The fear that lurks behind rape lies

HOURS of police manpower, pages of newsprint and considerable radio airtime was devoted to finding the men who allegedly dragged a 36-year-old woman off the streets in Ipswich and raped her in the grounds of St Margaret's Parish Church last week.

By Lisa Baxter

HOURS of police manpower, pages of newsprint and considerable radio airtime was devoted to finding the men who allegedly dragged a 36-year-old woman off the streets in Ipswich and raped her in the grounds of St Margaret's Parish Church last week.

High-profile media appeals to find the men who carried out an alleged double-rape in a churchyard near Ipswich town centre left women living in the area feeling vulnerable and scared, coming less than a year after a pensioner was raped by a stranger in nearby Cobbold Street.

Parishioners at St Margaret's Parish Church spoke of their horror, women living nearby told of their fear of walking alone in the area after the alleged attack and police and an organisation for victims issued safety warnings.

And then the "victim" admitted she had made the story up.

It was the third time in less than a year that police in the Ipswich area had abandoned a major rape inquiry after the alleged victim confessed to making a false claim. In all cases, police would have devoted considerable resources to the investigations with specially trained officers interviewing the complainant, scenes of crime officers conducting detailed searches of the alleged attack scenes and taking away potential evidence for analysis.

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"We would talk as early as possible to the victim," said police spokeswoman, Anna Woolnough, of the standard procedure for conducting a rape investigation. "Care is taken to ensure she gets appropriate aid and assistance. Our care and concern is for the victim. Usually a team of officers will be assigned to work on the case very quickly. An incident room will be set up, house-to-house inquiries will begin and media appeals will go out quickly because we have a duty to warn the public."

In spite of the string of false rape claims, detectives would continue to take any report of sexual assault as seriously as ever, she said. And Suffolk Police will continue to put out high profile media appeals as quickly as possible after the report of a rape in an effort to protect the public.

"Imagine a woman has come in and she's traumatised – she has to be treated with care and we have to take her claim seriously. What else can we do?" Mrs Woolnough added.

"It is really important that genuine victims of rape come forward," Mrs Woolnough stressed. "We want to reassure all women that we will take their claims seriously."

While those who lie to police and report attacks which have not happened could potentially face prosecution, none of the three who have cried wolf in the last year has been charged at this point in time.

But the number of people claiming to be a victim of major crime when they are not is "rare", she added.

Former Tory minister, Neil Hamilton, and his wife Christine, found themselves subjects of a major police inquiry last year when a trainee college lecturer claimed they, and another man, had sexually assaulted her.

Nadine Milroy-Sloan, 28, dropped her legal right to anonymity as the alleged victim of a sex crime, to sell her story to a national newspaper. But police dropped the case after lengthy investigations traced a phone call to Mrs Hamilton's mobile phone which placed her and her husband 13 miles away at the time of the alleged sex assault. Weeks later, police announced that Barry Lehaney, the 61-year-old accused by Milroy-Sloan of rape, would not face any further action.

The investigation of such claims was likely to have taken considerable police resources and funds. The Hamiltons have since launched a libel action against their accuser.

A spokeswoman for Suffolk Rape Crisis said: "If someone is just wasting police time then I'd say action should be taken," but she added that those who falsely cried rape may have problems which need addressing in ways other than prosecution.

"There are two sides to it. It's easy for people to rush in and be angry for wasting police time. The police put a lot of time into [investigating] it."

Other than squandering finite police resources, crying wolf over rape was likely to have other, less obvious repercussions, she said.

"Whenever something like this is raised – and because it was so horrendous – people naturally are going to be very scared," the spokeswoman said on the feeling of fear instilled in women living in the area where the latest false victim claimed she had been attacked. "Some people will be angry that this happened," she said of the last week's false rape claim.

High profile reporting of the alleged double rape – in an attempt to bring witnesses forward – may have had a serious effect on past victims of sexual assault, bringing memories of what happened to them flooding back, the Rape Crisis spokeswoman said. "People who have gone through it must live through it all again but we haven't had calls from people who have been distressed about it. I'm sure that it has an effect on some victims," she added.

"If you have been a victim, it's all brought to the fore because it's in the papers.

"If there is anyone out there who is feeling down as a result, then give us a call on 01473 715333 between 7pm and 9pm on Mondays or Fridays."

Suffolk Police's Anna Woolnough said: "We would to remind people that stranger rape is a rare crime." People should feel safe when out and about in the county although "sensible precautions should always be taken" in terms of safety on the streets.