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A False Accusation is a Journey with no Destination: My journey to false allegation awareness

Felicity Stryjak

First they came for the witches, and I did not speak out - because I was not a witch;

Then they came for the Satanists and I did not speak out - because I was not a Satanist;

Then they came for the sex cultists and I did not speak out – because I was not in a sex cult;

Then they came for the falsely accused - and there was no-one left to speak for me.

(Apologies to Martin Neimoller)

It is argued that 1) women never lie about sexual crime, 2) that only 2% of accusations of sexual crime are false and 3) that in any event that a false allegation causes little harm and is to be tolerated in the quest to bring sexual criminals to justice.

The first assertion is easy to refute. While it is unusual for false accusers to be prosecuted, on occasion they are, and it is becoming increasingly reported when this happens. There are growing calls for more to be prosecuted and for the claim ‘Prosecuting false accusers puts off genuine victims from reporting’ to be dismissed as the nonsense it is.

The second is less so. That figure has been burned into our culture despite the fact that it stems from an unsubstantiated assertion by Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 publication ‘Against Our Will: Men, ‘Women and Rape’. It is the third in which I am primarily interested here.

In 1980, I became aware that a family member was regularly sexually assaulting my daughter and had been for some considerable time. There was no dispute. I caught him red-handed.

No-one will dispute that that was not a devastating discovery. It evoked a myriad emotions in me – panic (what do I do about this?), guilt (how did I not know this sooner?), anger bordering on rage (how DARE he?), fear (how do I deal with this in the best way for my daughter?), bewilderment (where do I go for help) and more.

Instinct told me to get my daughter, her siblings and me as far away from him as possible, which was not as easy as it seemed seeing as we were, albeit temporarily, living in his household, but I did as soon as was possible.

I had no compunction about involving the police and asking advice when we were settled elsewhere either (in my defence for not involving them immediately, my husband and I were in the midst of separating and there is only so much a newly-single parent of 4 including a newborn can deal with at any one time) but things were different then.

A WPC from the Vice Squad came to my home and told me that pursuing a criminal case would traumatise my daughter and as her abuser was elderly, I had done the right thing removing her and he was unlikely to do it again. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that not only he had assaulted at least another two girls in the family; his wife had known all along and done nothing.

There are no ‘Right answers’ here. Would my daughter have experienced useful closure if I had insisted on prosecution? Would she have been any less damaged than she is now, because damaged she is, much as I tried to mitigate the damage and not traumatise her further while gently finding out what had actually happened and giving her the space to talk about it all if she wanted to?

I had no training. I had only a mother’s instincts and what I hoped was common sense. The sexual abuse of children is heinous, damaging and one of those genuine ‘Unforgiveables’. It ruins a life barely begun and makes so much about interpersonal relationships so much more difficult (at the bare minimum).

What the whole experience did do was to make me hyper vigilant in such matters. I watched men like a hawk, both around children, (especially my children) and in isolation. I left my children with no-one I didn’t trust implicitly, which meant almost no-one.

I replayed over and over in my mind the signs and signals that I must have missed in relation to what my daughter experienced. There were signs I missed, and I beat myself up mercilessly for the failure, making myself ill in the process. I learned all I could about the sexual abuse of children. I was NEVER going to fail in that way again.

In time, I remarried and fast forward to 2013 when, out of the blue, my son-in-law was contacted and warned about my husband’s (alleged) behaviour. Not me, not my daughter but my son-in-law, who told his wife, who told me and her siblings. It was left to me to speak to my husband.

My children’s reactions were consistent as was that of my ex-husband as he had known my second husband at the time these allegations were supposedly taking place, 40 years before. It was a unanimous ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’

Nonetheless, based on past experience, I took it all very seriously and demanded that my husband explain himself and every aspect of the accusation, vague as it was, in the minutest detail.

I was prepared to believe nothing without scrutinising everything; every tiny little thing.

I make no bones about it, and he has asked for no apology; for a while I put him through hell while I processed the enormity of what I was being told.

One way or another it was impossible not to traumatise him further, but it can be said that the reactions I witnessed in the 1980’s and then in 2013 were worlds apart and told me much.

That said, there was also so much that didn’t make sense about the accusation that my panic subsided, my fears were assuaged and the ‘But what if...’ in the ‘Don’t be ridiculous but what if...’ was shown to be unnecessary in a multitude of ways. The conflict of certainty with required doubt is a trauma in and of itself, but again, the application of logic and the subsidence of panic restored calm.

It should be said that most false accusations remain the subject of rumour, unreported officially, where it could be argued that they do most damage because they can never be countered effectively.

The statistics that say most alleged rapes go unreported are unhelpful even if - and it’s a big if - they are accurate, as there is no indication of why that is so.

