Bearing False Witness

JUSTICE

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A REPORT in McClean's magazine out of Canada tells the story: A Montreal appliance repairman in a bitter divorce battle with his estranged wife sought visitation rights to see his four-year-old daughter. In an effort to keep them apart, the wife charged abuse - saying that the father had beaten the child and locked her in a basement closet. The man eventually proved that his ex-wife was lying and he gained custody. The price for his vindication was steep, however - many thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyers' fees. The father said he could have paid for his daughter's college education for what he spent to take a battery of psychological tests to prove he wasn't a violent person.

Unfounded charges of child abuse, including sexual molestation, are increasing in custody suits in both the United States and Canada.

The child is the pawn in divorce proceedings, with one bitter parent trying to prove the incompetence of the another by accusing him (or her) of abusive behavior.

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The McClean's article suggests that charges of infidelity were the best way to win child custody in the 1960s. A decade later the issue was homosexuality. Now it is abuse of some kind.

US family court judges confirm the rising incidence of erroneous claims of physical harm or molestation. One Ohio jurist says he warns parents that if these accusations are untrue, he will ``throw the book'' at them. He confides privately, however, that there is not much he can do.

A Rhode Island counselor says he usually can easily spot phony charges by a parent and readily see when a child has been ``programmed'' to charge abuse when there is none. He stresses, however, that in most instances the abuse did occur and that it is best to take the child at his or her word.

A controversy arose in Utah last year over proposed legislation that would have imposed strict penalties on adults who persuaded children to make false abuse accusations. The passed measure was watered down, barring only false statements to law officers. This action was prompted by the conviction of a local man on the charge of sexually abusing his children. His friends and neighbors, convinced of his innocence, rallied to his defense and lobbied for sanctions for bearing false witness.

Social services experts insist, however, that only 5 percent of abuse charges tend to be false. And they stress that for every false report, there are dozens of abuses that go unprosecuted.

This may be true, but it is not good enough for a society that is founded on a legal principle that innocence must be assumed until there is proof of guilt.

An adult merely accused of child molestation is often convicted in the press and in the court of public opinion by the disgust of society. One judge says that it is safer to return a man acquitted of a murder charge back to his home community than one falsely accused of assaulting a child. ``They [society] never forgive the latter,'' he explains.

Some false testimony is not deliberate. A report in the Journal of Applied Psychology says that people pick the wrong suspect from a police lineup nearly 40 percent of the time. A change in procedure, so that witnesses are shown the suspects one at a time, changes the rate of error to 19 percent.

Charges are often made in child-abuse cases that very young children are conditioned by interviewers to innocently respond in a way that will please their interrogators. There is also evidence that although youngsters may view criminal situations very differently from adults, they will respond in a truthful manner.

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