and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
March 14, 1995


A Darkness in Massachusetts -- II

A few months after Violet and Cheryl Amirault were imprisoned for committing, the State alleged, barbarous sexual assaults on small children, the prosecutors sponsored a seminar titled "The Fells Acres Day School Case--A Model Multidisciplinary Response."

At this meeting, led by then-District Attorney Scott Harshbarger (now attorney general of Massachusetts), social service workers, therapists and other State witnesses paid tribute to all who had brought the case to its fruition. Sixty-three-year-old Violet Amirault, proprietor of Fells Acres in Malden, Mass., and daughter Cheryl had been sentenced in 1987 to eight to 20 years. Tried separately, Gerald, Violet's son, received 30 to 40 years.

Among the speakers at the convocation was co-prosecutor Patricia Bernstein, who told how, thanks to a sensitive and creative judge, the child plaintiffs had been allowed to sit facing the jury, rather than the accused. Other speakers pondered problems encountered in this model case. Some Fells Acres parents, for instance--described as being "in denial"--had refused to believe the charges. Another expert spoke on physical evidence of abuse at Fells Acres--a delicate issue, given the fact that the prosecutors had been unable to produce any piece of such evidence. A prosecution witness, this speaker (a pediatric gynecologist) had provided one of the more memorable pieces of medical testimony heard at Gerald Amirault's trial.

Testifying with regard to a child who claimed that Gerald had penetrated her anally with a knife, Dr. Jean Emans offered a supporting statement--namely that an object could "touch the hymen on the way to trying to find the anus" without penetrating the vagina. The object in this instance was a butcher knife.

Informative as the district attorney's seminar was, certain questions remained unanswered. The State, for example, had charged only the Amiraults--though child after child had named other teachers. Promised rewards, children repeatedly offered details about how Miss Anne Marie or Miss Joanne or Miss Carol had (along with the Amiraults) assaulted them. The State had chosen, as the theme of its sensational case, a story of a dark family conspiracy. It was a story, clearly, in which other teachers--family outsiders--had no place.

The case against the Amiraults began in 1984, when the parent of a five-year-old filed a complaint of abuse against 31-year-old Gerald, father of two and expecting a third. Employed at the school, Mr. Amirault had changed the child's wet underpants, later delivered to the pupil's house. The complaining parent, who said she had been concerned with abuse because her brother had been molested as a boy, would subsequently offer several different versions of events. In the meantime, the first charge brought a pile-on of others.

Following Gerald Amirault's arrest without questioning, the Malden Police called a meeting. Here, some 80 parents of Fells Acres students were instructed to go home and question their children about a magic room, a secret room and a clown. Not for nothing did the word quickly spread among the children that Gerald Amirault had done something bad and that it involved a magic room and a clown.

Then and later, prosecutors would ask, rhetorically, how so many children could all talk about a magic room and the bad clown (allegedly Gerald) if the charges were not true. The answer, of course, was to be found in the continuous introduction of these subjects by parents and investigators. The well traveled bad clown of this case had already shown up in headline-making child abuse trials across the country, as had the alleged mutilated animals that surfaced here.

At the district attorney's seminar on Fells Acres, Malden Police Inspector John Rivers revealed perhaps more than he intended when he told the assemblage that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from a stone." But the children were not stones and so would, in the end, yield to persuasion and "tell things." One child said more than a dozen times in her interview that Gerald Amirault had not touched her sexually.

Interviewer: "Did anybody touch Penny [the child's friend] on her bum?"

Child: "Nobody. Nobody didn't do it."

Four more times the interviewer asks if anybody touched the children--to which she gets the same answer of "no," "no." Asked still again, the exhausted child finally erupts.

"Nobody didn't do it!"

In time, with subsequent interviews, the child would finally say what the interrogator wanted her to say. So was born another set of charges.

