panic_figureToday the Prime Minister said ‘there’s an industry trying to profit from spurious claims lodged against our brave servicemen and women’, and ‘it has got to end’. And this week it was announced,after 9 months of investigation into sex abuse allegations, that there would be no further action regarding Lord Bramall, 92, former head of the armed forces.  The publication on Monday of Moral Panic, by the Justice Gap, was very timely.

Many of the articles in this magazine question the justice of prosecuting historic sex crimes, and suggest people may try to profit from these claims.  Over the years, brave voices such as those of barrister Barbara Hewson have questioned the hysteria surrounding child abuse following the death of Jimmy Savile.

No-one questions that child abuse causes serious short and long term harm to individuals and families, and that perpetrators need to be punished and rehabilitated.  No-one questions the prosecution of those who groomed and sexually exploited vulnerable white teenagers in Oxford, Rotherham etc.

But reading Moral Panic has increased my unease about the sentencing of old men to long prison sentences for something that happened, or may have happened, a long time ago.  The testimony of those like Simon Warr suggest that the odds are stacked against anyone proving they are innocent of an alleged crime so long ago.  Everybody’s memory is fuzzy, there is no forensic evidence, and few records.  More worryingly, it takes a brave jury to reject the testimony of someone who says they were raped or assaulted.

Terrible crimes were perpetrated against children, particularly in closed institutions, decades ago.  But I am concerned that there may be some miscarriages of justice now, and also that, even where the perpetrator was guilty, it is pointless to imprison middle aged and elderly men, if there is no evidence they have continued offending in the mean time.

Our prisons are over-crowded and falling to pieces.  They are not geared up to deal with the disabilities and health problems that beset old men.  Prison is there primarily to house those in danger of committing violent and sexual crimes.  It is also a punishment.  But there are other ways to punish people, even to curtail their liberty, without using prison.

Victims of sexual abuse want perpetrators to be punished and to make amends.  But they also want their pain to be understood.  Dennis Eady in Moral Panic proposes the ‘unthinkable’ – that historic sex abuse should be dealt with via a truth and reconciliation commission. Having recently read Country of my Skull on the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, I can forsee some obstacles, since restorative justice only works when perpetrators accept guilt, or at least they they did what they are accused of doing.  Nevertheless, any kind of process restorative justice process would be an improvement.

An alternative would be to introduce a statute of limitations, as they have in the USA. This has been controversial in the case of Bill Cosby, who has been accused of multiple historic sex crimes and may not be prosecuted for any, because crimes cannot be prosecuted x years after they took place.  In these cases the cut-off may be too short – in California it is 6 years for sexual assault of an adult. But the principle of a statute of limitations is surely right “the laws help prevent fraudulent claims after evidence or witnesses are long gone. They also help protect would-be defendants from faulty memories or testimonies of plaintiffs or witnesses who are trying to recall what happened long ago”.

Meanwhile the investigation and punishment of historic sex abuse in England and Wales is devouring the resources of the police, the CPS, the Legal Aid Agency and the prisons.  Resources which, arguably, might be better served investigating the many thousands of crimes which have been perpetrated in the last year.
This article first appear on the Transform Justice website.

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Profile photo of Penelope Gibbs About Penelope Gibbs
Penelope worked in radio production and at the BBC before moving into the voluntary sector. Penelope set up the campaigning charity Transform Justice ( in 2012. She is also chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice

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  • andy January 23, 2016 10:39 am


    • Profile photo of Jon Robins
      Jon Robins January 26, 2016 8:20 pm

      All comment go through a moderation process. This comment has been taken down by the editor.

  • William January 23, 2016 1:29 pm

    I wonder, but doubt, that the general Public are awaking up to this new Salem law that is convicting thousands of innocent men because all it needs is a pointing finger attached to gossip and hearsay and no other evidence – the being same law that convicted Salem “witches” for it is a new law that sends a man to prison for very long sentences and is a law that is supported by a big motivating factor for the false accuser then obtains form £10,000 to £50,000 in compensation. I was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in Prison yet I say to all around me – especially to those who “guard” me – that I will give £1,000 for every statement in which someone can show my guilt – no one has ever done so and one thing I also noticed is that our prisons are crowded with old dyeing men – convicted by this same new Salem law – of incidents alleged to have taken place maybe 50 years ago or when in their youth and who – old and infirm – are left to die alone in their cells – and this is year 2016

    • Gary Malcolm January 29, 2016 6:41 pm

      Dear William,

      My thoughts are with you. You are not alone. Stay strong.

      I have some experience of this travesty myself. my farther was convicted by allegations made by my brother from 40 years before. It was total rubbish. I knew it, everyone in the family knew it…, because ‘we’ were there. However, the Jury found my dad guilty.

      Three of the women in the Jury were crying while my brother gave evidence. Thus 3 jurors had already convicted before hearing from anyone else. What chance did dad really have?

