OF ALL THE DESTINIES GEORGE PAOURIS might have imagined for himself during the log trip from Greece to Texas a little more than two years ago, none included sitting in a San Antonio courtroom, trying to convince a judge that he did not kiss his young daughter’s genitals.
“I have no way to protect myself, except to be saying the truth and to stick with it,” says the 32-year-old former Greek navy officer, a tall, dark-haired man who now works as a mechanic in a grocery warehouse. “If I am found guilty, it will affect my life forever. If I am found innocent, the person who accuses me will just walk away–no punishment.”
Paouris draws deeply on a cigarette and looks on, as Raquel, his daughter, climbs on a jungle gym a few feet away. She is a beautiful child, with black hair in a thick braid and enormous pale green eyes. We sit on a bench in San Antonio’s MacArthur Park on a hot Saturday summer morning, watching her. Normally easygoing, Paouris becomes agitated when he speaks of the ordeal that has consumed his life for fourteen months. His voice grows loud, his mannerisms jerky. His anger subsides, though, the moment his daughter races over, tweaks his jutting nose, and clambers onto his lap.
This is the child–according to the criminal indictment–upon whom Paouris committed a litany of sexual atrocities. The person doing the accusing is his ex-wife, Dolores Lopez Markee. Paouris maintains that he is innocent.
He and his present wife Terri, say that Markee has fabricated these charges to eject her former husband from her life. She is an unstable woman, say the Paourises, who repeatedly has moved Raquel and her half-brother, Ralph, from place to place. They fear she is poisoning Raquel’s mind. In response to the sexual abuse charges, last November Paouris and 37-year-old Terri filed a motion in civil court to gain custody of Raquel.
Paouris’ tale is dismal but by no means an isolated one. Talk to family attorneys, and they will tell you that since the mid-eighties, more and more frequently women have been using charges of child sex abuse as weapons in divorce, custody, and visitation battles. And, they are using them effectively: “all you have to do is mention child sex abuse,” says 225 th District Court judge John Specia, “and you never get the smell of the jury box.”
How big is this wave? No one knows for sure. The only large empirical study done to date, published in 1990, found that child sex abuse allegations came up in only about 2 percent of contested custody and visitation cases. But whatever its size, the phenomenon is getting national attention. A cadre of psychologists has devoted reams of paper to the subject, and two researchers have even coined a term, SAID, or sexual allegations in divorce syndrome.
The issue at the heart of the matter is whether the wave is real or not—and additionally whether the accusations are sincere or motivated by revenge. Patricia Toth, the director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, is convinced that most accusations are well founded and that the notion of an epidemic of false charges is ludicrous. “These types of cases take up much more time and involve many more people than those where sex abuse charges don’t come up,” she says. “That’s why people may be perceiving it as an epidemic, not because of sheer numbers. They just aren’t there.”
Dan Price, a family attorney in Austin who says he has seen an exponential rise in revenge-accusation cases in the past ten years, begs to differ. “I’m so god-dammed sick and tired of this “err on the side of the child’ business,” he says. “An allegation may start out being accidental or negligent, but once it’s made, these women hold on to it. You should see them sitting in court. It’s all they can do to bite their lips to keep from grinning.”
What has happened to George Paouris could serve as a textbook case of the phenomenon. First there’s the timing. In almost all such incidents, the charges arise after the separation or divorce, usually in the midst of an unpleasant custody or visitation dispute. Almost always the child—usually under six years old—has spoken only to the mother about the abuse.
Once the child speaks up, the mother takes the youngster to a doctor, where a thorough physical exam is performed and records are made. The mother is told to contact the child protective services division of the Texas Department of Human Services (now the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services), where the child is then interviewed by social workers, sometimes repeatedly. The case may end up in civil or—less often—criminal court.
During the investigation, the father is not allowed to be alone with the child; if necessary, a paid supervisor is hired from one of the companies that have sprung up like mushrooms around the country in recent years. In San Antonio one such company, called, strangely enough, Fit for a King, charges $40 to $50 for a four-hour supervision. Today Paouris’ Fit for a King supervisor is Marge, a plump, pleasant-looking woman, who life almost everyone else who has spent time with Paouris, says she is convinced that he did not sexually abuse Raquel.
“My own daughter was molested by a relative, so if anyone would be suspicious, it would be me,” says Marge, watching Paouris as he stands in front of Raquel while she swings. With each upward arc of her Little Mermaid tennis shoes, he pretends to bite her toes, and she dissolves into giggles.
George Paouris and Dolores Lopez married in 1984. They moved to Greece and began a tumultuous relationship in which Dolores periodically left her husband to return to the United States, according to George. He eventually managed a discharge from the Nave and returned to America to try to patch things up but Dolores would have none of it. From that point on, George found it harder and harder to