Suicidality is not a sign of guilt in child sex abuse cases

by David Cmelik

First, if you are reading this because you are having thoughts of suicide, I urge you to stop reading and get help now, through your local hospital or the mental health community. There are people out there to help you and you are not alone in this fight.

Now, if you’re reading this more casually, you might even think that someone who contemplates ending it all because of a false accusation of child sex abuse has all of the protections our court system has to offer. Thus, attempting suicide must mean one thing: guilt. I don’t believe suicidality points to a guilty mind. This process is damn intimidating for the uninitiated. Plus, people are naturally revolted at the accusation itself, let alone whether it might be true. Conventional wisdom is that most people must appeal to their better angels to presume innocence, as is required in our system of justice. The first instinct is gut not brain.   And people attempt suicide every day without being guilty of anything but hope and, then, crushing defeatism. Hope for a better future they feel will never come to fruition. Hope for the restoration of their retirement account, their reputation after bankruptcy, their marriage, and, in this economy, the thing they get up to do everyday—a job. And, yes, defeatism that none of these things will ever come their way. Everyone wants to be healthy, happy, and useful in life. People end their lives because of financial ruin.
Even the most law-abiding attempt or commit suicide. Some such acts are completely random. We try to understand suicide but cannot. I do not advocate it and I urge those who are contemplating it to get help now. I find particularly insidious, however, the insinuation that a suicide or its attempt is a sign of guilt. Especially in the world of child sex abuse allegations where false accusations can and do occur. Conflict in relationships and marriage is an evolution of our culture. More than half of all marriages end in dissolution. Some adults are not above coaching their own children to make false accusations to advance their adult financial and custodial situation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that, when pulled in two directions, an impressionable child may choose a parent and alienate another in such situations. Such a child may blame one parent rightly or wrongly for causing the split. And in some cases, they may take that blame to an extreme and manufacture accusations of child sex abuse. Can we really say it never happens?
There is a brand of pseudoscientific zealotry out there that counters this rhetorical question with the corollary that children cannot form sophisticated lies. This view is uttered among law enforcement specifically assigned to sex crimes as well as outsourced child interviewers who are not law enforcement officers nor sworn to uphold the law. There is an inescapable reality here. When children are capable of speaking, there is a presumption in Iowa that they are competent to testify unless and until otherwise challenged. See State v. Andrews, 447 N.W.2d 118, 120 (Iowa 1989). Children as young as four have been allowed to testify as to child sex abuse claims—and their testimony is advanced by prosecutors as competent to discern truth from falsehood. That means that abuse claimant advocates who believe in a zero percent false positive rate must argue that children are incapable of telling lies even though such children are arguably required to understand how to form a lie and yet choose, by some invisible hand, not to tell one. The Court must swear the child in to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Why swear them in if they are incapable of lying? When does a child become capable of lying such that their words must now be scrutinized? Age 18 15? 12? 5? Not everyone believes children are incapable of telling sophisticated lies—or that the accused are automatically guilty because they are discouraged by the unthinking adoption of a mere allegation.

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Detail from document connected with the foundation of Henry VII's chantry and almshouses at Westminster. The King sits in the Star Chamber and receives the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Star Chamber is widely believed to have been a kangaroo court where people were forced to confess against themselves even when they were not guilty. It was ultimately abolished and conventional wisdom suggests its abuses were the foundation for the US Constitution's many legal protections.  Image is taken from Wikipedia/Wikicommons and has no known copyright. The image is available at:

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