ANALYSIS: The 'Woods' controversy explained

The Woods controversy explained

By Fergal Bowers

It is likely to be late this year before the Medical Council rules on whether social campaigner, Dr Moira Woods is guilty or not of professional misconduct in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse she made against five Irish families.

This unprecedented case has its roots in events in the mid to late 80s. It was around this time that the true nature and extent of child sexual abuse came to light in this country. However, it was not until 1987 that the Department of Health published official guidelines for health workers on detecting and dealing with child sex abuse.

However, well before this time, there were discussions involving the Department of Health and the Rotunda Hospital on setting up a sexual assault treatment unit. It followed newspaper reports of claims that rape victims had been badly treated and concern over Ireland's growing problem of child sex abuse.

The Sexual Assault Treatment Unit opened at the Rotunda Hospital in 1985. Dr Woods became the senior doctor there.

Taken into care

Where child sex abuse is confirmed, the impact on all parties is devastating. Children are removed from families by the health board and taken into care. Those against whom the abuse allegations are made may face criminal charges. In this controversy, none of the fathers were ever charged with abuse.

This controversy over claims that false allegations were made of child sexual abuse involving 11 children from five families dates back to the late 80s. At the heart of the issue is whether Dr Woods met the standards that would have been expected of other doctors at the time in this field. We will only know the answer to that question when the outcome of the inquiry is known.

'Children were removed from families and taken into care, but later returned'.

Today, the Medical Council is due to hear final submissions and then its Fitness to Practise Committee will retire for some time to consider the evidence. Many of the families have come to Dublin today to hear the proceedings close.

The abuse allegations in this controversy were initially made by social workers and in one case, it is understood that five children from one family were taken into care. In cases where children were taken into care, they were later returned to their families, but it took years for this to happen in some instances. In many cases, the families initiated legal action to get their children back. That is the scale of the matters at the heart of this controversy.

Dr Woods has strenuously denied all allegations of professional misconduct and has argued that her actions were clinically justified.

First complaints

The first complaints were made to the Medical Council in 1992 by one family. But it was to be another four years before the Council decided that there was a prima facie case for the holding of a full inquiry. It took another three years to get to a preliminary hearing - the one and only such hearing in public and in front of the media. The full inquiry proper began in October 1999.

Arising from a High Court ruling, the inquiry has been held in private and the identities of the parties can not be made public. However, the court did give the Council the power to publish a full report at the end, with the identities of the families protected.

In an unusual move, the Medical Council had wanted the inquiry to be held in public. However, one of the health boards objected, essentially on the grounds that family law matters previously held in camera (in private) were at issue. The High Court accepted this argument.

Much of the delay in the hearing commencing arose from a stream of legal actions.

Over time, all of the families involved became known to eachother and most have campaigned as a group.

The Medical Council is the policing body for Irish doctors. It examines allegations of misconduct or fitness to practise. The self-regulating body has sweeping powers, similar to the High Court. The proceedings of an inquiry are similar to that of a court room. The registrar of the Medical Council presents the 'prosecution' case and is aided by lawyers. Dr Woods had her legal team argue for her side, the 'defence'.

The case is heard by the Council's Fitness to Practise committee, a group of around seven people - all members of the Medical Council - doctors and lay people.

At the end of an inquiry, the report of the FTPC and its recommendations go to a full meeting of the Medical Council. It can decide to clear a doctor, attach conditions to the way they work in the future, suspend them from their practice or strike them off the register.

A doctor has 21 days in which to challenge any such decision by the Council in the High Court.

Health boards

This controversy involves not only Dr Woods, but the Rotunda Hospital's Sexual Assault Treatment Unit where she was head. It also involves two health boards where the families concerned live in. A large number of witnesses, including international experts, gave evidence.

Since this matter emerged, we have seen legislation to grant health workers and indeed the public immunity from being sued if they report, in good faith, cases of suspected child abuse. That legislation predates these events. Also, the government has promised a White Paper on mandatory reporting of child abuse and has committed itself to bringing in legislation to cater for this.

Since the events in this case sparked the inquiry, a raft of new child care legislation has come into force. Today, there is better protection and detection of child sexual abuse.

Depending on the outcome of this controversy, the health service and state agencies could be facing an unprecedented lawsuit from the families concerned.

The Medical Council now has to wade through thousands of documents and evidence to come to its decision. The families, Dr Woods and the public must wait a little longer to hear the verdict.

Discussions on this topic are now closed.