02/06/2014 02:17 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow and the Folly of Commentary

In the media spectacle that has followed Dylan Farrow's open letter about her allegations of sexual assault against her father Woody Allen we can see why it is so difficult to even consider -- let alone write -- about the tragedy of sexual abuse. Everything about this topic, from the trauma experienced by victims to the nightmare possibility of a false accusation, provokes powerful emotions that cloud our thinking. Add the influence that culture and personal experience can have on our subconscious, and you get Stephen King declaring "there's an element of palpable bitchery" in Farrow's letter. It's hard to imagine six words that King would regret more.

Worse than King's words, which were tweeted and not so carefully considered, have been the essays that attempt to expose Farrow's motives and demolish her claims. On the website, Michael Wolf uses his analysis of the case to cut down Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, criticize Lena Dunham, and declare Dylan Farrow a practitioner of spin. At The Daily Beast, Robert Weide devotes too much of an exceedingly long essay on the Farrow allegations to his own relationship with Allen and negative speculation about members of Farrow's family. Weide decries the "noise" that arose around the case and then admits that he is adding to it.

As Weide, Wolf, King and others demonstrate, the topic of sexual abuse -- and most especially the realities of a single case -- is extremely fraught. The trauma experienced by those who have been sexually attacked in childhood often has pervasive and lifelong effects. This undisputed fact imposes a serious burden on anyone who would impugn the motives of someone who speaks-up about abuse. Similarly, a man or woman who is falsely accused can suffer enormously as friends, family, and, in the case of Woody Allen, millions of strangers assume the worst. Anyone who would use the occasion of Dylan Farrow's letter to heap scorn upon Allen should first consider that we are all innocent until proven guilty.

Given the realities of cases like the one involving Farrow and Allen, choosing a side and making arguments about facts and motives can lead only to more confusion and pain. But this doesn't mean that we cannot use the occasion to consider the problem in a productive way. Here we can look to the experience of the Catholic Church, and victims of clergy abuse, who have struggled for decades to understand the sexual abuse of children by trusted adults. In the 30-year-long Catholic abuse crisis, fierce debates have arisen over the nature of memory, the motivations of accusers, the influence of authority figures and many other related concerns. Many, remarkably enough, have been resolved.

After confirming 6,000 "credible" accusations against priests, Church leaders themselves have come to accept that false claims are extremely rare. In its own studies, the Church has found that more than 6,000 priests have been credibly accused and less than two percent of the claims made against clergymen were proven to be false.

In a similar vein, it turns out that most victims recall quite accurately the experience of sexual abuse in childhood. In fact, according to Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law by Daniel Brown, D. Corydon Hammond, and Alan W. Scheflin, the phenomenon of "repressed" memory, in which people seem to forget a traumatic event, is actually quite rare. Far more common is the desire to "move on" from abuse by refusing to think about it. Over time, this effort to forget does push the assault into the past, but it doesn't always diminish the psychological effects of abuse. Later in life, victims often revisit these events in an effort to deal with ongoing depression, anxiety, or problems in their adult relationships. When this happens, they don't so much "recover" memories, as some suggest. Instead, they simply permit themselves to revisit the abuse and examine its effects. It is this examination, which is often accompanied by real psychological recovery, that has prompted thousands of people to speak out about abuse and seek reparations.

What can the Catholic crisis tell us about the dynamic of false accusations? The numbers say this is a rare phenomenon, but for who are targeted by false claims the experience is devastating. In one recent case, DNA tests exonerated an Irish priest accused of fathering a child. He sued, alleging damage to his reputation, and recovered a reported $1.3 million. At the time, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he wondered if anyone falsely accused "ever fully recovers."

If we accept that victims of abuse, and those falsely accused suffer terribly then there is nothing to be gained by joining an argument over a case in which the facts are fiercely contested. Indeed, those who criticize either Farrow or Allen can be certain they have a 50 percent chance of being terribly wrong and adding to an already enormous burden of pain carried by the one they choose to attack. The only thing the rest of us can know for sure is that a terrible tragedy has occurred. Farrow, Allen, and their families and friends have been deeply wounded. Without more definitive facts, the only reasonable response would be compassion for them all.