      Amazingly, we won at the court of appeal and my father is now free. But that does not take away from the ridiculous situation ‘all’ of us can quite easily find ourselves in.

      Further, a friend of mine recently sat on a jury. He later explained it was related to an historic allegation reaching back 30 years. At the end of the case he explained how he and his fellow jurors were happy to find out, (following sentencing)that the defendant had committed a previous and similar crime many years before.

      Their reasoning for being ‘happy’ was quite frightening!

      It seems they had not believed the claims being made against the defendant, (the testimony against him was inconsistent and obviously flawed) but they found him guilty because in the jury room they had applied the ‘no smoke without fire’ saying. This together with the misguided belief that as the Police had brought the case ‘they’ must also believe there was a case to answer.

      Accordingly, they felt happy, (or maybe relieved!) because the chap had been convicted before. That seemingly convinced them they had been right!

      *I add another little note here.

      At the time of serving in the jury my friend knew of the situation with my farther. He knew ‘we’ were awaiting a trial date, all about ‘false Memory Syndrome, the cash pay outs for anyone who makes an allegation as well as much case evidence I had researched showing that people really do just sometimes make stuff up!

      Nevertheless, and ignoring his knowledge of my situation he allowed himself to be swept along on the wave of ‘no smoke without fire’ sentiment.

      This proves to me our system is without doubt leading to innocent people being sent to prison.

      I implore anyone who reads this to do something about it.

      Tell your friends, write to your MP…, do something.., anything!

      Do this because one day, many years from now, (perhaps when you are far less able to defend yourself) someone you may have once babysat will make a claim against you. And then ‘I fear’ it will be too late.

      My dear William, You Are Not Alone! Keep strong.

      Gary M

  • George Skelly January 24, 2016 2:31 pm

    Agree wholeheartedly with this article. Statute of Limitations definitely required now!

  • Christopher Lennon January 24, 2016 6:33 pm

    Bravely stated, against a tide of paedo-mania sweeping the country.
    Take the case of the now 85 year old prisoner Rolf Harris, once immensely popular, but now demonised to the point where many posters wish for his sentence to be increased, or for him to die in prison and the police are investigating further charges. The Guardian art critic called for all his art work to be destroyed. I do not suggest Rolf Harris is innocent, but I do believe he ought not to have been found guilty on the evidence presented at his trial and that it was a miscarriage of justice. It was certainly badly managed and the judge’s summing up was a disgrace, as was his failure to disallow prosecuting counsel’s leading questions. One count for which Harris received a term of imprisonment involved an allegation he had run his hand down the fully clothed back of a young girl (how young is uncertain, as she could not remember in which year it was supposed to have happened), from neck to bottom, about 45 years ago.
    This is not to trivialise really serious abuse that has come to light, but I would endorse Penelope Gibbs’s suggestion that imprisonment of old men, especially, is unnecessary and cruel. (Harris was his wife’s carer and he has been placed in a prison too far away for her to even visit him more than very infrequently, if at all) Secondly, a civil, if not a criminal, statute of limitations ought to apply, such that even if historic abuse is prosecuted successfully, there will be no opportunity to claim civil damages. This would undoubtedly greatly reduce the flood of allegations, not all of which can possibly be true, as we have seen, save valuable police time (it is an offence to waste police time, after all) and contribute to the collective moral sanity of the nation.

  • Louis Kling February 25, 2016 6:04 pm

    I am very troubled about those historic sex case allegations by accusers who are allowed TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS. If their names were published the same as the person they accuse, the flaws in their own character, possibly their lies, scheming and dishonesty in the past, might be revealed by those who could give character evidence against THEM. Knowing that this could happen, and the possibility of being found unreliable in Court, would prevent them to come forward with those allegations they hope to be of financial benefit to them after many decades.

    Some persons who HAVE been abused, have waived their right to anonymity, and their cases should be workded on with every effort to find justice.

  • George Skelly February 29, 2016 4:15 pm

    Which lynch mob do you belong to Andy?!

  • Joe Black July 24, 2016 11:47 am

    Thanks for a great article its about time someone spoke out!

    In Liverpool U.K. i have seen gangs that plan to gain monies from these ridiculous laws that incarcerate innocent people, they then put the money into drugs and weapons and get rich VERY quickly selling drugs to kids! who’s abusing who here?

    The reason i know, is they can be heard publicly laughing and declaring “The police are paying for it all!! BLAME THEM” of course, nobody questions them as they have a certain amount of sympathy locally that allows them to operate without suspicion!!

    I am afraid for the future of this Salem puritanical attitude here in the U.K. we need to move into the present its a joke and everybody knows it.

    I am sure some o the cases are genuine but i have seen MANY injustices since the newspapers have found another big seller

    I think the worlds gone mad!

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