On Woody Allen and Echoes of the Past
Those who are falsely accused often naively believe that their innocence is obvious, that the allegations will be dropped.
It was a kind of naïveté evident in virtually every person known to me who had been falsely charged in the high-profile sex-abuse cases that had swept the country in the 1980s and early 1990s—people convicted and sentenced to long prison terms on the basis of testimony from children coaxed into making accusations. Accusations made, at ages 5, 6 or 7, that many of them would continue to believe fervently were true, into adulthood.
Though dazed when confronted with such accusations in 1984, the Amirault family of Massachusetts, owners of the Fells Acres nursery school, never doubted even when they were arrested that everything would soon be cleared up. Violet Amirault, school head, marveled that at age 60 she was suddenly supposed to have turned into a sexual molester of children.
It was said of Kelly Michaels, a young New Jersey schoolteacher convicted in 1987 of molesting 20 children, that it had done her no good with jurors that she had seemed calm, and lacking in urgency, as she answered questions, as though she were an onlooker at the proceedings. But what the jurors had seen—and some resented—was typical of the falsely accused, who had all led normal law-abiding lives. Many were unable to absorb the reality that they were suddenly accused of frightful crimes they could never have imagined committing.
Like Woody Allen, Kelly Michaels had willingly taken a lie-detector test and passed. After a trial that saw some famously memorable children’s testimony much like that given against the Amiraults—that Ms. Michaels had abused the children in a tractor, turned one of them into a mouse, etc.—she was sentenced to 47 years. Her conviction would be thrown out. Not before she had spent five years behind bars.
Violet Amirault and her daughter, Cheryl, would spend eight years imprisoned before their convictions were overturned in 1995. Violet died the following year. Her son, Gerald, would do 19 years before being released in 2004.
Whatever their state of amazement, these accused had all had, at the outset, the confidence of people certain that their innocence must be obvious.
What they didn’t know, what Woody Allen didn’t recognize in 1992, was the deadly power of a child sex-abuse accusation.
In his commentary, Mr. Allen takes bitter note of an observation made by the judge in the custody case amid the Allen-Farrow divorce. It was an observation that rings with a grim familiarity. After Mia Farrow accused Mr. Allen of molesting Dylan, Connecticut police called on the Child Sex Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital to investigate. The investigators’ conclusion was indisputably clear: Dylan had not been sexually abused by Woody Allen. She had made the accusation, the investigators said, either as a response to stress or because her mother had coached her to do so, or a combination of both.
Those earlier high-profile cases had taught investigators a great deal about children’s fabricated testimony. Still, the straightforward conclusion of the Yale-New Haven investigators notwithstanding, the judge in the custody case wrote in his opinion that “we will probably never know what occurred.”
Here was the insidious tagline that accompanies even the most unequivocal media report or documentary pointing to the innocence of defendants in conspicuous molestation cases. Such was, such still is, the sacrosanct status of the child sex-abuse charge. Resorting to the comfortable “we will never know” remains the evasion of choice for authorities in terror of acknowledging the innocence of anyone accused of the charge.
To prosecutors bent on holding on to convictions won, like the prosecutors who kept Gerald Amirault imprisoned, this sort of thing was of course no problem. Such was Martha Coakley‘s determination, when she was a district attorney in Massachusetts, to keep Mr. Amirault in prison, that she tried to have him committed elsewhere—as a sexually dangerous person—when he was paroled in 2004. An effort in which she was thwarted. Ms. Coakley is now the state’s attorney general.
For no one, perhaps, is the importance of keeping alive the charge of guilt greater than the person who was, as a child, part of a famous child sex-abuse case built on false charges. These children, reinforced again and again in the truth of the accusation, would believe as adults that their horrific victimization early in life has caused them psychic injury of untold depths.
Such was the predicament evident in one of the Amiraults’ child accusers, grown to adulthood, who arrived at a parole hearing for Gerald Amirault in a state pitiable to behold, afire with fury, tearful as she recounted the terrors, the failures in her life, that she attributed to his victimization of her. That this was suffering brought on by a lifetime educated in the belief of her victimization, it would be hard to dispute. It is similarly hard, now, witnessing the public raging of Ms. Farrow’s daughter Dylan, not to recall the sight and sound of that witness in the hearing room, and to recognize, again, the costs exacted by a lifetime of such belief.
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.