Saturday, October 18, 2003

Margaret Wente

p. A23.

A darkness lifted at last

In 1986, a Massachusetts day-care worker named Gerald Amirault was convicted of sex crimes against children — crimes so hideous they almost defied description. Also convicted were his mother, Violet, who owned the Fells Acres Day School, and his sister, Cheryl, who also worked there. Yesterday, after 17 years behind bars, Mr. Amirault was finally granted parole. Soon he will be a free man again.

Of all the miscarriages of justice committed during the era of hysteria over child sex abuse, the Amirault case is by far the worst. The evidence that convicted him was preposterous. The methods used to browbeat tiny tots into producing it have been thoroughly discredited. His innocence has been obvious for years. Yet a succession of prosecutors, judges and state governors (to say nothing of the media) did their best to keep him rotting.

Fells Acres was started by Gerald's mother, who, over 20 years, built it into a solid family business. Thousands of pre-school children passed through its doors. Gerald, a soft-spoken, gentle man, was good with the kids. He was a husband and father himself.

But there was a new social panic in the air. Across North America, day-care workers were being accused of mass child sex abuse. Social workers sensed a cause, and ambitious prosecutors sensed an opportunity. The children, badgered to come up with lurid tales, obliged. Sympathetic juries were exhorted to believe the children. Hundreds of preschools closed; many people went to prison before their sentences were overturned.

The Amirault family's troubles began when a four-year-old boy wet his pants. Gerald cleaned him up, gave him fresh pants, and sent his wet underwear home in a plastic bag. Several months later, the boy's mother, whose marriage was falling apart, phoned a child-abuse hotline and complained that Gerald had taken her son into a secret room and molested him. Two days before his third child was born, Gerald was arrested on rape charges.

An usual sequence of events ensued. Police and social workers came and handed out a laundry list of "abuse symptoms" to the anxious parents of every child in the school. Then they began asking leading questions of the kids, and offering rewards for the right answers. Soon they had identified no fewer than 19 victims, who had, they said, been raped with broomsticks and forced to drink urine. The children testified that Violet cut the leg off a squirrel and tied a naked boy to a tree in front of the school while teachers and children watched. That evidence was never corroborated.

There was a "magic room" where they were assaulted by a man dressed as a clown, and they were threatened with death if they ever told. The prosecutors explained that the Amiraults were heavily involved in child pornography.

Curiously, there was not a single sign of physical abuse. No one asked why nobody in the school ever told or noticed, or how all those kids remained so cheerily enthusiastic about the place. No one thought it unbelievable that an exemplary grandmother of 62 would suddenly start raping four-year-olds. No shred of pornography was ever found.

But as the prosecutor told the jury, that didn't mean there wasn't any. The scourge of sex abuse was terrible, and eradicating it was all that mattered. And so the Amiraults were convicted on all counts. Cheryl and Violet drew eight to 20 years. Gerald, tried separately, got 30 to 40. The families of the child victims got $20-million in compensation.

Over the next years, the Amiraults launched a series of appeals. A lower court overturned the women's convictions, but a higher court reinstated them. Violet and Cheryl were repeatedly denied parole because they refused to admit their guilt. In 1997, Violet, out on bail, died at age 74 of stomach cancer. In 1999, Cheryl was released for time served.

For the Massachusetts judiciary, the Amirault affair is a disgrace. The judge who overturned the women's convictions (and whose ruling was itself overturned) had this to say: "This case ought to leave no one feeling confident except for one thing: Justice was not done."

The prosecutors in the case did well. One, crusading on his record of being tough with sex offenders, went on to become the state's attorney-general. Several governors — including Paul Cellucci, now U.S. ambassador to Canada — refused to commute Mr. Amirault's sentence. Gerald Amirault did have one superb champion, The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinovitz, who has written tirelessly and with immense passion about the case for years. She deserves much credit for what happened yesterday.

You can't escape the irony that Massachusetts is the place that gave us Salem. Fortunately, we don't believe in witches any more. We're too rational for that.

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Created: November 24, 2003
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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