985 and had last seen his daughter and his former partner when they visited in December 1985. The question of abuse stemmed from a graze the 4½-year-old had received on that visit.
No evidence of abuse was found when the child was examined afterwards, but almost one year later Dr Woods examined her and sent a report to the Eastern Health Board stating that the girl had been abused by her father on many occasions.
"I was in absolute shock. Here I am in London, I don't know what's going on, and the first thing I want to do is get on a plane home," he says.
Following Dr Woods's findings, the man was denied access to his daughter. He eventually won supervised access and finally unsupervised access. He says that he did not see his daughter for about 3½ years during this time.
"I was met with a brick wall all the way. It has taken away my humanity. I wasn't human while this was going on. I couldn't focus on anything except the bloody accusations."
His relationship with his daughter, and with all children, has been affected. "We have an absolutely brilliant relationship now, but I'm still not able to put my arms around her. I wouldn't pick up a child in the street. I'll never be able to cuddle a child on my knee. I'm frightened of children now. I like children, like most men do, but if I say that, I'm a pervert."
He says that a great weight has been lifted off his shoulders, but he still has major concerns for other parents who find themselves in a similar situation. "I'll never ever get over it. I've listened to too many horror stories and I think of them every day and night. But I'll get on with my life."
His daughter was never put in care as this man lived away from the family home. But another couple saw their two daughters put into care for two years. This followed a finding by Dr Woods that their autistic sister, who lived in a residential group home, had been abused.
It all started in 1986 when staff thought that the five-year-old girl was showing signs of sexualised behaviour. The behaviour appeared to be more obvious after one of her occasional visits home.
"But we said that was because she used to get very upset going back to the home," says her mother. "That's why we didn't want visiting her too much. She would get very upset."
The girl was referred to Dr Woods, who examined her and said it should be assumed until proven otherwise that she had been abused by a family member. A further recommendation stated: "It may be that the children should not have any more contact with their father."
"I couldn't believe it," says her mother. "I was shocked, but I thought that we would prove them wrong." A few months later, when it was suggested that her two sisters (aged nine and six) should be assessed, their mother agreed, thinking that it would clear her husband's name.
BUT that did not happen. Instead, Dr Woods said they had also been abused. The girls were taken into care while their sister remained in specialised care. Once a family of six, the couple were now left with their 15-month-old daughter.
At first, they were allowed supervised visits of one hour a week. "There was always someone there," their mother recalls. "We didn't know what to say, we were nearly afraid to talk to them. A lot of the time, it was pure quiet."
While neighbours never said anything directly, she later heard that they had said she should have sent away her husband and kept her children. "If he had done it, I would have had, but I never had any doubts about him. He told the truth. But I knew people were talking, because they'd stop what they were saying when I came along."
Eventually, the children were asked if they wanted to go home for a day. "They jumped for joy," she says. Days stretched to weekends and in 1989 the two girls were allowed to return home for good.
"We were never told why. There was no apology, but we were just so delighted they were home that we didn't think about it."
Their mother never knew if their experience was unique until she heard a similar story on the radio one day. "I was always listening to Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny, hoping to hear something. And at last I did." She made contact with the parent being interviewed and that led to the complaint to the Medical Council.
Her family was only reunited for a brief time, as the couple later separated.
She has no doubt that this was related to the abuse claims. "It didn't help anyway. It was too much for us. He was still very angry over the whole thing. I often think that if I didn't have M (their autistic daughter), it would never have happened, because it all started with the home."
But now, with her daughters grown up, she says she is putting it behind her. "It will always be there with us all, but what can you do? I prayed and prayed that it would come out, and now it has. Now, hopefully, we'll start a new life."
Vocal Ireland, a group representing families who claim they have been falsely accused of child sex abuse, is holding a public meeting on Monday at 8 p.m. in Buswells Hotel, Molesworth Street, Dublin.