Viewpoint: GPs' child sex abuse detection role and why prosecutions will change

Cases of child sexual abuse have received unprecedented coverage over recent months and it is clear that the criminal justice system has not always got its handling of such cases right, writes director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer QC.

Mr Starmer: 'Doctors play a crucial role in helping to detect cases of child sexual abuse.'
Mr Starmer: 'Doctors play a crucial role in helping to detect cases of child sexual abuse.'

As head of the CPS, I am ensuring that our approach to tackling child sexual abuse changes.

The role of professionals who work to support and protect vulnerable children and victims of child sexual abuse is vital, which is why I think it essential that doctors take this opportunity to contribute to the process of reforming our procedures for tackling this issue.

I have recently published guidelines setting out the complexities of bringing these difficult cases to justice, proposing a new approach to the way the police and prosecutors handle cases of alleged child sexual abuse.

A key part of our new approach has to be the way we perceive the victims and the kind of issues they face which those in the medical profession will no doubt be familiar with. Many of the victims are vulnerable precisely because they are not only young, but they often display some or all of the following characteristics: they are unable easily to trust those in authority and still less able to report intimate details; they use alcohol; they return to the perpetrator of the offences against them; and, not infrequently, they self-harm. These characteristics were previously seen as reasons not to prosecute, but the draft guidance shows the fundamental change in approach. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the number of victims at risk may be considerably higher than previously thought.

Degree of caution is unjustified

These guidelines will ensure that my lawyers focus on the overall allegation, rather than the perceived weakness of the person making them. When victims report a burglary, we do not instinctively question their credibility, and nor should we when people report allegations of child sexual abuse.

Also, an over cautious approach has been adopted on some occasions in the past, perhaps reflecting an understandable concern for guarding against false allegations, but my view is that this degree of caution is not generally justified. The concern should not be ignored, but it is important that it is kept in proper perspective. The risk, otherwise, is of sexual offences being subjected to a different and, in reality, more rigorous test than that applied to victims of other crimes.

These cases are not easy, but recent experience has shown that by patiently building a case and dispelling myths and stereotypes about victims, the CPS can prosecute them successfully.

Doctors play a crucial role in helping to detect cases of child sexual abuse, encouraging reporting of such cases to the police, and offering invaluable to support to victims throughout the course of criminal proceedings. That’s why I am putting my new approach out to public consultation and I strongly urge you to share your views.

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