• Key point: The fact that a minor who accuses an adult of child abuse later retracts her story does not necessarily prove the accused’s innocence.
• An Idaho appeals court upheld the criminal conviction of an adult for child molestation even though the alleged victim denied that the molestation ever occurred! A 13-year-old girl was visibly upset at school one day. Three classmates attempted to comfort her and asked her why she was crying. She eventually informed them that her mother’s boss had molested her. A few days later, with the girl’s permission, another classmate informed the school secretary that a “friend” had been sexually molested. The secretary persuaded her to reveal the victim’s name. Later that day the secretary spoke with the victim in the presence of the classmate, and the victim told her that her mother’s boss had molested her. School personnel later contacted law enforcement authorities. The victim was placed in a foster home and her mother’s boss was arrested. A few weeks later, however, the alleged victim informed her mother and school officials that she had never been molested and that she had “made up” the story out of anger she felt toward her natural father. The alleged offender was prosecuted for child molestation. The alleged victim testified at the trial that she had fabricated the accusation, and that she had only intended to be “sarcastic” when she accused her mother’s boss of molesting her. However, the three classmates with whom she shared this information testified that she was not being sarcastic on that occasion and that she was “crying really hard.” A pediatrician who had examined the alleged victim testified that the girl had been molested on at least one occasion. However, another physician testified that he had examined the girl and found no evidence of molestation. A psychologist testified that the girl did not exhibit any symptoms commonly associated with molestation. The alleged offender himself testified and insisted upon his innocence. The jury found the accused guilty of molestation, and sentenced him to10 years in a state penitentiary. The accused appealed his conviction to a state appeals court, which affirmed the jury’s ruling. The appeals court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to sustain the jury’s verdict.
This case demonstrates that an accused child molester may be guilty of molestation even though the alleged offender denies the charge and the alleged victim repudiates her earlier allegation that the abuse occurred. Church leaders should attach considerable weight to a minor’s initial allegation of abuse, particularly when there are corroborating factors present (such as disclosure to friends, and emotional distress). Keep in mind that there may be compelling reasons why a minor would later change his or her previous allegation of abuse. These include threats of harm to the minor, threats of a break-up of the victim’s and the offender’s families, and the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence for the offender as a result of the minor’s testimony. Church leaders also should be aware that they may have reasonable cause to suspect that abuse has occurred (triggering a duty to report child abuse to a state agency) even though the alleged offender denies the charge and the alleged victim repudiates his or her earlier allegation that the abuse occurred. In most states, mandatory child abuse reporters have a duty to report abuse so long as they have reasonable cause to believe that it occurred. This is a much lower standard than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that was needed to find the accused guilty in this case. State v. Vaughn, 861 P.2d 1241 (Idaho App. 1993).
See Also: Failure to Report Child Abuse
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