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Spotlight Report

  Cathy Young  

The danger of false accusations


SEXUAL ABUSE of children by clergy is hardly a new discovery: the case of the Rev. James R. Porter, the Fall River priest who reportedly molested more than 100 altar boys, made headlines a decade ago. But today, charges of abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church are the focus of unprecedented national attention. The horror of sex crimes against children is compounded by a shocking betrayal of trust. It seems clear that many church officials were more concerned with avoiding scandal than with protecting the most vulnerable of their parishioners. Yet as a long-overdue spotlight is turned on these outrages, it is important to remember that almost every story has another side - in this case, the danger of false accusations.

There was a time when our culture was largely in denial about child sexual abuse in general. In the 1960s and 1970s, the efforts of child advocates and feminists raised public consciousness about this issue. However, this new awareness of a very real problem sometimes backfired.

In the 1980s, America was shaken by reports of an epidemic of sexual abuse in day care centers. Sensational trials of day care providers, with lurid details of torture, animal sacrifice and satanic rituals, unfolded from coast to coast. ''Believe the children'' was the mantra of the day.

Eventually, however, many of these cases began to unravel - though sometimes only after people who were almost certainly innocent spent years in prison.

Thus, in New Jersey in 1985, kindergarten teacher Margaret Kelly Michaels was accused of forcing more than 20 children to play sex games and penetrating them with knives and forks. She was convicted and sentenced to 47 years of imprisonment.

In 1993, the conviction was thrown out after the court of appeals concluded that the alleged victims were subjected to aggressive, highly suggestive questioning. When the children denied being abused, the investigators badgered them until they gave the ''right'' answer.

In other cases, scrutiny revealed a typical pattern. A single complaint of abuse, sometimes made by a mentally unstable parent or based on a likely misinterpretation of a child's remark, would spark mass hysteria. Parents were told to watch their children for signs of possible abuse. Investigators and therapists were brought in to elicit ''the truth"; they would start out with the assumption that abuse had taken place and that the children who said they were never abused were ''in denial.'' The charges that eventually emerged were contradicted by physical evidence and filled with implausible details.

There is no question that some children have been sexually abused in day care centers. But there is also little doubt that the day care child abuse hysteria of the 1980s ruined many lives. In the notorious Fells Acres case in Massachusetts, day care worker Gerald Amirault still remains in prison, despite fairly compelling evidence that the charges against him had no substance.

The day care hysteria coincided with the rise of ''recovered memories'' of sexual abuse. Typically, a patient suffering from psychological problems would be told by a therapist that her or his symptoms suggested sexual abuse, which could be remembered with the help of suggestive techniques such as hypnotic regression. More recently, studies by psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington have demonstrated that traumatic memories can be implanted. Some accusers have not only recanted their charges but sued their therapists and won.

One dubious case of ''recovered memory'' involved a prelate of the Catholic Church. In 1993, 34-year-old Stephen Cook claimed that Cardinal Joseph Bernadin had molested him as a teenage pre-seminary student and that he only remembered this in therapy. Many in the media were quick to conclude that where there's smoke, there must be fire. Yet Cook eventually retracted his charges and came to see his memories as a product of therapy.

Today, the climate with regard to charges of sexual abuse is much healthier than it was 10 years ago. Accusations are taken seriously, but it is widely acknowledged - even by plaintiffs' lawyers - that there may also be some false charges by people eager to cash in on the scandals. The recent charges by a psychologically disturbed woman that she had been molested by Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles 30 years ago were examined skeptically and found to be without substance.

This balance of concern for the real victims and for the rights of those who may be falsely accused is important, and should by all means be preserved. Otherwise, the laudable desire to redress serious wrongs may turn into a new witch-hunt.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2002.
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