Why we must not get hysterical over abuse claims
Gerald from Manchester writes:
I was divorced from my first wife eight years ago, and our two children live with her, except every other weekend and holidays, when they stay with me and my new wife and baby.
My ex-wife was always a caring mother and I had no complaints until now on that score. However my 14-year-old daughter has related something to me which is causing me sleepless nights. My ex has taken up with a boyfriend who is more than 12 years younger than her. I think he is 33. While I want very little to do with him, my frank assessment is that she could have done an awful lot better for herself.
It seems my daughter was alone with him in the house last Sunday morning, when my ex was out shopping and my son was at football practice. She saw him standing naked shaving in the bathroom, with the door wide open. She made some embarrassed comment as she walked past, and he replied: “Time you grew up, young lady”. She has not told her mother yet.
Neither my daughter or her brother, who is aged 12, like this man, but my ex is totally infatuated with him. She dresses like a woman of half her age, she is talking about having breast implants, and spends long periods with him in the pub, according to my kids.
All sorts of plans are now whirling in my head, from confronting him physically, to phoning the police, to keeping the children at my house, to stopping the generous financial support which I give her, unless she throws him out. Please could you advise me what options I have.
Gerald, it sounds to me that the best advice I can give you right now is simply to calm down and do nothing precipitate. Whether you like it or not, you no longer have any control over who your ex chooses to go with. It is obvious that you may land up in court if you do anything physical or if you stop the financial support. This you are simply not entitled in law to do.
And what you have described is not a crime unless he exposed himself deliberately and intended to distress her. Nor, of course, do you want to traumatise your daughter or ruin her relationship with her mother.
'It is not impossible that your daughter may have exaggerated the situation'
Being objective, although you may not want to hear this, it is not impossible that your daughter has herself exaggerated the situation. Children who play off one divorced parent against the other, even subconsciously, are not exactly unknown, and you have said the children dislike him.
Clearly it was grossly inappropriate if he showed himself naked in front of her, and I agree you cannot let it pass. I suggest that you should seek an urgent private meeting with your ex. You should tell her what you have heard in a non-confrontational way. She might be as quick as you to condemn her boyfriend’s behaviour, and to do whatever is right unaided.
In an extreme case — for example, if she simply refuses to listen — you could consider seeking a “prohibited steps order” from the Magistrates Court under the 1989 Children Act. That could order your ex to do whatever were necessary to protect your daughter. If there were any repetition, your case to have the children reside permanently with you in future might be a strong one.
But if I may permit myself this reflection, as a barrister who has had very considerable experience of child sexual abuse cases over many years. I am personally very worried at the current climate in this country, which is in danger of becoming hysterical. I do not think the disgusting offences against children of which we are hearing so much currently, are new. I think they must always have gone on, because human nature and human sexuality have not changed.
What has undoubtedly changed for the better is the rate of detection, and I think also the degree of modesty and self-control which we rightly now demand of one another within the family setting and in society generally.
Whenever the pendulum swings however, there is a danger that it will swing too far over, before it corrects itself. While your concern as a father is totally understandable, this situation would have seemed a simple domestic misunderstanding before the current climate, and it could still be. I would advise you against overreacting before you know the full facts, nor should you allow your dislike of the boyfriend to affect your judgment. You need to handle this very delicate situation coolly, not least for the sake of your children.
The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.GoldbergQC.com