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Justice for Bernard Baran | The Nation

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Justice for Bernard Baran

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On January 30, 1985, 19-year-old Bernard Baran was convicted of molesting five 3-, 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls at the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he had been employed as a teacher's aide. The case didn't get much publicity outside the Berkshires, but it nonetheless has a place in history: Bernard Baran was the first person convicted in the wave of daycare-sex-abuse and satanic-ritual-abuse trials that swept the country in the mid-eighties. Moreover, while most of those convicted have been released, Baran, who was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences, just passed the fifteenth anniversary of his conviction--in Bridgewater Treatment Center in Massachusetts.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Compared with other cases that were gathering steam at the same time--the McMartin preschool, the Amirault family's Fells Acres preschool--the Baran case was a pretty mundane affair. No allegations of secret tunnels, pornographic photo shoots, murdered bunnies. Also, unlike the McMartin and Amirault families, long established in the daycare business and in their communities, Bernie Baran was a working-class gay teenager who had dropped out of ninth grade and found his way to childcare work through the CETA antipoverty program. But the Baran case has the classic markings of a ritual-abuse prosecution:

§ The complaint of abuse originated in a deeply troubled family. (The names have been altered here.) Julie H., who first alleged that her 3-year-old, Peter, had been molested by Baran, was a drug addict overwhelmed by the care of her two children and by her violent live-in boyfriend, David H. A cousin of Julie's ex-husband and also a drug addict, David once hung Julie by her ankles out a window; he also stabbed himself in the chest so badly he required open-heart surgery. The kids had briefly been in foster care--and would be again--and Peter was a problem at ECDC because of persistent hitting, raging, defecating in the outdoor play area.

§ The ECDC was an open, well-organized, highly scheduled preschool without the physical privacy for the alleged molestations to take place. The bathroom in which Baran was said to have raped and sodomized 3-year-old Gina had open doors and adjoined the classroom. The school's policy was for teachers never to be alone with a child, and the school was filled with adults. Each classroom had a teacher and an assistant teacher as well as the one aide; there were also volunteers from the neighborhood and from a local girls' school, not to mention parents, who were welcome to drop in at any time.

§ The children first denied being molested, and produced accusations under parental coaching (one girl, whose mother was a friend of Julie H., told a therapist after the trial that her mother had told her to say Baran had molested her so they could get toys and money). Psychologists working with the police used the same discredited techniques that have typically produced false accusations: asking persistent, leading questions; manipulating puppets and using anatomical dolls. Improbabilities in the children's stories were brushed aside. (Two boys said Bernie raped them on a field trip that Baran had not been on, also in a locked shed to which he had no key.) Dark conclusions were drawn from fragmentary, barely comprehensible remarks.

§ Key medical evidence has since been scientifically discredited. Peter tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat--Baran tested negative--but the test produces an extremely high rate of false positives. A pediatrician found a tear in Gina's hymen, but subsequent research shows that this feature is often found in girls who were never abused.

§ In court, the children were unforthcoming, wildly contradictory, glad to see their supposed molester ("Hi, Bornie [sic]," said Peter happily) and denied that anything bad happened to them. This was attributed to fear, shame and trauma, and the "right" answers were laboriously extracted from them by the prosecutor.

§ Common sense went out the window. Gina first said Baran had wiped away her blood with a piece of toilet paper; then she said he had "scooped it out with scissors." At trial the prosecutor said Baran also stabbed her foot with the scissors. How likely is it that the rape, oral rape and foot-stabbing of a 3-year-old all took place in complete silence, a few feet from a classroom full of people, within the space of a few minutes?

§ Due process was violated. The defense was never given a bill of particulars. In the courtroom Baran was placed not only where the children could not see him but where he could not even hear what was going on.

Baran's conviction had a lot to do with poverty. His mother's only asset was her car, and his $500 lawyer barely went through the motions. The defense presentation lasted for one day; the jury deliberated for three-and-a-half hours. Baran's homosexuality was also key: David H. had earlier protested to the school that a homosexual was taking care of Peter. In his summation, District Attorney Dan Ford (now a state Superior Court justice) suggested that being gay means being a child molester, comparing Baran to "a chocoholic in a candy store."

Baran has maintained his innocence through his imprisonment, making him ineligible for parole. Given that he has been beaten and sexually abused in prison, that steadfastness says a lot. Believers in his innocence include ECDC staffers and parents, his first therapist at Bridgewater and the insurance lawyer who investigated the case when Julie H. sued ECDC for $3.2 million (it was settled out of court, reputedly for a small sum). Now attorney John Swomley, who is helping in the Amirault case, has got involved in Baran's case, and for the first time in fifteen years there's a chance this shameful miscarriage of justice can be set right--if it is possible to speak of setting right a wrong that has cost a man his youth.

Contributions to Baran's defense can be sent to The Bernard Baran Justice Committee, c/o Swomley & Wood, 83 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, MA 02110. You can write to him at 30 Administration Road, Bridgewater, MA 02324. Writer Robert Chatelle, my main source for this story, has been a tireless advocate for Baran. His website is www.ultranet.com/~kyp/baran.html.

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