Review: Delayed Prosecution for Childhood Sexual Abuse

Publication Date01 November 2008
AuthorDebbie Cooper
Penney Lewis
Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2006) xxxiv + 227pp, £63 hb
In Delayed Prosecutions for Childhood Sexual Abuse Penney Lewis looks at the ways in
which criminal justice systems across the common law world have adapted to deal
with the particular challenges posed by allegations of historic sexual abuse. In a
thorough, well-structured and impeccably researched treatment of the topic,
Lewis throws much-needed light on the complexities of the evidential issues that
the courts must negotiate in considering often very severely delayed allegations of
childhood sexual abuse. For academics and practitioners alike this is an enlight-
ening read. It is also a text which refreshingly takes seriously the claims to justice
of both victims and defendants in an area where debate tends to polarise and
mutual respect for counterclaims to justice is frequently lacking.
Lewis has chosen a sensitive area in which to examine the tensions inherent in the
adversarial approach to criminal justice. Adversarial process, by design, takes a
sceptical view of complainants’ claims. Guilt must be proved to a very high
standard in order to minimise the risk of wrongful conviction and maintain
public confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice process. However, the
beliefs of even staunch advocates of retributive or just-deserts theories of criminal
justice are severely tested when theoretical commitments to due process and fair
trial rights are examined under the spotlight of child sexual abuse. Lewis acknowl-
edges this dilemma at the beginning of her text when, in the book’s Preface, she
formulates the question at the heart of her inquiry: ‘How does one sustain one’s
commitment to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial when
faced with the horror of complainants’ stories?’ (p. ix).
Sexual abuse complainants have more cause than most to complain, not only
about their treatment at the hands of their alleged abusers, but also about their
experiences of the very systems to which they turn for vindication of their claims.
The difficulties that adult and child victims face in cooperating with criminal
prosecutions for alleged sexual assault are well documented. The nature of sexual
abuse complaints is such that proof more often than not rests upon a jury’s accep-
tance of one person’s word over another’s. Credibility is almost always the key

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