Sunday, February 24, 1985
The Stigma Being Wrongly Accused of Child Sex Abuse
By John Crewdson
Chicago Tribune - February 24, 1985
When Brian Taugher was accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl at his daughter's slumber party here last July, the charges were widely reported across the country.
One reason was that Taugher, 38, a 12-year veteran of state government and a top aide to California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, had played a key role in drafting legislation that would strengthen the state's child sex abuse laws.
Three weeks ago, Taugher was found not guilty by a jury that deliberated for almost six days before deciding that the girl who had accused Taugher of abusing her in a room filled with a half-dozen sleeping girls, including Taugher's daughter, had not been a believable witness.
"It came down to the fact that her story just didn't stand up," a juror said later.
Though he has returned to his $62,100-a-year job in the attorney general's office, Taugher says he is deeply in debt to his lawyer and resigned to living with the stain he thinks the charges have left on his reputation.
"There are two crimes in America, treason and child molestation, which affect a person for the rest of his life," Taugher told reporters a day after acquittal. "I will just have to deal with it."
There has been an explosion of child sex abuse cases in the last year. A recent survey by the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) estimated that the number of sex abuse reports rose more than 35 percent nationwide in 1984.
Most of them have been in the nation's largest cities; prosecutors in Los Angeles say that an average of eight sex abuse cases are filed there each day. But not even places such as the Sacramento Delta, a relatively quiet corner of California that is unremarkable except for the presence of the state government, are immune.
In the two months before Taugher's acquittal, at least six people here, including a deputy sheriff, a school principal and two day-care center operators, were charged with child sex abuse. Four others, including an investigator for the district attorney's office and a physical therapist, were convicted of such charges.
But as the number of sex abuse cases has risen, so has the number of dismissals and acquittals, and concern that, for the first time, significant numbers of innocent men and women may be unfairly--and indelibly--accused and convicted of one of the most heinous of crimes.
As the Sacramento Bee warned in an editorial a few days after Taugher's acquittal: "Given the heated climate about the sexual molestation of children that now prevails, once such charges are filed there is no way to keep them from making their inexorable--and very public--way through the entire criminal justice system."
Whatever the fact, Brian Taugher is clearly not alone.
In Los Angeles a few weeks ago, to take only one example, prosecutors quietly dropped charges against a Hollywood rabbi who had been accused by a 13-year-old boy of abusing him sexually during a Hebrew lesson after the rabbi was able to prove that he was at the Los Angeles airport when the boy claimed the abuse occurred.
Just last month, charges were dropped against an 81-year-old Rhode Island man accused of molesting two girls, aged 6 and 7, after Cranston, R.I., police concluded that the man had been framed by a tenant in a rent dispute.
Some of those acquitted or otherwise unjustly accused are fighting back. In Scott County, Minn., Robert and Lois Bentz, found not guilty last September of charges that they abused their own children and others, are among several former defendants suing prosecutor Kathleen Morris and other officials for several million dollars.
Some of them are winning. A Glendale, Calif., police sergeant acquitted by a jury of charges that he abused three teenaged boys was granted a $70,000 settlement from the city and reinstatement to his job.
Last December, when the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner commented on such cases in an editorial entitled "A Modern Witch Hunt?" David Moss of the local chapter of the Jewish Big Brothers Association responded with a letter to the paper in which he attacked the "hysteria" surrounding the issue of child sex abuse.
"In the current climate of accusation," Moss wrote, "the concept of innocent until proven guilty is forgotten. When that happens, we've committed a crime even worse than child sexual molestation.
"If this hysteria continues unabated, a generation from now someone is going to ask the question: What is worse, molestation or starvation of affection, the disease or the cure?"
Whether "hysteria" is the word, there is little question that the attention paid by the news and entertainment media to the subject in the last year has fueled public concern about child sex abuse.
Child protection agencies across the country reported a quantum increase in such reports after the showing of the ABC-TV movie "Something About Amelia," the fictional story of a girl and her incestuous father. (Among the most successful programs in television history, "Amelia" was watched by almost half the viewers in America.)
