Christchurch, Winter 2010.
The atmosphere in the Christchurch hotel room is very tense.
Two young women in their early thirties sit on either side of their mother, and both make only occasional eye contact with others in the room.
With a brief prompt, one begins to relate a story of horror – of a childhood and a family life ripped apart by overzealous doctors and therapists.
Joanne Fraser tells of the time that a female doctor told her to disrobe in a hospital ward, conducted an internal examination, and then told the trembling nine-year old that she appeared to have “enjoyed” the invasion of her young body – providing incontrovertible “proof” that her father had sexually abused her.
Joanne knew it was a preposterous lie. Nonetheless, the doctor insisted her father had interfered with her, and called the bewildered child a “slut” for having allowed it to happen.
Tears are flowing freely in the room now. Joanne’s Mum Margaret pulls her daughter close. This is the first time she has heard this revelation.
Dabbing her eyes, seeking to gain some composure, Joanne’s older sister Teresa nods and says much the same thing was done to her by the doctor.
Moreover, that upon Teresa’s admission to Christchurch Hospital’s Ward 24 for “treatment”, Teresa, then aged eleven, had been made by therapists to wear a small but very heavy backpack for up to eight hours a day.
“I was told this backpack – which was full of wooden blocks – was my ‘burden’,” Teresa tells her family. “The staff would tell me that if I were to disclose something about my Dad abusing me, then they would take a block out of the bag. Sometimes when I wasn’t co-operating, more blocks would go in.”
By this stage, Margaret is beside herself. She knows how dreadfully hard it has been for all her family since the utterly false allegations were made about her husband in 1988, but she never fully understood the toll it had taken on her girls.
The Fraser family sit and quietly absorb the body-blows of these fresh disclosures. The youngest child, Michael, aged 27, grimaces in his seat – hurting, physically a lot more than his older sisters today.
His jaw and three ribs, freshly broken in a fight last week with a distant relative, who at a family funeral called his father a “kiddie-fucker,” then handed him a severe beating.
This is just one of as many as a dozen broken families, who lost innocence, hope, contact with their loved ones, and in several cases even life itself, because of a single-minded and misguided obsession.
Children to Ashes, Fathers to Dust.
In the late 1980’s a number of families – mostly in and around Christchurch – were ripped apart by accusations of child sex abuse.
Two doctors – one a psychiatrist, the other a supposed child health specialist, engineered the removal of probably in excess of 20 children from their parents.
The reason: the child health specialist believed she had a revolutionary new way of proving that kids – especially girls – had been sexually abused.
The technique she used has now been internationally discredited, but the damage remains.
The children concerned – who were aged between five and seven years old at the time - are now emerging from the darkness to which they and their families were consigned.
Many of them have suffered major mental trauma as a result of having been taken from their parents – all carry the scars. At least two of the wrongly accused fathers died in their forties – their children convinced their hearts and health were broken by the accusations.
The paranoia about sexual abuse in Christchurch at that time, finally had its sequel in the infamous Christchurch Creche affair, - a story which divided a nation, and finally made us start to ask if we hadn’t been too zealous.
The “stolen” children are now adults, and they are fighting mad. The passage of 22 years has done nothing to diminish their adamant denials that they were never sexually abused by their fathers.
The awful irony is that some of these people were placed into foster care where, they allege, they suffered the exact abuse their fathers were falsely accused of perpetrating.
Some of the former victims of the diagnosing doctor have ended up in tragic situations in respect to their health and lifestyles.
The tales are literally like something plucked from the pages of Charles Dickens.
In thirty years of making TV programmes I have yet to come across a more ghastly situation. That it could have happened in Aotearoa defies belief.
Those who were falsely diagnosed as having been abused would – in an ideal world - confront the doctor who tore their families asunder, the policeman who told their Dads to get a gun and shoot themselves, to save the courts the expense of a trial, and a system which has shrugged its shoulders at their pain.
Also left in the wake of this affair, a number of frightened health professionals and others whose own attempts to stop what was occurring in the eighties, were met with threats, intimidation, and jacked-up claims that they were probably child abusers too.
Those who perpetrated what are now generally acknowledged as having been terrible breaches of natural justice, have never been called to account.