and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
May 12, 1995


A Darkness in Massachusetts -- III

From the time the Amiraults were first accused, in 1984, one small knot of parents remained steadfastly unconvinced that the proprietors of the Fells Acres Day School had conducted a program of mass terrorization and sexual abuse of three- to five-year-olds.

Among that group of unbelievers--later to be described, by the prosecutors' experts, as "parents in denial"--was Deborah Hersey, who had, she attests, good reason for her failure to believe. Either she or her husband was forever popping into the school unexpectedly, picking their son up at odd times--and when they did, Violet Amirault would wave them ahead, telling them to go and find the boy, Mrs. Hersey remembers, usually with apologies for being too busy to accompany them. "There were no locked doors, no secret rooms, the atmosphere was wide open, nobody escorted us." Then there were the interrogations by police inspector John Rivers, who was, Mrs. Hersey soon concluded, evidently determined to convince her that her child had been molested. Throughout that interview, she recalls, she wondered with alarm what the result would have been had she been a touch more gullible--or less afraid.

She soon had the answer. Parent after parent filed charges. In 1984, and later, skepticism about alleged abuse was a rare commodity, not least in the local press. "Kid Sex Victims May Total 20," the Boston Herald informed readers in blazing headlines. News stories led with the prosecutors' allegations introduced as fact: "The production of kiddie-porn videotapes of small children engaged in sex acts with adults was a full-scale, behind-the-scenes operation at a Malden day-care center shut down by the state, sources close to the case said yesterday." But the Herald was scarcely alone in Massachusetts or anywhere else where the sizzling abuse prosecutions had been mounted, in the readiness to accept as revealed truth all that the State alleged against the supposed violators of children. The State could, after all, offer page after page of what its prosecutors described as the children's allegations.

Released on bail, just after the first accusation made against him on Labor Day, 1984, Gerald Amirault looked up to find his face on the television screen. The Fells Acres story had begun its long nightly run on the local news. Now--and it was a fact that still had the power to shock Gerald--when he walked into a store women sometimes screamed. Of the accused family, he was the one who had for the longest time thought that the huge mistake would soon be revealed--everything would be cleared up. Violet Amirault was more worried. Still, none of the Amiraults had the slightest idea, in the fall of 1984, that they were now entered into a process leading inevitably to the loss of all that they had--to long years in prison.

As in all of these prosecutions, the weight of the heaviest charges--and prison terms--fell upon the male. Gerald was given a 30-to-40-year sentence. (Robert Kelly, convicted in the notorious Little Rascals Day Care case in Edenton, N.C.--just overturned--received 12 consecutive life terms.) That tendency to single out the man as prime predator was nowhere more clearly reflected than in an interview prosecutor Lawrence Hardoon gave a Boston television reporter. Asked how to guard against child abuse, Mr. Hardoon advised watching out for a child suddenly uncomfortable "being in the company of male relatives."

The inevitability of the fate that overtook the Amiraults could be read from the atmosphere of the times. (Their cases were begun just a year after that of the fabulous McMartin prosecution in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where investigators calculated at least 1,200 children had been molested in the South Bay area alone--one third of the population.) Pre-schools by the hundreds were closed down, in the ensuing fever of suspicion.

In such times, there was no defense argument equal to the tormenting vision conjured by the State in the Amirault trials, of small children threatened with murder if they told of their rapes with knives and sticks. No proof of the Herculean--and sometimes hilarious--efforts to manufacture abuse testimony, no lack of physical evidence, could prevail against such a vision.

In recent weeks--with the Amiraults once more in the news in Boston--it became possible to get a taste again of the assumptions and tone of these prosecutions. The idea was, quite simply, that the children must be believed, that they deserved to be believed even when their testimony was incredible--and that whoever refused to believe them had traduced the trust of these small witnesses.

Confronted, now, with increasing numbers of press inquiries about the substance of the case against the Amiraults, former prosecutor Lawrence Hardoon and Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger give answers faithfully reflecting the attitudes that prevailed at the trial. The attorney general has explained that those who raise questions about the conviction of Violet Amirault, now 71, her daughter Cheryl, 38, and son Gerald, 41--imprisoned now for eight years--are determined to abandon child victims and to drive sexual abuse "back into the darkness." To questions about the way the accusations of abuse were extracted, the attorney general and the prosecutor reply that the juries and appellate judges had spoken: that, moreover, to raise such questions now is to expose the children and their families to pain and suffering.

That it should be argued, confidently, that the plight of three citizens--imprisoned now for eight years--should not be investigated, lest the question raised disturb the peace of the plaintiffs, is eloquent testimony indeed to the assumptions that prevailed during the time of the Amiraults' trial. Nor can it be argued that appellate judges were necessarily immune to the spirit of the times.

