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The Irish Times
Monday, February 04, 2002

When reason gives way to psychobabble
by John Waters

  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

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

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

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
© 2002
Irish Times Home:
Related articles:

Parents were devastated by false accusations
by Alison Healy -- Irish Times, 02 Feb 02

Woods inquiry verdict
from Amen Ireland

News: Medical Council censures Dr Woods
Article with Audio, Video & Related Stories, 29 Jan 02

Probe into GPs conduct costs medical body £m
by Eilish O'Regan -- Irish Independent, 15 Dec 01

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