Accusations of sexual abuse pull a family apart


December 27, 1990|By Randi Henderson

The accusation is made, a charge so ugly to be unimaginable to many, of sexual abuse within a family. The accused vehemently denies the charge. There is no physical evidence.

Will the truth ever be known?

"The divergence in stories [about sexual abuse] is something that we're confronted with more and more," said David Wells, a Baltimore psychologist who treats a number of incest victims.

"It's not unusual for a family to be split down the middle," said Chris Courtois, a Washington therapist and author of "Healing the Incest Wound" (Norton Books, 1988).

Such a divergence is the hallmark of the recent case involving Frank Munno and his daughter Angela Mattson. (See accompanying article.)

"It's such a classic story that you can't assume it didn't happen," said Dr. Charles I. Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy Hospital and vice chairman of the Governor's Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

"If the jury has found the man innocent, he is innocent. He has had his day in court," asserted Wanda Robinson, who prosecutes sexual abuse cases for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. There's no single yardstick for determining the truth, she said. "The reality is, these cases are the most difficult to prove."

People who commit incest fit no pre-conceived profile, agreed a number of professionals.

"We think of it as a heinous crime and when the perpetrator doesn't match this image we may conclude it didn't happen," said Linda Blick, president of the Chesapeake Institute, a Montgomery County organization which deals with treatment and prevention of sexual abuse.

Like other professionals, Ms. Blick said that it is much more likely that a perpetrator is lying and covering up his guilt than a presumed victim making up a charge.

"I'm not saying there are no false charges," she said, but added that in most cases seemingly false accusations turn out to be a case of misunderstanding what the victims are saying, especially when they are children.

Dr. Shubin said it is possible -- though unlikely -- that media attention to the issue might prompt vindictive and unfounded accusations.

"With the increased awareness of sexual abuse we have created a potential backlash, which in some twisted minds results in inappropriate response," he explained.

But though the facts may never be known about the Munno-Mattson case, Dr. Shubin said, one thing is clear about that family: "These people need help, no matter what the truth is."

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