Fells Acres day-care Ritual Abuse case and the Boston press

Third of three parts

Copyright © 1997 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Individual, non-commercial reproduction allowed, provided this notice is retained.

first posted 971118
last major change 971130
last minor change Y11219

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5. Other questions

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6. Once again, witch-bound Massachusetts needs a helping hand from outside.

    A. Some historical precedents

      (1) 1665: Royal Commissioners ordered the Massachusetts Colony to stop torturing and murdering Quakers.

      (2) 1684: The British Crown revoked the colonial charter of Massachusetts, overthrowing a narrow theocracy that deprived 80% of the population of civil rights.

      (3) October 1692-- A group of Dutch and French ministers in New York denounced the use of "spectral evidence" (testimony about dreams) in witchcraft trials.
      (This emboldened the Royal governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips, to put a stop to further executions of Salem "witches.")

    B. What might be helpful today?

      (1) Saving victims of hysteria

        (a) For specific suggestions on helping the Amiraults with personal encouragement, legal aid, or letter-writing, check this site.

        (b) If you have a politically-inclined Massachusetts friend, you might ask some questions

          1. about the quality of State judges who would allow the Fells Acres travesty to stand

          2. about the possibility that the state's next governor might be a man (Atty Gen Harshbarger) who built his career on railroading three innocent people. One of the first acts of Janet Reno, a politician of similarly disreputable origins, was to barbecue the children at Waco, largely based on unfounded reports they were being "abused." Is Massachusetts really ready to run a similar risk?

          3. about the possibility that the next attorney general might be a man (Middlesex County DA Reilly) who sees political advantage in railroading innocent people

          4. whether it is time for Massachusetts to appoint a panel of reputable scientists to evaluate the Fells Acres evidence in view of what has been learned since the original trials about "repressed memory" and "ritual abuse" scares.

          5. whether it is time for Massachusetts to take broader precautions against other injustices, eg by

            A. mandating videotapes of first interviews with child-witnesses, and

            B. reexamining other prosecutions dependent solely on "repressed memory," or comparable forms of leading interrogation of "accusers."

      (2) Restraining journalistic McCarthyism

        (a) Do you know someone from the "Boston Globe"?

          Postscripts, 22 Aug 99 and 31 Jan 2000: There was a sharp improvement in the "Globe"s reporting after Judge Borenstein's June 1998 decision (even though their editorial-page writers remained sympathetic to the prosecution). Indeed, prosecution advocate Wendy Murphy wrote in to complain about a May 1999 article by Sacha Pfeiffer.
          Occasional annoyances have reappeared since August 1999, but they have been relatively minor, so the following suggestions are no longer particularly urgent.

          Many, indeed quite likely most of the people at the "Globe" are decent and honorable, and would be ashamed of the hatchet-job David Armstrong and Kevin Cullen did on Bob Chatelle [section 4B(6) above]. So be polite, and don't be a nag (aka "kook"), lest your concern be counter-productive.

          Nevertheless, it would do good, politely to ask your "Globe" acquaintance for an opinion. Such curiosity by society at large is bound to find its way back to the workplace, and create a considerably less nurturing environment for sleaze.

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7. Miscellaneous references

    A. For a definitive textbook on children's testimony, see
    Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony," American Psychological Assoc, Washington DC, 1995.

    Psychologists Ceci and Bruck were among the first to demonstrate that leading questions implant false memories in young children.

    Though skeptical of day-care "ritual abuse" (pp. 26-29), they are not pushovers for the defense in all abuse cases. They argue that tentative, even contradictory testimony from a young child should not be dismissed with the same automatic skepticism as similar testimony from an adult, provided said testimony actually comes from the child's own memory. Careful recording (ie videotaping) of the first interview is crucial for later investigators, judges, and juries to distinguish between original memory and later influence.

    B. For a good historical overview of the "Satanic ritual abuse" hysteria, see Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, "Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt," Basic Books (Harper Collins Publishers Inc.), New York, 1995.

    C. Other interesting references can be found with Internet searches against

      (1) FMS ("False Memory Syndrome"), and
      (2) CSICOP ("Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal")

    D. Mark Pendergrast provides detailed summaries of the Fells Acres case (pp 374-378) and the comparably disturbing Ray and Shirley Souza case (pp 378-384) in his book about "repressed memory" psycho-quackery, "Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (2nd Ed.)," Upper Press Inc, Hinesburg VT, 1996.

8. A final word

The following paragraph in an "amicus" brief in the Kelly Michaels case was signed by 45 respected researchers in cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychology (Ceci & Bruck, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom," pp. 292-293). [I have not heard that the Fells Acres child-witnesses were "bullied," but the rest of the pattern fits.]

"The authors of this brief also wish to convey their deep concern over the children in this case. Our concern is that if there were incidents of sexual abuse, the faulty interviewing procedures make it impossible to ever know who the perpetrators were and how the abuse occurred. Thus poor interviewing procedures make it difficult to detect real abuse. But we have further concerns. And these involve the interviewing techniques which we view as abusive in themselves. After reading a number of these interviews, it is difficult to believe that adults charged with the care and protection of young children would be allowed to use the vocabulary that they used in these interviews, that they would be allowed to interact with the children in such sexually explicit ways, or that they would be allowed to bully and frighten their child witnesses in such a shocking manner. No amount of evidence that sexual abuse had actually occurred could ever justify the use of these techniques especially with three- and four-year-old children. Above and beyond the great stress, intimidation, and embarrassment that many of the children so obviously suffered during the interviews, we are deeply concerned about the long-lasting harmful effects of persuading children that they have been horribly sexually and physically abused, when in fact there may have been no abuse until the interviews began. The authors of this brief will be permanently disturbed that children were interviewed in such abusive circumstances regardless of the ultimate innocence or guilt of the accused."

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