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.)
The fact is, when “ritual abuse” hysteria was at its peak in the eighties and nineties, we wanted to believe this kind of thing was going on. People were becoming more and more obsessed about the safety of their children – culminating in the society in which we live now, where parents organize (ugh) “play dates” in which they know the kids won’t get hurt – and stories of abuse, violence and Satanic rituals were horrifying yet strangely compelling. (Come clean, folks: how many of you watched Geraldo Rivera’s mid-eighties NBC prime-time special about devil worshippers?)
It took many years for cooler heads to prevail, but it hasn’t helped Gerald Amirault, the sole Fells Acres employee still in prison. In an act of shocking political cowardice, former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift overturned the release he had been granted by the state’s Board of Pardons, tearing away an innocent man’s liberty just when he could touch it. (That Swift resigned rather than face certain defeat for the Republican gubernatorial nomination is small comfort.) A justice system is only as good as the flawed human beings who run it, and the system has failed Gerard Amirault miserably.
Witchhunts tend to backfire in the long run, as people start to assume the witches never existed in the first place. McCarthy’s anti-Communist buffoonery in the 1950s forever discredited anti-Communism (which explains all these execrable Che Guevara T-shirts), and “ritual abuse” hysteria has done almost incalculable damage to the fight against child abuse. It was only in the Fells Acres era that real stories of long-buried abuse were coming to light – notably at the infamous Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland – and it would be an unforgivable sin if we start ignoring these hideous crimes again. But when so many police officers, child-welfare officials, prosecutors and “experts” have shown their willingness to lie and railroad innocent people, what are we supposed to believe?
The authorities should diligently track down abusers wherever they’re hiding, but they should not invent abuse where none exists. No Crueler Tyrannies is an important, compelling book, and it should be read as a cautionary tale by everyone involved in the fight to protect our kids.