As with Family Court where many if not most allegations are a weapon in the fight for legal aid and never get near a criminal courtroom, many allegations of rape, sexual assault and other abuses may well be weapons of destruction aimed at reputations and nothing more.

We do not and cannot know for sure (and certainly in my husband’s case). Little more was said on the topic, and it remained an accusation within the family, until a plain-clothed firearms officer and two uniformed officers arrived on my doorstep while my husband was at work in late-2015. (It was only much later that we discovered that the allegations had been an open secret among the complainant’s friends and other family members for decades. Given our contact with them and their positive attitudes towards my husband - indeed their requests for assistance both financial and emotional in some cases - the hypocrisy and double standard remains a source of much anguish to us. That too, will never subside.)

They were there to seize my husband’s shotguns and licence and the uniformed officers were from a Child Protection Unit.

Of course, none of them could tell me why they were seizing these things, only:

‘It’s for his protection and has something to do with a child but we don’t know what’.

The band was quietly playing ‘Believe It If You Like’ in the background.

A couple of months later, my husband and I were woken in the early hours of the morning by a battering on the door that indicated some sort of dire emergency.

It increased in intensity as my husband made his way downstairs and I virtually tumbled down the stairs as soon as I heard voices, to find him in handcuffs and three MET plain clothes police officers who had travelled up from London, bundling him into the living room.

The next few hours felt like a bizarre kind of burglary as we were required to allow the officers to search the place from top to bottom, pointing them the direction of what they said they were looking for where possible, taking whatever they pleased under a veneer of politeness and appreciation.

After questioning at a local police station my husband was bailed pending further enquiries.

No-one has ever been able to explain to me why a man accused of child rape was allowed to live opposite a primary school, or why, with such serious allegations, the most pressing objective on that day seemed to be to be on time to catch the 4pm train home to London - but there is so much about the investigation that, with hindsight, was illogical or deliberately misleading, that after a short time, nothing surprised us.

I immediately spent the resultant hours of sleeplessness scouring the web for help and information, and was stunned to find how widespread this situation was.

A very brief sojourn into the world of false allegations demonstrated that doubt was not enough and that juries were, and are, willing to convict on the basis of nothing more than a statement. Doubt amounting to innocence had to be compelling.

Convinced of my husband’s innocence, I poured all my energy into finding information to refute the allegations, to demonstrate that they could not and did not happen; while he, to retain his sanity, immersed himself in his work, working ever longer and longer hours.

Before long, Social Services were involved and though he was not permitted to have contact with our grandchildren unsupervised as per the bail conditions, they relatively quickly closed their files with ‘No concerns’.

That said, the inaccuracies in the final report, (names transposed and misspelled, e.g. calling into question the whole validity and professionalism of the Social Worker(s)). Two further reports of Cause For Concern as family members fell away into the abyss of ‘There must be something in it if the police are involved/he’s been charged’, ended in the same way.

Time dragged on relentlessly with re-bail after re-bail and only ‘We are having difficulty getting evidence’ by way of explanation.

It wasn’t until after more than two years of this that we were finally told that the officers would be interviewing the accuser and her ‘Witnesses’, and it was only then that we realised that this whole debacle was taking place on the strength of a phone call and an email.

As so often, the accusations as disclosed to us became more and more detailed, more and more embellished and frankly, more and more outlandish - but the police worked doggedly on, openly admitting, as they refused information from potential defence witnesses, that they were ‘Building their case’.

Eventually, and unsurprisingly with such lurid accusations, my husband was charged.

Sixteen counts of rape and sexual assault on a child, later dropped to 13 when, presumably, the CPS had second thoughts about trying to bring charges relating to an infant.

The earliest charges then related to when the complainant was three years old, continuing until her father left the family home when she was a teenager. Of course, ‘Disclosure’ revealed more than just simple documents. It revealed how the system was manipulated to bring yet more uncertainty and fear to the defendant.

For example, the CPS have a five-day window to supply initial disclosure before the Magistrates hearing. Disclosure must be provided ‘Not more than five days’ prior to the hearing. We were fortunate that the solicitor warned us that routinely, disclosure didn’t arrive until the very last moment.

In my husband’s case it arrived after 9am on the morning of the hearing - listed for 10am - giving his representative nowhere near enough time to fully absorb 200+ pages of information.

That said, absorb the salient points he did, and he met us at 9.45am with a full grasp of what had been unfolding for the last 39 months. Further disclosure revealed that not only had my husband’s bank accounts been scrutinised, so had mine. Understandable when all his accounts were jointly held with me but arguably over-reaching when my account with my son was swept up in the net.

