Woman denied damages in abuse case is determined to fight on


The legal battle between a Dublin University student and her American father over allegations of child abuse has intensified with the issuing of a warrant in the US for the arrest of the student's mother.

Ms Laraine Johnson is the mother of Christa Johnson, a TCD philosophy student, who returned to Dublin last week from Phoenix, Arizona, after losing a claim against her father for damages for abuse because the judge in the case said that she was "a remarkably well-adjusted young woman".

A warrant for her mother's arrest was issued after she failed to turn up to swear a deposition in Phoenix as to her assets and means. This was required as part of a $750,000 judgment registered against her last July by her ex-husband, Mr David Pankratz. The damages for mental anguish and child support related to the decision by Laraine to take Christa to Europe in 1983.

Laraine Johnson is seeking to have the warrant quashed and says that she is willing to make a deposition to the court. She was not in the US when the award was made against her.

The issuing of the warrant is the latest twist in a protracted struggle between mother and daughter and Mr Pankratz, who has denied the child-abuse allegations. He is demanding his daughter's return to the US and has accused her mother of abduction.

Over the past 10 years the case has been the subject of deliberations at the highest levels between the US and Irish governments.

A leading US senator and presidential candidate, Mr John McCain, has led a campaign to have Christa Johnson returned to the US and has expressed anger at the decision of the Irish Government to grant her Irish citizenship several years ago.

Speaking on her return to Dublin, Christa Johnson told The Irish Times that she was determined to win damages against her father on appeal. Her appeal against the judgment of Judge David Talamante - in which he said that he believed her account of child abuse, but held nevertheless that there was no basis for damages - is being supported by two American support groups for child-abuse victims.

The Washington-based One Voice organisation and the Centre Against Sexual Abuse (CASA) are studying the judgment and may provide assistance for the appeal.

One Voice is prepared to provide Christa Johnson with research which it says contradicts Mr Pankratz's claim that Laraine Johnson planted false memories in her daughter's mind. It will claim that adults can clearly recall abuse they suffered as young children and cannot have false memories of abuse planted in their minds.

"The decision of the judge, as far as I am concerned, was a huge error of judgment, and I am hoping a fresh judge in the appeal will have a greater understanding of these issues", Christa Johnson said.

"The atmosphere in the courtroom was the worst. My father had a large group of friends and family, whereas myself and my mother felt quite isolated. From my point of view, what hurt the most was that everything that happened me over the years seemed to be dismissed by the judge in a few minutes. He spoke about what was done to me and then stood up and went for his lunch."

Christa Johnson said that she hoped the appeal would be heard before a jury. "This is not about money, it is about establishing that these things happened."

Her animosity towards her father, a pilot living in Pennsylvania, who is remarried and has three other children, had worsened since the hearing, she said. "Even if this all ended now, I do not think there could ever be a reconciliation", she added.

Documents disclosed during the court hearing illustrated the friction between father and daughter. In response to a birthday card from her father a few years ago, Christa Johnson simply wrote a two-line reply: "I received the birthday card. I am very busy and doing well in school."

She said that the collapse of her respect for her father was the result of her memories of nights when he used to come into her room and molest her in bed. She told the court that this occurred between 1981 and 1983, when her father had access to her at weekends under terms of the divorce settlement with her mother.

"I would try to pretend I was already asleep", she testified in court, "but that really only worked once or twice."