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Could a change of approach prevent serial predators going undetected for many years? In many recent high-profile cases we see repeated patterns of abuse over many years. Yet it seems victims often only learn about each other when one is ready to break their silence, a civil case starts and the story makes cable news. I only have a lay man’s understanding of the law but I wonder if a small change in how allegations are recorded and what authorities can do with these allegations, could make it easier for police and prosecutors to detect and intervene with serial abusers, and so save many potential future victims having their lives destroyed.
What choices do the abused have?
Victims of abuse do not go to the police for a variety of reasons, including the fear of not being believed. Others are persuaded by their abuser they were not actually abused at all. Hopefully education and changing attitudes in society will continue to address both of these. But when the abuser is someone rich, famous or is otherwise in a position of power, victims understandably fear media attention, or repercussions in their lives or careers when the perpetrator finds out that an allegation has been made against them. There may also be companies or institutions who have employed the abuser who, wittingly or unwittingly, choose to protect the abuser and punish the victim.
As I understand it, both here in the UK and United States victims can make a statement to the police, but are then largely faced with a binary choice: press charges and so begin a full investigation, in which case their abuser will almost certainly know who went to the police. Or make a statement but ask for it not to be pursued further. The police may then do some investigation around this statement, but lack of prosecutorial action means the abuser is likely to continue their career of abuse uninterrupted.
Allow prosecutors to actively identify abusers
Is a third option needed? Is there a place for a specialist national team of police or prosecutors who monitor a database of victims’ statements, especially where victims have asked for no further action to be taken. This team’s role is to compare similar allegations against the same person, actively looking for serial abusers. If the expert prosecutors believe there is strong evidence of a serial abuser at work, and that there is a reasonable chance of bringing a case – which would be partly informed by the similarities in the accusations – the prosecutor can then go in a confidential manner to those who made statements, and inform them that there are others who have described similar instances of abuse. This means victims know others have similar stories to tell in court, and so they can consider whether they now want to participate in a wider investigation. This knowledge may change how they view participating in an investigation, which currently appears to be a choice they are having to make alone.
Again, as a layman I do not have specific knowledge of how things work here or in the US. I suspect there would need to be changes in the law because even giving victims knowledge that other victims exist could have legal implications. And perhaps there are already such teams monitoring databases of abuse, a unit at the national crime unit or at the FBI? But from what I’ve seen of the cases that make the news, the Dr Larry Nassar or Bill Cosby or Jimmy Saville, it seems as though authorities don’t yet have the ability to bring this data together and identify a potential serial abuser, and then inform victims they aren’t alone?
This might also help in cases of historical abuse. When victims describe abuse committed many years ago, the fact they did not go to the police at the time often leads to accusations they are seeking to gain something, to gain financially, politically or with media attention, when allegations against a public figure are in the news. If such a system encourages victims to report abuse nearer to the time – knowing their report will stay completely confidential, but also knowing this reporting might help the justice system intervene with serial abusers – having their allegations filed before there’s a publicly known investigation, should help shield the victim from such charges. And the nearer to the time of the incident details are recorded, the more accurate they are likely to be.
It’s important to emphasise that this would not change anything in terms of the burden of proof required for a criminal case. I do not know whether in a criminal case related allegations might be brought in as evidence, whether multiple cases can be combined in one criminal trial, or the circumstances that govern these. And I’m definitely not suggesting making any change to the rules that each state, nation or jurisdiction places on how related allegations are handled in the court room. I’m only wondering if providing another avenue for starting a full investigation that hands back control to the abused, and gives authorities a chance to identify a serial abuser, might stop the worst abusers much earlier.
Limitations and dangers
I suspect that in the case of minors what I’m describing simply wouldn’t be possible. I’m assuming that authorities have a duty of care, a requirement to follow up any allegations of abuse against minors, which would not allow them to identify a serial abuser without then taking some action. However that is not the case for historic child abuse. Those who abuse children often will do so over many years. If several adults describe abuse by the same person in their past, and a prosecution results, it might stop a serial abuser doing any more damage.
There would of course be considerable restrictions on who has access to the statements and how that information is used. So for example a police officer taking a statement would have no visibility of other allegations against the same person. And strict rules would be needed for the specialist team, in terms of how much a victim can be told about related allegations. Would they for example be told how many similar allegations there are? Or know the number of those who have agreed to co-operate fully in an investigation? Or perhaps not given a number at all? Likewise the prosecutorial team would be need a strong code of conduct in how they approach victims, to avoid pressuring unwilling witnesses, which is not in the victim’s interest, and is more likely to lead to cases collapsing later on.
One accusation or fear about such a system would be that people may make up allegations against public figures, in the hope that something else would come out in the future, and the weight of allegations bring this public figure into disrepute. Or even that a group of people might conspire to make accusations separately and trigger off a prosecution.
However I don’t believe this is the case. Allegations of abuse need to be investigated by the police thoroughly before any criminal prosecution is made. False allegations logged in this database would be taken as seriously as any other false allegation made to the police. For example, recently Carl Beech was found to be a fantasist by a combination of media scrutiny and police work. But this should have been identified much, much earlier. If such a database had existed and contained allegations against the same public figures that Carl Beech accused, it would have made no difference to the lack of credibility of Beech’s own accusations.
Every accusation must be taken on its own merits, and this suggestion is not in any way a shortcut to save the police time – because there is sometimes smoke without fire.
But look at it from the other side. Could such an approach have identified and stopped Jimmy Saville, or Bill Cosby or Dr Larry Nassar decades earlier? It seems all too often abusers get away with it because nothing changes until one victim breaks their silence, unsure they will ever get justice, often facing hostile news media and social media – and they are faced with doing all this alone. The question “how was this allowed to happen?” comes up whenever a serial abuser is finally convicted. Perhaps some abuse can be prevented if victims are in certain circumstances permitted to be told they are not alone?