Shieldfield: the response of ACAL

ONE OF THE MOST revealing responses to the Shieldfield libel judgment has come from ACAL, the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers. This British organisation was founded in 1997 by former barrister Lee Moore in order to give support to those who allege they are victims of child sexual abuse and to lawyers who seek to help them. Although the aims of the society might seem to be entirely praise-worthy, there is sometimes a reluctance on the part of its leading members even to acknowledge the possibility that false allegations of sexual abuse are made and can have devastating consequences for people who are entirely innocent.

ACAL's press officer, Peter Garsden, is a partner in the Cheshire firm of Abney Garsden Macdonald, a firm of solicitors which specialises in seeking compensation on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse. He gave his views on the outcome of the libel trial to Jon Robins of Lawdirect, an online news service run by the leading legal publishers Butterworths.

One of the most striking features of Garsden's response is that he expresses no sympathy at all for Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie and makes no reference to their nine-year ordeal. Instead he is said to be 'troubled' by the judgment and concerned that it may deter experts from participating in inquiries to unearth abuse.

The fitting rejoinder to such concerns is that of Professor Laurence Lustgarten on the Guardian letters page in response to Christian Wolmar's similar views. Mr Justice Eady's conclusion that the qualified privilege which would normally have protected the four authors was destroyed by their dishonesty in '[including] in their report a number of fundamental claims which they must have known to be untrue' is, we are told, not one that Garsden accepts: 'Just as you can say what you like in parliament why should there be an exception here?'

The only reasonable inference one may draw from these words is that Garsden believes that members of an inquiry team should be protected by the law even if they dishonestly conceal evidence which might point to the innocence of those accused, and even if, as in the Shieldfield case, such dishonesty plays a part in driving completely innocent citizens to the brink of suicide.

What is most extraordinary about the views Peter Garsden expresses is not so much the fact that he has voiced them but that a leading legal publisher should take them seriously and relay them to the world.

Garsden's views on the Shieldfield case are entirely in keeping with the evidence he gave earlier this year to the House of Commons Select Committee during their inquiry into police trawling.

Although those who campaigned to bring this inquiry into existence have always acknowledge that sexual abuse in care homes is a real and serious problem, Garsden is evidently unable to recognise that there are two sides to the debate. He does concede that some witnesses may have exaggerated or even invented allegations of abuse. But he simultaneously makes the extraordinary claim that no one who has been convicted as a result 'is entirely blameless'. In an even more remarkable pronouncement he refers to those who are campaigning against miscarriages of justice on behalf of innocent care workers as belonging to 'the abuser lobby'.

The views Garsden has expressed both about Shieldfield and about trawling are also in keeping with the general position adopted by ACAL. This organisation, whose inaugural conference in 1999 was chaired by the journalist Christian Wolmar, presents itself as offering help and support to victims of child abuse. But its role is in practice rather different. It is in effect an organisation which provides help and support to those who make allegations of sexual abuse. In particular it supports claims made for financial compensation. It even offers to train witnesses in the art of giving evidence. Its general presumption appears to be that allegations of sexual abuse are always, or almost always, true.

This presumption is one which ACAL appears more than happy to extend not only to retrospective allegations made against care workers, but also to allegations of satanic ritual abuse. Indeed, as is acknowledged on ACAL's own website, the founder of the organisation, barrister Lee Moore, actually believes that she is herself a victim of ritual abuse and that she 'experienced Satanic ritual abuse throughout childhood'.

An article about Moore which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (29 January 1999) implied that she had no memories of the twelve years during which, from the age of three to the age of fifteen, she had been brought up inside what she later identified as a satanic cult. 

According to the article her life during this period had been so traumatic that she had 'dissociated' herself from it. It was only after she had a nervous breakdown forty years later that she had, 'with the help of her psychiatrist, pieced together her life of fear growing up in an organised abuse ring' where she had been 'abused by carers, friends and acquaintances both male and female'.

Anyone who sincerely believes that they spent twelve years of their childhood being systematically abused inside a satanic cult, that they repressed the memory of this abuse and only recovered it forty years later with the help of a psychiatrist, deserves the utmost sympathy and understanding.

What is truly disturbing, however, is that this belief has become one of the foundation stones of a professional organisation of lawyers which is now acting as a pressure group on behalf of those who make allegations of abuse. 

Even more disturbing is that this organisation appears to be taken seriously not only by the publishers Butterworths, who have on occasion offered it sponsorship, but also by the Law Society itself.


Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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