Our Witch Trials
by

Sexual permissiveness has been the hallmark of the ’60s generation. Behavior once considered perverse — illegal in some states — has become normative, even celebrated. It is the Boy Scouts who are on the defensive now. And yet along with the new view of sexual self-expression as a right akin to freedom of speech — is there a single show on prime time that could have passed network self-censorship even in the 1970s? — there has been a largely unnoted flip side: panic that sexual abuse of children is endemic to this society. In the early 1970s radical feminists like psychiatrist Judith Herman began to argue that millions of women had experienced “incestuous abuse” at the hands of their fathers. Feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote that, for a woman, the home is the most dangerous place in the world. Therapists established a new specialty of helping young women “recover” memories of incest, suppressed, so the theory went, as too horrible for ordinary memory to record.

The moral panic extended from supposed “sex rings” preying on small children to the day-care programs in which many middle-class families put their pre-schoolers, suddenly suspected to be rife with vicious abusers. In No Crueler Tyrannies (Free Press, 256 pages, $25), Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal‘s formidable editorial page provides an invaluable introduction to the nightmare world of ludicrous accusations, self-righteous prosecutors and off-the-wall therapists, complicit judges, credulous media and hysterical publics that numbers of child-care workers found themselves trapped by in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these bewildered innocents were given multi-life prison sentences for crimes that never happened.

Rabinowitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her fifteen-year crusade to expose and reverse these convictions, tells the story simply, sparely, and calmly. She confines her account to six cases she pursued, beginning with Kelly Michaels, a young teacher at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey. Arrested in 1985, Michaels was charged with 131 counts of sex abuse against twenty children, ages three to five. Rabinowitz notes that one child on the stand reported that Kelly made him push a sword in her rectum. “What did Kelly say when you took the sword out?” came the question. “She said, ‘Thank you.'” Neither in this or other cases did the outright absurdity of much of the children’s testimony — or the fact that none of the children had said anything to their parents at the time or shown any reluctance to go to nursery school in the morning — raise questions in the minds of prosecutors, judges or juries. Michaels was sentenced to forty-seven years in prison. She would serve five before the case was thrown out on appeal. (Although Rabinowitz takes no credit in this book, Michaels, like several others of whom she writes, would owe her release in good part to the publicity — and funds for appellate lawyers — her articles generated.)

Readers who followed Rabinowitz’s articles in the Journal will find much that is familiar in this book. Her chief focus is on the Amirault case, in which Violet Amirault, the proprietor of Fells Acre nursery school, her son Gerald and daughter Cheryl, both of whom worked at the school, were all convicted of multiple charges of sex abuse, with Gerald sentenced to thirty to forty years (sixteen years later he is still in prison), mother and daughter to eight to twenty years. As in the other cases, the charges were the work of therapists who over many months badgered, bribed, coaxed and coerced reluctant pre-schoolers — who initially denied anything happened — into saying what prosecutors wanted to hear.

Rabinowitz skillfully interweaves the painful Amirault saga (the arrests, the trial, the appeals, the overturning of the verdicts of the two women, the reinstatement of their sentences by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the unanimous vote of the Governor’s Advisory Board on Pardons and Paroles that Gerald be released) with the unfolding of the other cases. The most famous involved Wenatchee, a small city in the apple-growing region of Washington state where over forty people were arrested, several charged with 2,400 or more counts of sex abuse. Many would be sentenced to long prison terms and fifty children would be removed to foster care, most on the testimony of a mentally disturbed child (who later admitted it was all lies) living in the home of the police officer who conducted the investigation. Eventually all would be released on appeal but in many cases their lives had been ruined, their children permanently lost or alienated.

But if Rabinowitz has chronicled the legal outrages in her columns, the book allows her to give the story a fuller human dimension. She had sat in the courtroom through many of the trials and was present at moments of high drama when an appeals decision was handed down. She came to know the defendants and their families, and lets the reader into their lives. As a result, even the reader who knows the outcome will feel almost unbearable tension as the families wait in a series of courtrooms while trial judges, convinced the original trials were a farce and determined to free the Amirault women, battle with the judges of the Supreme Judicial Court, equally determined to put them back in prison. (The latter, admitting serious problems with the original trial, claimed the public, after so many years, was entitled to “finality.”)

The Amirault family even turned over personal records, producing some of the most painful moments in the book. Rabinowitz describes Violet Amirault as a strong, upbeat personality, a first generation Italian-American who deeply believed in American democracy. Abandoned by a physically abusive husband, she was initially forced to go on welfare to support her three small children. But she built a new life for her family by starting Fells Acre day care and building it up over twenty years into a flourishing institution. Then, at the age of sixty, guilty of no wrong, she — along with her beloved children — became an outcast, scorched by disgusting charges of sexually assaulting the children entrusted to her care, imprisoned, her appeals repeatedly denied by indifferent courts. Rabinowitz records words from Violet’s notes dated April 1989: “The catastrophe goes on. I have I feel outlived my usefulness on earth. I do not believe I can be of any help to my family….I am eaten away with rage and hatred. I do not have enough space or time to vent it all. I am a demon of the worst kind. I have no space for anything or interest in this world. I actually want it to self-destruct. I cannot utter any word without this poison coming through.” The system of justice in which Violet Amirault believed had not only wrecked her life; it injured her soul.