Least of all were the accusing parents immune. They lived in the time of the experts--experts who now taught people how to grieve, where once no one thought to require instructions in mourning--experts, who have, above all, brought home to parents the notion that they knew nothing whatever about their children.

For parents so educated, it was possible to be convinced by social service workers, the prosecutors' abuse investigators and other counselors that their children had daily suffered unspeakable atrocities--whose effects they themselves simply lacked expertise to see. It became possible to believe that their children had been tortured sexually, been forced to watch animal mutilation and to ingest urine, and been threatened with death for two years--and that the children could continue, nonetheless, to go to the school happily every morning and show no fear of their alleged torturers. Just after the first allegations against Fells Acres became public, the papers were filled with quotes from parents telling of their children's love of the school and worry that they wouldn't be able to attend anymore.

In the case of at least one or two of the plaintiff-parents, to be sure, their willingness to believe the prosecutors had more complex roots. Prior to Gerald Amirault's sentencing, prosecutor Hardoon summoned parents to the stand. Among them was the husband of the couple who had a lien put on Violet Amirault's house and property just four weeks after the first accusations, which they removed only after Mrs. Amirault (faced with a need to pay lawyers) agreed to give them an extra $50,000 in any insurance settlement.

This witness spoke at great and fluent length on the evils of child abuse and his rage at what had happened to his own child. He wanted the maximum sentence to be imposed on Gerald to "ensure that society's children were protected from this travesty." Further, he noted, abuse of children was in his view "not a treatable condition."

Doubtless, this witness spoke with a certain authority. Some months after delivering these words, the parent--employed as a counselor at an institute for troubled children--molested a youth under treatment at the center. Confronted with the charge, he confessed, and, as the social service report relates, resigned soon after.

By now, most of the great headline-making prosecutions identical to Fells Acres--McMartin, Wee Care in New Jersey, Edenton--have been overturned and discredited. Confronted with otherworldly charges of molestation, the McMartin juries threw out most of them, deadlocked on a handful, and ultimately failed to return a single conviction. In the Wee Care case, appellate judges reversed the conviction on the ground, among other reasons, that the State's investigators had clearly led the children into their accusations. In Edenton, the justices found "flagrant violation of the rules of evidence."

The question often arises as to how the prosecutors themselves could actually have believed in the fanciful claims mounted in the Fells Acres case, or the others. The prosecutors did not of course sit around conspiring to imprison innocent people. They were men and women of their times, consumers of the lore of their times--lore about vast networks of child molesters and pornographers lurking behind nursery school doors and elsewhere, lore about magic rooms and the rest.

There were not many chief law officers like Bucks County, Pa., District Attorney Alan M. Rubenstein. Confronted, in 1989, with the abuse charges extracted by the usual experts and the by-now-standard charges of animal mutilation (a bunny), forced ingestion of urine, and children spirited from the schools to be assaulted, Mr. Rubenstein sought evidence beyond that of allegations. Finding none against the accused teacher of the Breezy Point School, he refused to prosecute. Enraged, the accusing parents proceeded to file civil suits eventually dropped.

Though the crimes and various exotic lewd practices charged against the Amiraults so exactly mimicked those of the McMartin case, Wee Care and the rest, former prosecutor Hardoon has gone to some pains, in the past few months, to assert that the Amirault case had nothing in common with these. In the McMartin case too, the State's charge--trumpeted nationwide--was that the accused was involved in child pornography, of which no shred could ever be found. In the Wee Care case, prosecuted in the same period, the accused was alleged to have raped children with forks, magic wands, pencils. All this notwithstanding, Mr. Hardoon a few weeks ago told a sympathetic local reporter that when he had heard Fells Acres testimony about penetration with pens and pencils and magic wands, he had been "completely puzzled." But thereafter he had come upon pictures of child pornography--and had, Mr.Hardoon declared, "what I would almost describe as a revelation."

During the eight years the Amiraults have been imprisoned, the state of Massachusetts has gone on about its business. During the course of that business, the state commuted the sentences of some eight women convicted of killing the husbands or mates who had battered them. Gov. William Weld's decision to commute the sentences of the women known as the Framingham Eight, who had clearly been brutalized, was widely endorsed. Violet and her children were in a less fortunate position, carrying as they did the weight of an accusation more potent than killing--namely allegations of child sex abuse.

The Framingham Eight women had done what they had done--and there were the bodies to show for it. The Amiraults, tried in a plague era of accusal, had been convicted on no evidence of anything done--and there were no confessions to show for it. These are the facts with which, sooner or later, the governor of Massachusetts will have to contend.

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