Remember the bizarre daycare center “ritual abuse” trials of the eighties–the McMartin case in Los Angeles, the Little Rascals case in Edenton, North Carolina, the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey? According to Debbie Nathan, whose excellent book Satan’s Silence (co-written with Michael Snedeker) remains an indispensable guide to the ritual-abuse panic and its many psychosocial sources, most of the more than 100 people locked up during that mania have been quietly released. The Amiraults, a whole family convicted and sent to prison in Massachusetts, haven’t been so lucky. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court has allowed their convictions to stand, ruling that despite flaws in their trial, the case demanded “finality.”
The Amiraults’ ordeal, which began in 1984, is a textbook example of nuttiness and injustice. As in other cases, the techniques used to extract accusations, considered at the time to be exquisitely attuned to the psychology of small children, now look plainly manipulative and coercive. “Believe the children,” the well-intentioned mantra of all these prosecutions, turned out to mean “disbelieve the children until they ‘disclose.'” The common-sensical objections brushed aside by prosecutors, journalists and a public eager to credit the wildest allegations, now look, well, common-sensical: Daycare centers are crowded places, with parents and other adults dropping in unexpectedly; how could the elaborately weird alleged crimes have taken place unobserved? Across the country daycare workers were accused of such things as playing the piano naked, killing animals, tying a child to a tree in the front yard, flying through the air and burying children alive. Today, thanks largely to the work of psychologists distressed by the trials, children in sex-abuse cases are interviewed in a much more open-ended way, and the interviews are videotaped–which perhaps explains why there hasn’t been a prosecution for ritualized sexual sadism at a daycare center in a decade.
Violet Amirault had run the well-respected Fells Acres Day School in Malden for eighteen years with a staff that included her children, Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Gerald Amirault. One day in April of 1984, Gerald changed the pants of a 4-year-old boy who had wet himself. By the end of the summer, after months of questioning by his mother, his uncle and a therapist, the boy told his mother that he had been sexually abused by Gerald every day in a “secret room.” In the resultant furor, police told parents to quiz their children for details of abuse–“magic rooms,” “secret rooms,” “bad clowns”–and not to take No for an answer. The kids first denied such things, but eventually Susan Kelley, a pediatric nurse, hectored and nudged them into staggering allegations–porn photo sessions, talking robots, anal rape with knives. No child, including the first, ever made a spontaneous charge. No secret room was ever found, and no kiddie porn either. Symptoms presented as physical evidence of abuse turned out to be commonplace in nonabused children.
Prior to the police alert, no parent suspected anything was wrong, and no parent whose kids had attended the school in earlier years ever came forward with a similar story. The “believe the children” mantra was selectively applied: Other teachers were implicated by the children but were never charged. Gerald Amirault was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to thirty to forty years in prison; his mother and sister got eight to twenty years each. (A detailed file on the case can be found at www.ultranet.com/~kyp/amirault.html.)
So far, so typical. But the Amirault case stands out because fifteen years later–despite growing skepticism, including a 1995 exposé by Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal–the state of Massachusetts is unable to admit it made a mistake. The Amiraults have steadfastly affirmed their innocence, which makes them, as sex offenders, ineligible for parole. All of Gerald’s appeals have been turned down. In 1995 the women were released on bail and granted a new trial on constitutional grounds–they had been denied the right to face their accusers (the children sat facing the jury)–only to have this decision overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997. Since then, two superior court judges have ruled in favor of Cheryl (Violet died of stomach cancer in 1997), and Assistant District Attorney Lynn Rooney has admitted that the interviews with the kids were flawed. Nonetheless, in August the SJC once again denied Cheryl a new trial, ignoring the argument that children’s testimony can be tainted by manipulative interviewing. The Amiraults had a chance to impugn the interviews in their original trial and the jury didn’t buy it, the court declared, so that was that. No allowance was made for the charged context in which the jury heard those arguments–or for the added weight those arguments have after more than a decade of research and sad experience.
Some suggest that the Amirault case was fueled by the political ambitions of local Democratic Party pols–the county district attorney, Scott Harshbarger, went on to become attorney general and almost won the governorship in 1998; the pro-Harshbarger Boston Globe was anti-Amirault from the start. Leaving that aside, it would still be embarrassing for those involved in the prosecution to admit that a terrible injustice was committed. The forces arrayed against the Amiraults are “good guys,” after all–liberal Democrats, child welfare and victims’ rights advocates, feminists. Besides, across the justice system, “finality” is the watchword now.
A lot of people may think, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”: The Ameraults may not have sodomized toddlers with knives, but something happened. I used to think that myself about the daycare cases, but now it’s clear they’re really about smoke and mirrors, and the entrapment of innocent people.
As I write, it looks likely that Cheryl LeFave will be returned to prison any day, even as celebrated Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree joins her defense. Their supporters tell me the best hope for Gerald and Cheryl is clemency or a pardon from Governor Paul Cellucci. Polite letters, pointing out that the two still have from twelve to twenty-seven years to serve in a case that is more outrageous with each passing year, can be sent to Office of the Governor, State House, Room 360, Boston, MA 02133.