Day-care sex abuse case haunts Massachusetts Senate race
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic front-runner to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, didn’t prosecute the notorious Fells Acres Day Care case. But when she had a chance to help end the 'travesty,' she took the easy way out.
By Francis Wilkinson
Roman Polanski may not be alone in facing new scrutiny for an old sex crime, though in Massachusetts it's the actions of a former prosecutor, not a perpetrator, that are in question. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is the front-runner in the campaign to fill the U.S. Senate seat held for 46 years by Ted Kennedy. Coakley rose in politics via the Middlesex District Attorney's office, which was the unrelenting engine behind the Fells Acres Day Care prosecution, perhaps the most notorious among the wave of child sex abuse cases that swept the nation in the 1980s.
Coakley did not prosecute the case, which was already under way when she joined the office as an assistant district attorney in 1986. But years later, after the day-care abuse hysteria had subsided and she had won the office's top job, she worked to keep the convicted "ringleader," Gerald Amirault, behind bars despite widespread doubts that a crime had been committed.
Unlike Polanski's guilt, which was convincing enough in the 1970s and seems at least as compelling now, the convictions won by the Middlesex DA in the Fells Acres case have not borne up well. By today's standards, the prosecution of the Amirault family, who owned and operated the day-care center in Malden, Mass., looks like a master class in battling witchcraft. After an initial allegation surfaced under dubious circumstances, parents were summoned by local police and encouraged to grill their young children, predominantly ages 3 to 5. In the scattershot search for evidence, which the children ultimately produced by the truckload, hysteria reigned. Parents shared their fears along with their children's sometimes fantastical revelations. A pediatric nurse and other "experts" then followed up, posing leading, even badgering, questions to the children to produce a portrait of almost supernatural predation.
Children claimed to have been raped by knives that left no wounds. They said they had been tied to a tree on the day-care grounds. They said they had been molested by a man—Gerald Amirault—in a clown costume and spoke of a magic room and a secret room. No teacher, parent or other adult witnessed any of it—despite their regular proximity to the Amiraults and the exceedingly baroque, time-consuming nature of the alleged abuse. Physical evidence was remarkably scant.
The allegations were similar to those produced in other day-care cases, from New Jersey to California, in which charges were ultimately dismissed. Research by Cornell professor Stephen Ceci and others has established that children can be highly susceptible to ideas introduced by adults, and can shape their recollections to suit a grown-up's narrative. (See this ABC News video). As former Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon wrote in The Boston Globe, Gerald Amirault's "conviction rested largely on the constitutionally defective testimony of the young children."
The fact that the Fells Acres case took place in suburban Boston makes it all the more vexing. While Middlesex prosecutors were pursuing the Amiraults for spectacular assaults involving dozens of victims, Catholic priests in the area were quietly raping local children one by one, without the benefit of magic rooms or clown costumes. Just two years after the Fells Acres prosecution concluded, one of the prosecutors, Laurence Hardoon, opted not to prosecute a priest, Rev. Paul Tivnan, who had molested a young boy for years. Hardoon later explained that it seemed appropriate to provide the priest with treatment, not jail time. In response to a second molestation allegation against Tivnan, church records indicated that Tivnan said he "didn't realize it was so harmful," according to the MetroWest Daily News, a local paper. The Amiraults, by contrast, were each sentenced to grinding prison terms, with Gerald getting the most—30 to 40 years. All three Amiraults adamantly insisted that the charges were baseless and refused to bargain with prosecutors; they paid for their defiance with longer sentences.
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