News reports, particularly on television, have had a similar effect. "I know of several cases where the kids were watching the news and McMartin was on and they said, 'That happened to me,' " said a Los Angeles prosecutor, referring to local television coverage of seven teachers charged with abusing scores of children at the Virginia McMartin preschool there.
Whether such attention also has inspired some children to make up allegations against adults out of revenge or for other reasons is a question that so far remains unanswered, but some of those speaking out on the issue think it has.
"The consensus that a child does not lie is wrong and behind the times," said Leslie Wimberly, head of the California chapter of VOCAL, which stands for "Victims of Child Abuse Laws," and which describes itself as "a group of parents who believe that they and their families have been victimized by the child abuse laws."
There is concern that programs to teach schoolchildren how to resist or report sexual abuse, which the NCPCA says exist in every state, may have given some children the wherewithal to fabricate credible charges of abuse.
"We're hearing a lot of backlash," said Cordelia Anderson of Minneapolis' Illusion Theatre, a pioneer abuse prevention group, "that it's because of the education of children that kids are making up all these things; you're putting all these ideas in children's heads. People are hearing so much about it right now they just don't want to believe it's that bad."
Despite such fears, child abuse experts remain virtually unanimous in their conviction that most children do not lie about being abused, not only because they do not know enough about sexual behavior to fabricate a convincing account but also because to make such allegations can be as traumatic for the child as for the accused.
They also point to several recent "retrospective" surveys in which as many as 4 women and 3 men in every 10 say they were sexually abused as children, and suggest that anonymous adults have no reason to lie to pollsters about their childhoods.
But prosecutors and child-protection workers say they fear that a combination of sympathy for those like Brian Taugher, and incidents like the one in Scott County, where charges against the Bentzes' 21 codefendants were brought and then dismissed, will increase the difficulty of prosecuting genuine sexual child abusers and contribute to a mistaken belief that children do lie often about having been abused.
"I think we're going to move in this next year toward a backlash, toward a belief that none of it existed," says Dr. Roland Summit, a UCLA psychiatrist who specializes in sexual child abuse cases, "and that those of us who chose to believe in it will be the villains of the piece."
A backlash may already be underway.
A television movie now in production focuses on teachers at a fictional day-care center who are falsely accused of child sex abuse by some of their students.
Last month, CBS-TV's top-rated "60 Minutes" reported the story of Erin Tobin, a University of Texas senior accused of sexually abusing 3-year-old twins, the children of friends for whom she frequently baby-sat. Tobin's arrest was highly publicized in the Austin area before a grand jury decided there was insufficient evidence to bring her to trial.
That report was followed by a "Donahue" show on which Robert and Lois Bentz were among the guests and on which Phil Donahue asked his audience, "Who's watching the prosecutors?" and suggested that some of them had "perhaps gone too far and railroaded innocent people."
Even some professionals who have long hewed to the belief that children rarely lie about sexual abuse are now acknowledging that the intense publicity accorded the subject may induce more children to fabricate such charges.
"It has always been my premise that a child always tells the truth," says Fay Honey Knopp, who works with child sex abusers and their victims in Orwell, Vt. "Now I'm beginning to see locally where a child does not always tell the truth."
But for the most part the question is more complicated than whether children are being prompted to make up allegations. For one thing, many of the false allegations currently being lodged seem to originate with adults, particularly mothers involved in child-custody battles.
"This is now the big buzzword in divorce cases," says Tricia Marchesseau, a Chicago therapist: " 'Say that Daddy did this to you and I'm sure to get custody.' "
"Many complaints of sexual abuse are instigated by parents who are caught in the major resentments against a divorced spouse," agreed Helen Morrison, another Chicago therapist. "It is in these cases in which we must be particularly careful. The incidence of these false allegations is quite high."
Again, smaller cities do not seem to be immune--Sam Basta, a Reno, Nev., therapist, reports "a 50 percent increase in custody cases alleging molestation."
"I've been involved with a case for 14 months now, and at this point I do not believe the child is telling the truth," Basta says. "I think the mother's hatred toward the father has caused the child to say certain things I have doubts about."
Yet another concern shared by some child abuse experts is whether police and prosecutors, aware of the acute public interest in such cases, are acting more precipitously in arresting accused child abusers and bringing them to trial than they would have a year ago.