Defence requests for disclosure are disallowed if they are deemed a ‘Fishing expedition’ but the police and prosecution can cast their nets far and wide without question.

Some feminists harp on about the right of the victim to ‘Privacy’. Where is mine or my son’s? Not only had they scrutinised my home and my underwear drawer, but they had also stuck their noses in our financial affairs without a by-your-leave or explanation.

I had and continued to spend hours, days and weeks, collating information that might be useful to a defence lawyer. Where my husband lived, who was in the household, what the living arrangements were, who he knew and spent time with (there were co-accused), when how and why we had spent time with the complainant and others in the family, any detail I could think of to shed light on what was actually going on ended up as a file for submission to the solicitor.

The task fell to me as my husband was working full time and long hours, but it saved me, emotionally and physically. I felt useful as this debacle unfolded around us and threatened to engulf us simultaneously.

His solicitor was incredible. He picked holes in the case and explained clearly how and why he doubted everything that was being alleged.

In the meantime, another family member, for reasons best known to herself, jumped on the bandwagon and made her own allegations, presumably in an attempt to lend weight to the original ones.

Again, a wonderful solicitor saw through the nonsense and the case was left on file, though not before the trauma and expense of turning up for a trial for it to not go ahead on the day. However, that’s another story (much as it’s tied into this one).

On the day of my husband’s arrest, we had both, independently, asked the OIC to arrange a psychological report on the complainant because we were both convinced of the falsity and source of the accusation. He refused: ‘We don’t do that.’ Clearly, investigating exculpatory evidence was not on his agenda.

After charge, his solicitor wrote eloquently and in detailed legal terms, to the CPS asking for the same. Miraculously, (though no-one so accused should have to rely on miracles), they agreed, but still the report had to be teased out of them when it was put in the ‘Unused’ bundle without a word. Its contents resulted in the CPS agreeing that they would offer no evidence, and six weeks before the trial date my husband was formally acquitted of all charges without the need to be present in court.

You might think (and perhaps hope) that that would be the end of things, but no, not in the least. A false accusation is a journey with no destination. It’s not something you ‘Put behind you’ it’s something you carry with you everywhere. It pops up at the most inopportune moments and slaps you in the face. It destroys your family in ways that are utterly irrecoverable.

Victims demand punishment, aka justice, aka a prison sentence, aka closure. For the falsely accused, there is no one who is punished, no justice and no closure. It just goes on and on.

The false accuser retains anonymity, so when they spout ‘Their truth’, whether it be lies or a sincerely-held incorrect belief, there is no right of redress.

Continued harassment has no redress. The payment of compensation, regardless of outcome, only serves to reinforce the idea of guilt and that ‘He got away with it’, as does the authorities' insistence on apologising to complainants when trials don’t go ahead for ‘Not getting them justice’.

The police never retrace their steps, so that the family of my husband’s co-accused (a stroke victim with learning difficulties who was interviewed without legal representation but died before he could be deemed fit to stand trial) learn the outcome. So much of his statement contradicted the accusations that pursuing him could only fail to make sense to any rational person.

Victim support volunteers clearly didn’t read statements or apply much in the way of common sense when they notified me of the fact that my husband’s trial wasn’t going ahead and that they ‘Understand my disappointment’, such is their drive to see every defendant as guilty. There is no conception that a person acquitted may be factually innocent. None.

Likewise, the debacle of reclaiming seized property. I had asked, when it was all seized, what would happen if any property was returned to us damaged and told that in the first instance I should inform the OIC and he would ‘Put it right’.

Nothing prepared me for the farce of passports being lost not once but twice, and the incompetence - that led to me being informed on my 200+ mile journey to London to collect them - that they were lost again, and I could be making a journey to collect only devices, followed by another call to say that they had been found.

Somehow, the OIC seemed to think that it was strange that I was concerned about such important documents, and he returned them with the comment: ‘Here are the passports you seem to be so concerned about.’

The sheet of paper with all the passwords to all the devices was returned to me with: ‘We didn’t need these after all’.

I was too stunned to ask if the devices had been accessed or not, but every single one that could have a virus on it did, taking my husband days of work to rectify.

The trauma of dealing with these things, the strain of knowing that life can never be as it was, that nothing is changing, that nothing can ever be put right, carries on without relief.

The injustice is no less frustrating for those falsely accused than for those genuinely victimised, and some would say more so.

Our status as victims in a world that reveres victims is unacknowledged and therefore cannot receive justice. All the clichés – what will be will be, the truth will out, what goes around comes around – work overtime in the efforts for the falsely accused to maintain their sanity, but actually are just empty words; none of them are accurate representations of the future.

