When I was in high school, I saw a TV movie called Do You Know the Muffin Man, starring Pam Dawber as a mother who discovers that the kindly old couple running her child’s preschool are conducting abusive Satanic rituals in the basement. (When the cops barge in and find the kids wearing dark robes and standing around a pentagram, one of the child-care workers tells them, “We’re rehearsing a play”.)
Do You Know the Muffin Man came out just a few years after two high-profile court cases – the McMartin trial in California, and the Fells Acres case in Massachusetts – saw several day-care owners and workers convicted for sexually abusing the children in their care. Only years later was it discovered that the convictions were based on coerced testimony, the evidence of quack “experts” who believed almost anything could be interpreted as a sign of molestation, and an absolute refusal to believe that children could possibly be telling anything less than the whole truth about such horrifying allegations. It was a witchhunt in the truest sense of the word, and it’s described in devastating, infuriating detail in Dorothy Rabinowitz’s No Crueler Tyrannies.
Rabinowitz has covered several such cases for The Wall Street Journal, most notably the notorious Fells Acres case, which saw three members of the Amirault family jailed for allegedly abusing children in a “secret room” at their highly-regarded daycare centre in Malden, Massachusetts. About half the book is dedicated to the Amiraults, and it would be almost impossible to envision to greater miscarriage of justice in recent American history.
Child witnesses were questioned for hours at a time, all the while bribed, coerced and guilt-tripped into giving the answers the investigators wanted. The most outrageous testimony – involving robots, circus clowns and people getting limbs but off – was accepted at face value. In one shockingly unethical incident, the prosecutors put up an expert witness to tell the jury about child pornography – even though the Amiraults were not even accused of making it. And when they were jailed, they were denied parole for refusing to admit to crimes they did not commit.
It would be bad enough if Fells Acres was an isolated incident, but No Crueler Tyrannies describes several other, no less shocking, cases in which innocent people were jailed, and lives ruined forever, by false allegations of child sexual abuse. The prevailing attitude in Wenatchee, Washington in the mid-1990s can be summed up by one resident’s furious, indignant insistence that a massive ring of sexual predators was operating in the community. The resident in question was head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. (“It is not easy to recall when the world last heard a chamber of commerce insistent on the truth of such a claim,” notes Rabinowitz.)