One such expert, UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson, who has testified as a prosecution witness in a number of child sex abuse cases, recently testified for the first time on behalf of a defendant, a mother accused of abusing her 5-year-old daughter.
The charges against the woman were dismissed after the judge ruled that investigators had failed to build sufficient evidence against the woman. Abramson says he agreed to testify for the woman primarily because he also believed that the investigation was hasty and shoddy.
According to Brian Taugher's lawyer, Michael Sands, his client was also the victim of an incomplete investigation. "They rushed it faster than they should have," says Sands, who notes that Taugher was never interviewed by police before he was arrested."Then, once they made the arrest, it hit every news media in town. If they had dismissed it, it would have been political suicide for the DA."
As a result of such concerns, legislators in several states report that they are under increasing pressure from members of VOCAL and others to relax some recently enacted statutes intended to make it easier to prosecute child abusers; to repeal, for example, laws that permit a defendant to be tried solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a child, or that require professionals who come in contact with children to notify authorities if they suspect a child is being abused.
Nowhere is the pressure more intense than in Minnesota, where the state attorney general reported this month that the Scott County prosecutions had been badly botched and would not be reinstated, and in California, where the first child witness in the McMartin case, a 7-year-old boy, recanted portions of his original testimony under intense cross-examination at a preliminary hearing.
But legislators in those states and elsewhere have thus far resisted the pressure. The California Senate, in fact, just passed a bill that would make it easier to prosecute sex abuse cases by permitting child victims to testify by closed-circuit television instead of in a crowded courtroom.
The Minnesota Senate this month approved a measure that would firm up, rather than relax, that state's child abuse reporting law by extending broader immunity from civil lawsuits to doctors, teachers and others who make such reports in good faith.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say the general reaction is one of backlash," says Allan Spear, chairman of the Minnesota Senate's judiciary committee. "There is also some frustration over the fact that there are probably some guilty people in Scott County who are not going to be prosecuted because the prosecution was mucked up."
"The attorney general's report emphasizes that this is an aberration, that we've got other places in the state where the child abuse laws are working pretty well," Spear says. "I think there is still a strong sense out there that we need tough and effective child abuse laws."
Many prosecutors say, nevertheless, that they are being more careful than ever. "This 'hysteria' issue is not causing cases to be filed that would not ordinarily be filed," says Ken Freeman, a Los Angeles prosecutor who has tried many child sex abuse cases.
"I don't want to file a case if the person is innocent," Freeman says, "so there's a great deal of screening that goes on in these cases. The fact remains that we are not filing weaker cases now than we were before. We're using the same standards today that we were a year ago or two years ago."
There is evidence to bear him out. A recent study of sex abuse cases in Seattle, for example, shows that the district attorney's office declines to prosecute 20 percent of the cases that are brought to them by police, and that defendants in another 55 percent of cases plead guilty before going to trial. Of the cases that do go to trial, the study found that two-thirds ended in a conviction.
"The whole trouble is that we are so frightened for our children and so horrified that these crimes exist that we'd rather think they don't exist," Ken Freeman says. "It's easier. The truth of the matter--and it's a sad thing --is that the molestation is occurring. It's there. It's a big problem."
Freeman and other prosecutors say that the backlash is not only making it harder to prosecute sex abuse cases but that it may also become a self- fulfilling prophecy.
"In every case you see now there are three issues alleged," he says: "That the child is brainwashed by some unknown person, that the complaint occurred as a result of hysteria, and that there is a witch hunt going on to flush out people who are innocent, loving people who have done nothing wrong."
"What is occurring," Freeman says, "is that the attitude of defense attorneys in child molest cases has changed. A year ago, you would find defense attorneys who would plead their client guilty or who would take the client through the trial and be half-hearted about it, or who would even refuse to take these cases, because it was too distasteful and they didn't want to be associated with a child molester.
"Now, a defense attorney will tell you that these are 'defensible cases.' What they're saying is that they're defensible because if you are willing to do what must be done--intimidate, traumatize and destroy the ego of a small child--then you can win the case."