Pedophiles around Australia may be escaping punishment and retaining custody of their young children by evoking a questionable psychological condition.
The condition, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), undermines a child's complaint of sexual abuse by claiming it is the result of one parent's influence.
It is cited in Family Court custody battles, and can play a part in a parent accused of sexual abuse, usually a father, getting custody.
It is argued that a child's complaint of sexual abuse arises because one parent, usually the mother, has become alienated against the other, and then swayed the child.
In 1997, the full bench of the Family Court cited an article supporting PAS and said that it "leaves us in no doubt that Parental Alienation Syndrome is a very real psychological phenomenon..."
In 2002, a workshop, "PAS Fact or Fiction", was presented to Family Court judges. According to psychologist Bob McDonald, the workshop, which included some criticisms, would have left most judges convinced PAS was legitimate. He told an Australian Family Therapies conference this week that PAS is unscientific and linked to pedophilia.
Mr McDonald, a former director of the Family Court counselling service in Townsville, said: "Certainly, lawyers use it, and a number of 'court experts' believe in the notion."
He knew of ongoing cases where PAS had played a crucial role in custody being awarded to a parent accused of child sexual abuse.
The PAS theory was developed by American psychiatrist Dr Richard Gardner in the 1980s. It has been used widely in courtroom battles, but according to critics such as Dr Paul Fink, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, it is "junk science".
Melbourne University professor of psychiatry Alasdair Vance agrees, saying PAS has no standing in mainstream psychiatry or medicine and that research indicated children were more reliable than adults in reporting sex abuse.
"It is not helpful for the community to be hoodwinked by information that's not rigorously tested," he said.
Leading child abuse expert Freda Briggs, emeritus professor of child development at the University of South Australia, said influential people were using PAS to conceal pedophilia and retain their access to children.
Professor Briggs was co-author of last year's Anglican Church report into how former governor-general Peter Hollingworth handled sex abuse complaints when he was Brisbane archbishop.
She said PAS was raised in a Family Court hearing in Adelaide recently to discredit a mother's claims that her former husband was sexually abusing their child.
"People in high places are using PAS to defend their pedophilia," she said. "I know of many cases where this has happened, and continues to happen. PAS has no credibility.
"But it's frequently used to say the mother is a bad person who has encouraged the child to imagine abuse. I recently gave evidence in a case where a lawyer raised it. It has resulted in abusing parents winning out."
Professor Briggs, a consultant to the New Zealand police, said Family Court judges were not well educated on child abuse. "It is good to see the new chief justice interested in the question," she said.
"But when it comes to child abuse and child development, judges are experts in law, and that's not sufficient."
A Family Court spokeswoman said judges were not expected to be experts in other areas. She said the court had a professional development program for judges on issues including child abuse.
"Indeed, a number of judges attended the Family Law Conference held this week in Queensland, where a paper on this issue was presented by Dr Janet Johnston of San Jose State University," she said.
Dr Johnston's paper queried the empirical basis for PAS and offered a "reformulation" of the notion of the alienated child.
The paper also said fathers' rights groups had used PAS in custody and access battles.
It said evidence for PAS had been largely based on "expert" testimony and the clinical experience of Dr Gardner, who died last year. It called for a new model of the alienated child that was more inclusive.
NSW sex abuse campaigner Liz Mullinar followed 25 cases where there was evidence that either a mother or a father had sexually abused their child, and found that the parent accused of abuse won custody, partially by resorting to PAS.
"It is heart-breaking and it is unspeakable, but it is happening," she said