It was clear, after the first charge, that nothing in the Amiraults' heretofore abundant and busy existence would ever be the same. Someone twice fired bullets into Gerald's house, one barely missing his wife, Patricia, another lodging in the wall a few feet from their infant son's crib. Violet Amirault's school was closed down permanently before any of the Amiraults were tried, on the grounds--according to the official ruling--that children had been sexually molested in a magic room.

One month after the first accusation, a Fells Acres parent put a lien on all of Violet's property and that of Gerald. To get it lifted, Violet had to agree to give the parent $50,000 in addition to a nearly $2 million insurance settlement. The plaintiff families would receive a collective total of more than $20 million. In addition to money for their children, parents themselves received settlements to compensate for what the legal papers typically described as their child's being "unable to perform his usual duties."

Still, money had little to do with the passions driving the plaintiffs. What drove them--as was true in all other such cases--was the faith of true believers, instilled by investigators and abuse "experts." According to this faith, the power of the abusers was limitless, their cunning unimaginable. So did it become possible to argue that 19 children could be raped by adults, assaulted with knives, without injury, without anyone telling or noticing.

It was in this era of belief that it was possible to develop new and unique standards of justice such as the one expressed in the Boston Globe by Fells Acres lead prosecutor Lawrence Hardoon. Should not society, Mr. Hardoon asked in 1992, be "willing to trade off a couple of situations that are really unfair, in exchange for being sure that hundreds of children are protected?"

Early in the development of the first case (against Gerald), the prosecution let it be known that it was seeking evidence of child pornography. Local newspapers all trumpeted the news of 29 photos and a camera "Seized"--as the headlines said--at the day school. The pictures turned out to be routine--of birthday parties and such. The prosecution conducted a fruitless nationwide search for the Amiraults' alleged pornography. "Just because no evidence of photographs was found," Mr. Hardoon recently told this page, "doesn't mean that there were none."

Gerald's trial by jury was held before Judge Elizabeth Dolan. In 1993, Judge Dolan would preside over another notable Massachusetts case--that of 61-year-old Ray and Shirley Souza, whose 24-year-old daughter had a dream that her parents had raped her as a child. The mass abuse trials involving nursery schools were now past. The era of repressed memory syndrome had arrived. The Souzas' pre-school-age grandchildren testified--after countless interrogations by therapists--that their grandparents had tied them in a cage in the basement, raped them with feet and elbows and a big machine. Judge Dolan ruled that the children's testimony was credible and sentenced the Souzas (who had waived a jury trial) to serve nine to 15 years.

A few weeks ago, a well-known Boston journalist who had covered Gerald Amirault's trial called to say that he had been kept awake at night, eight years ago, by the knowledge that Gerald Amirault was innocent. He had been a reporter a long time. He knew, said the caller, the difference between evidence and nonsense, and he knew, too, that guilty men did not talk as Gerald did.

Otherwise, eight years ago and today, local journalists held devoutly to the belief that some terrible crimes must have been committed at Fells Acres--if not all that the prosecutors said. It was difficult, indeed, to grasp that such a case had been built on air--and that nothing had happened to the children but the arrival of the investigators.

In turn, the psychologists in prison and the parole board had difficulty grappling with the fact that all the Amiraults continue affirming their innocence. "Parole denied. Vigorously denies the offenses," said the reports of the board members in 1992, when they concluded that Violet Amirault remained a "risk to the community if released." "Heinous crimes for which she takes no responsibility," said the reports denying Cheryl's parole. (Gerald has not yet come up for parole.)

By their failure to confess, former prosecutor Hardoon has charged, the Amiraults have "compounded the injury" done to the children and their families.

Why criminals so depraved and callous as these are supposed to be would all these years decline to shorten their terms by offering a confession is not a matter on which the prosecutors offer any speculations. The Amiraults in turn spend little time thinking about what they could have by confessing themselves guilty of crimes never dreamed of. Existence is too much of a daily struggle: but at night there is time for Violet and Cheryl--and Gerald, whom they have not seen these eight years--to lie in their cells remembering the life that once was and is no more.

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