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.
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.