Limited Taxation

The Wall Street Journal
Friday, March 24, 2000

Review & Outlook
New Day for the Accused

The story is by now familiar. A teacher in his middle fifties faces ruin when a covey of his sturdents tell authorities that he fondled them and made other sexual advances. The accused in this case, a gym instructor of spotless reputation in a thirty two year long career, taught at the Roberto Clemente Middle School in Maryland. When the accusers -- six girls and one boy -- made their claims in mid-Febuary, the instructor was summoned to the principal's offices, put on paid leave, and told, notwithstanding his protestations of innocence, that he had fifteen minutes to clear out of the school.

In the weeks that followed, the Washington Post's reports on this case reveal, no one from the school was allowed to talk to him, nor could he leave his house without permission. Detectives moreover informed the teacher that they had just days to decide whether to arrest him.

As it turned out the police instead chose to press on with their investigation -- a key decision. For nearly four weeks the girls making the accusations stuck to their stories, and added more details -- as invariably happens in these cases -- as they went along. But the sixth grade boy who had joined them in their charges decided, under police questioning, that he had better tell the truth -- which was that all the allegations against the teacher were lies.

The lies had been conceived, it seems, to pay the teacher back for being "annoying," as she tells the Post reporter. This accuser found particularly annoying the teacher's efforts to get her and her friends to stop sitting around chattering and to be, instead, more active in sports. Furthermore the teacher had disciplined two in her crowd for unsporting behavior.

For all that this story seems familiar, with its invented sexual charges, the instant banishment of the accused and the rest -- there is also much in it that isn't business as usual as we've come to know it in these cases. Here, in fact, law enforcement and police investigators exhibited behavior suggesting something new in the air as regards charges like these, cases like these. What's new are the tell-tale signs of skepticism and logic. Welcome back.

Though these eleven and twelve year olds came on like the most confident of accusers, and backed one another up to the hilt, the detectives were soon suspicious of their stories and they stayed suspicious, questioning the accusers again and again till finally the lies were revealed. One of the things that made the police investigator suspicious was the girls' charge that this teacher had called them "hot sexy mama." This, the investigator said, is is just not language that people in the teachers' generation used -- it was kid stuff.

If there had been the smallest iota of this kind investigative attitude in any of those child molestation cases we've detailed on this page, there would have been no charges, no Grant Snowden case, no Amirault case, no Wenatchee story, nor any of the rest.

From the evidence of this case and a few others like it that have begun to emerge here, we may have reason to suspect that charges of sexual molestation are no longer considered beyond the pale of questions and actual investigation. That is something new all right.

What this middle school case and an extraordinary number of others like it these days shows, is how fully the young have absorbed the enormous power of the sex accusation weapon. Mad at the teacher? Accuse him of fondling. This is now a routine response and one that it tells much about what the sex charge dementia launched in the 1980's has really cost. (And we're not even speaking here about its impact on divorce and custody cases, where that charge is now the weapon of choice of embittered spouses.)

The young accusers in this case, its worth noting, are getting away with nothing. Apparently they are now pariahs, and all of their society has turned against them with a vengeance. Not only were they arrested for making false statements, and suspended for ten days, there is some doubt they will be allowed to return to the school, and they may even be expelled, from the Montgomery school system. Their fellow students despise them and behave in ways that show it.

This outbreak of revulsion at the phony sexual charge is also an omen of change in the air. A few more police investigations like these, and we could actually begin to suspect that -- though it will be a long while before sex molestation charges losing their peculiar power to turn the norms of the justice system upside down -- we could soon be seeing a return to the kind of rationality that will make it harder for false charges of this sort to stick. Harder, too, for prosecutors to pursue their political ambitions by bringing sex abuse cases built on air and lots of publicity -- the path taken by former Dade County State attorney Janet Reno, who put Miami police officer Grant Snowden away, and Massachusett's Scott Harshbarger, who built the fictional case against the Amirault family.

After years in which scores of innocent lives were destroyed by such accusation, the child sex abuse charge may now be losing some of its sacrosanct status -- the sort that ensured that any charge would be believed and acted on, and never mind any question. If this is the case, this society and its justice system may be at last on the route to recovery from one of the most terrifying spasms of irrationality to have afflicted us in a long while. Like so many such dark eruptions, this one was advanced in the interests of goodness and high principle -- that of saving children from predators. Like so many high principles in the hands of the most fanatical of our progressive social elements -- the kind that assured juries that children never lie about abuse, for instance -- this one ended up inflicting only tragedy.

If we've begun to emerge from all this with appropriate skepticism, its due not a little to the lessons gleaned from the prosecutions of citizens like Gerald Amirault and all the rest -- not that we can expect them to take any comfort from the fact -- whose lives were ruined along the way.

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