Seven years on both my husband and I are prone to panic attacks if someone knocks at our door too loudly and likewise at the sight of a policeman. My husband is still nervous around children. The panic in his eyes now, if a small child clambers on his lap still brings tears to my eyes.

Too many of our grandchildren have been alienated from us because their parents believe him to be guilty – again ‘The police don’t bring charges unless there’s something in it’ and in one particular instance he has become a weapon to be used in the Family Court as part of a different agenda.

The payment of compensation has convinced still others of his guilt and the rumour-mill still grinds on. He still cannot talk to anyone, even me, about the details of his police interviews, and it was years before he was able to tell me about the depths to which his despair sank and his consequent suicidal thoughts.

The strain has affected our physical as well as mental health, of that I am convinced. The only two things it has affected positively are the state of our marriage as we clung to each other emotionally so far as was possible, and the strength of the relationships with the remaining family and friends who are able to apply critical though to the events of the last decade or so.

None of this is unique to us by any stretch of the imagination.

As we talk with others so accused, attend conferences, read the news reports and talk with the families of those wrongly convicted but maintaining innocence, we hear the same things time and time again.

We also hear, sadly, of solicitors so overworked and underpaid that they do not have the time to fully support their clients; to properly explain the systems and procedures that they will encounter and the extent to which they need to be proactive in their own defence.

People who have never had any contact with the police or court system and are thrust into the depths of its inadequacies - and frankly, voracious appetite for convictions - have no way of dealing with it without more lashings of good luck than any can hope to acquire. Human nature being what it is, too many are caught in the nets of the members of the legal profession whose primary objective is not particularly justice but to simply make a living. There are many wonderful solicitors and barristers, but being immersed in the trauma of a false allegation is not the best place from which to find them.

Most culpable, however, are the politicians and senior officials who allow this kind of thing to happen on a daily basis.

Both of us asked for SAR reports from all the police forces involved in both of these investigations. My husband’s request to the MET took three weeks to be processed. Mine took seven months.

There is much that is missing, and in a conversation with an officer from the Data Office a young man took the time to talk to me about the whys and wherefores of the lack of information relating to my request. He volunteered the information that at least until 2019, officers had conversations that were never recorded.

We know from other sources that Police Scotland kept their case under review on the basis of the continuing of the MET case. Bizarrely, given that the Scottish complaint was untried because the Sheriff agreed that no crime had been committed, they would have sought to resurrect the case (and presumably find a crime where none existed?) had my husband been found guilty in London.

Though he was assured that if he were acquitted he could reapply for his shotgun licence and there should be no reason why it wouldn’t be reinstated, it is also on record that the OIC kept in contact with the firearms officers in Sheffield and influenced the decision not to allow his application in the face of his ‘Horrific crime’ and the 'Balance of probability’ (a standard that is also the scourge of the Family Court).

The solicitor who handled his appeal (withdrawn when it became clear what had been going on behind the scenes and as a result, the unlikelihood of it succeeding) said that in his over 20 years of working on similar appeals, he had never come across a police officer involving himself with another force’s decisions in this way.

The result is that both my husband and I are left with the very uncomfortable conclusion that the police, in these matters at least, have tunnel vision; that they hear an emotive, heart-wrenching story and they cannot see the wood for the trees.

The ‘We believe you’ doctrine has them seeing a weeping, distressed accuser and they are blinded to any possibility other than every word they hear is true.

The same goes for family members and friends who find their loved one or friend ‘Convincing’ and have been primed to see a sexual abuser in every family and around every corner.

When the complainant is a trained actress and has been creating a double life for herself as a victim for decades, one could say ‘One can hardly blame them’ - but it is their job to investigate thoroughly and not be duped by the mentally ill, the deluded or the conniving.

The responsibility lies with the authorities who fail to investigate fully, and who seem more than happy to be the heroes who save us all from the dangers of the predators that the media and some feminists would have us believe are all around us.

Impartiality has left the interview room in matters of sexual crime, and calls into question the capability of officers to be impartial at all.

No wonder that trust in the police is at an all-time low.

It isn’t just the police: it’s the authorities as a whole, and it isn’t just the MET police: it’s all forces. Meanwhile, the falsely accused are traumatised with little hope of recovery, thousands of man-years are wasted in jails up and down the country and millions of pounds are wasted on unnecessarily lengthy investigations and too-often fraudulent compensation.

Until the falsely accused and their families have their heroes, their (and our) journey through the world of false accusations will never be over.

Felicity Stryjak is retired having worn many hats in her life so far, teacher and paralegal among them. She was born in Torquay in 1953 and has lived in a variety of interesting places both in the UK and abroad. She intends Scotland to be her final place of abode.

Please let us know if you think that there is a mistake in this article, explaining what you think is wrong and why. We will correct any errors as soon as possible.

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