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 225th 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 see his daughter.

In 1991 the Paourises began divorce proceedings, the same year the alleged abuse occurred. In May and October of that year, according to her sworn affidavit, Dolores say Raquel had told her that George had kissed her “koo-koo-pops”—a Lopez-family term for genitalia—during two visits with him and had also engaged in various other sexual acts.

After both instances, Dolores took Raquel to the hospital for pelvic exams. In the first, the report came back normal; in the second, the doctor wrote that Raquel’s vulva was slightly irritated. Subsequently Dolores contacted the DHS. Twice the agency conducted videotaped interviews with Raquel; both times its finding was “unable to determine” if abuse had occurred.

In the meantime, Dolores lobbied the Bexar County district attorney’s office, demanding action. That finally got results. The DA’s office presented videotapes to a grand jury, which returned a criminal indictment. On May 12, 1992, George was arrested. He was released the next morning to away court proceedings in the fall. The civil case was scheduled for July 16.

Of all the tricky areas of dealing with child sexual abuse, perhaps the trickiest is gathering evidence from the alleged victim. This is a task that falls to the caseworkers, and it is one that critics say the workers are unqualified to perform. To be a caseworker at the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, all a person needs is a college degree. It can be in anything—music, botany, social work. After nine to twelve weeks of training, workers are making decisions that can change people’s lives.

David Reilly, the director of regional operations, says that while caseworkers are not specifically instructed in how to detect false allegations, they are taught how to ascertain a child’s credibility. Austin family attorney Price, however, minces no words in his criticism of the agency’s procedures. Their goal, he says, is not to determine if abuse occurred; it is to determine that it did.

“You ask a DHS caseworker how to detect if an allegation is false, and their eyes glaze over,” says Price.

One particular problem is that young children are susceptible to suggestion. They also aim to please­ especially their parents. If a child senses that the mother suspects something happened, the child may agree that it did. Couple this tendency with caseworkers who may feel it necessary to ask very young children leading questions—“Who touched your pee-pee?” “Did Daddy touch your pee-pee?”—and the waters become irrevocably muddied. They get even muddier with the use of anatomically correct dolls, essentially Raggedy Anns and Andys with pubic hair, breasts, and penises.

The problem with the dolls is that both abused and nonabused children may play with them in a similar way, as a spate of studies have shown. “You give me anybody’s three- six-year-old child and some anatomically correct dolls, and I’ll have them accusing somebody of sex abuse by midnight,” says Price.

On a muggy morning in late July, the cast of players in the psychodrama that had become Raquel Paouris’ life assembled around wooden tables in the 150th District Court of Judge Carleton B. Spears, 34, who would listen to and decide on the testimony in the civil custody case. At one table said 30-year-old Dolores Markee, wearing a conservative dress, a gold crucifix, and glasses, her full lips and exotic features framed by thick dark hair pulled back in a clasp. Next to her sat her fourth husband, Richard, a constructions manager with Sitterle homebuilders. Denise Martinez—Markee’s third and most recent attorney—sat next to him.

At the next table were Paouris, his attorneys—Shirley Ehrilch and Alma Lopez—and Terri. A pale woman with blond hair, Terri has championed her husband’s case almost since the day she met him in May 1991, after the sex abuse charges had already been made.

Over the next six days, a string of witnesses flowed through the courtroom. Terri testified that during the October visit, the only time Paouris and Raquel were out of her sight was the few minutes when he took her to use the bathroom. Markee’s ex-husband Ralph Serrano testified that Markee had an unstable lifestyle and that they had battled over visitation for their son, Ralph Junior.

At one point, the trial was halted to that the attorneys and the judge could view the two DHS tapes of interviews with Raquel. In the first tape, caseworker John Garcia helped Raquel remove a male doll’s pants. In the second tape, Raquel lifted a doll’s crotch to her mouth after being prompted ceaselessly by another caseworker as to where, exactly, her father had kissed her. That scene was, apparently, the nail that sealed the criminal indictment against Paouris.

After the first tape, Garcia testified that he thought Raquel had been telling the truth about being abused, even though the DHS report had said that nothing could be substantiated. Garcia also said that after viewing the tape, Markee had jumped up to give him a hug and kiss on the cheek. Most parents are not overjoyed if they believe their child has been abused, he testified; they are upset.

Denise Martinez, Markee’s attorney, sought to bolster the mother’s case. She called Dr. Maria Cruz, a clinical psychologist who said that Raquel was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder— diagnosis often given to sexually abused children. She based her diagnosis mainly on statements given to her by Markee about Raquel’s behavior, as well as some brightly colored pictures Raquel had drawn, which the psychologist said showed Raquel was afraid of her father.

The court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Joann Murphey, offered quite a different opinion. From her investigation—which included a review of the tapes, DHS reports, and medical records, as well as interviews and psychological testing on Paouris and Markee—she found nothing significant to substantiate the sex abuse charge. To the contrary, she said, she suspected the charge was false, largely because of inconsistencies in Markee’s information. For example, Markee denied having romantic involvements with other men, yet she would show up at Murphey’s office accompanied by various men. Also, according to DHS records, Markee had said the doctors found medical evidence that Raquel’s vagina had been penetrated, when, in fact, there were no such records.

The psychological evaluations were also worrisome, said Murphey. Markee’s Rorschach test revealed her to have “repressed hostility” and a high potential for “distortions in thinking.” On a test for empathy—the ability to feel for others and to form human bonds—she made a low score. On the other hand, Paouris scored well on all the tests, especially the one for empathy. Murphey’s analysis was echoed by two Fit for a King supervisors, each of whom testified that Raquel tended to be timid and withdrawn at her mother’s house but that she would “open up like a flower” in the company of her father.

Martinez finally called Dolores Markee to the stand. She wept when describing her daughter’s behavior on the nights of the alleged abuse. She said Paouris once threatened to kill her and to take Raquel out of the country. She said he cursed her in front of the children.

During cross-examination, Paouris’ attorney Shirley Ehrlich was visibly irate. She picked at the inconsistencies—large and small—that seemed to trail Markee. Why did she tell a worker from a child abuse advocacy group that Paouris had been confined to a mental institution in Greece, when he had not? Couldn’t the redness of Raquel’s vulva be explained by the fact that she had been wearing urine soaked panties on the day her father came to visit on October 12, according to the testimony of one of her aunts? And, most telling, why did she claim in her affidavit that she talked to Paouris on the two nights that he dropped off his crying daughter at the house—after having allegedly abused her—when Markee had not been at the house? Couldn’t Markee’s fears for Raquel, in fact, be connected to her own sexual abuse as a child—a fact that had come out in the testimony of Dr. Cruz?

On July 28, fourteen months after he was accused of sexually molesting her, George Paouris was awarded sole custody of Raquel. In a letter to the two attorneys in the case, Judge Spears wrote:

It is the finding of this court that the sexual abuse did not take place as alleged… . In comparing the mother and father … the Court looks to the actions of each parent.

The father offers a much more stable life than the mother … [though] There is no doubt that the mother loves the child …

In conclusion, the judge granted visitation rights to Markee. Both parents and child were ordered into counseling.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a reporter for the San Antonio Light.