THIS BOOK IS A BRIEF INTRODUCTION to a subject that has been shamefully underreported: it is not and does not pretend to be an exhaustive account. Confining herself to the cases she has covered, Rabinowitz does not even mention some of the most famous trials — for example, that of the Edenton 7, so called after the seven people arrested for supposedly massively abusing children at the Little Rascals Day Care in Edenton, South Carolina. And Rabinowitz is mistaken in saying that by the late 1990s, except for the Amiraults, “the convictions in all such headline-making cases of mass abuse had been thrown out by appeals courts around the nation.” Frank Fuster, victim of the prevailing hysteria in what at the time was the biggest headline-making case of them all, Country Walk (named for the upscale suburban-Miami development in which it unfolded), remains in prison after eighteen years. One hundred forty-seven of his 165-year sentence remain to be served. Robert Rosenthal, the appellate attorney whom Rabinowitz praises for winning the freedom of many of the falsely accused in her book, has called the Country Walk case “the worst I have ever seen” — and he has seen a lot.

John Stoll is also still in prison. One of the victims in the 1982 Bakersfield, California “sex ring” case, the first of the mass cases of mythical abuse (50 people were charged, 26 convicted), Stoll has now served nineteen years of his life sentence. Ironically the term “Stoll’s evidence” is used to refer to the California Supreme Court’s recognition of the right of those accused of bizarre sexual acts against children to introduce expert psychological evidence, including the results of recognized tests, as evidence that they do not fit the profile of sexual deviants. Most people assume Stoll thereby won his freedom, but because of a technicality, it was the sentence of two co-defendants that was overturned.

If the Rabinowitz book finally sparks widespread public concern about these cases, perhaps others will be encouraged to probe more widely and deeply — into the roots of the hysteria and into the failure of our institutions to protect against it. None of the vaunted protections of individual rights in our legal system functioned: indeed traditional rules of evidence and procedure were thrown out the window with nary a protest from watchdog associations like the American Bar Association or even the ACLU. Professional associations failed to police or even question the coercive therapeutic tactics that produced the childrens’ testimony. Equally striking has been the absence of public outrage. While Madison Square Garden overflowed with supporters of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, there have been only scattered small support groups for the victims of these egregious trials.

Nor can these cases be separated from the simultaneous wave of recovered memory therapy, built upon a false notion of memory as a camera that stores every experience, which is then subject to precise retrieval. Often a single case will have both elements. For example, Ileana Fuster, Frank Fuster’s 17-year-old wife, imprisoned for eleven months (much of it in solitary confinement), steadily denied any abuse had occurred until she was subject to prolonged recovered memory therapy in prison. (She has since made sworn affidavits about the coercion to which she was subject and the falsity of her “confession,” but this has not helped her former husband.)

Rabinowitz does not make sufficiently clear that the cases she describes are only the tip of the iceberg. Two years ago a federal judge ordered the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to overhaul its child abuse and neglect investigations — the judge concluded they were one-sided, based on little evidence and unfairly blacklisted child-care workers. Three-quarters of those the Department had accused of abuse or neglect were ultimately exonerated on appeal, indicating, said the judge, something seriously flawed in the system. What is true of Illinois is doubtless true of other states operating under the same provisions of the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act of 1974, which not only set up a whole child abuse “industry” but made false charges of abuse penalty-free.

It is a safe bet that more Americans know about the Salem witch trials than any other event in the 1690s. It is likely that three hundred years from now more Americans will know of the strikingly similar sex abuse madness of the last twenty years than a host of events now far higher on the public radar screen. We are incredulous that at Salem judges and public alike could believe girls who writhed and shrieked that they were at that moment being pinched by the accused sitting far away in the dock. Yet the charges that recently passed muster in American courtrooms were no less bizarre. Nor was Satan lacking. In a number of high profile cases, prosecutors and therapists alike were convinced that Satanic cults were at work. In Bakersfield, for example, authorities dredged a lake and excavated backyards searching for 29 babies said to have been killed and partly eaten in Satanic rituals by members of the supposed “sex ring,” despite the fact that no baby had been reported missing.

As the few who spoke out in 1690 are honored now, so will the small number who championed the victims in our own era be honored then: people like Ofra Bikel (whose television documentaries played a major role in ultimately freeing the Edenton 7), Robert Rosenthal, who defended so many in the courts at great personal sacrifice, and Kathryn Lyon, who first uncovered the abuse of justice in Wenatchee. Not to mention Dorothy Rabinowitz.

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