Saturday, September 18, 2004

This is not political. . . or is it?

I'm just not sure, but it shakes me to the core. Tomorrow's New York Times Magazine has a long article about a man who, when he was eight, testified against a neighbor for sexually abusing and sodomizing him. He now says it was all a lie.

The article is moving and a cautionary tale. But I must give an account, I suppose, of what scares me most. You see, I like kids a whole bunch. And I am proud they respond to me well. I will be getting married soon and will be having kids myself. But regardless of being married, I've volunteered to help kids in the past. In fact, at one point, while volunteering for a small judo club, I was in a situation with an eight year old boy that made me vitally uncomfortable, and yet, I had to do right by him.

Pardon me for a flashback from several years ago.

We had just gotten back into Philadelphia from a judo tournament, and were going to accomplish two birds with one stone. The vanload of six boys and us two adults (the sensei and I) were stopping in Philly to drop me off, and we were also going to have dinner at my local pub. We'd driven in from NYC, with no bathroom breaks, and poor Zach hadn't told anyone he needed to pee. Well, he didn't make the two block walk from the parking place to the pub, and I, without thinking of the ramifications, picked him up once we got to the pub, got the go-ahead from the bartender to use the room upstairs, and walked the thoroughly embarrassed boy through peeling out of his pants, drying using the hand dryer, and helping restore his self-esteem before rejoining the other boys, who still hadn't noticed that he'd wet his pants. Yes, I was alone with a half-naked boy for twenty minutes. It wasn't more than two hours later, as I was readying myself for bed, that the horror occurred to me -- that some enterprising mother, cop, whatever, could have coached that boy into testifying against me and saying I'd molested him. This event was innocent, but based on the hysteria out there the potential for abuse was possible.

First, let me say we are all against child molestation. Indeed, that may be the problem. It is an easy issue to demagogue about. Child molestation has been demonized to such an extent that it encourages zealous cops, District Attorneys, etc., to aim for high profile cases. They want good press, and where better to get it than from taking a monster from within our midst off the streets. Who would think that is wrong?

Yes, I fear that child molestation is subject to hysteria. No, that doesn't mean that it isn't a crime and that it doesn't happen, but it does mean that it can lead to the abuse of good people. What leads to that abuse?

I personally think that these false crimes, this one, and the celebrated (and infamous) McMartin Preschool case, are caused by a hysteria led by religious fanaticism that suspects any contact to be potentially sexual. Some fundamentalist strains are so uptight about sex that they see it everywhere, and seeing it everywhere they are ready and willing to focus on anyone who has contact with them or with their children. Of course, if an overly ambitious cop of District Attorney gets involved, then that's all she wrote.

I am particularly moved by the subject of this article in the New York Times, the man who testified as a boy. Just think on this a minute.

In part, Sampley, now 28 and a worker for a commercial-sign maker, is haunted by his own role. ''Why couldn't I withstand the pressure?'' he says. ''I didn't smoke when I was pressured by my friends. But when I was pressured by the investigators, I broke down. I still search for that moment I gave in.'' He is also haunted by how the investigation distorted his trust. Several years ago, he realized that each time his stepdaughter, then 6, invited friends to the house, he shut himself in his bedroom; he didn't want to play with strangers' kids or even be around them. For a year, he also wouldn't give his own daughter, now 3, a bath. ''I'm afraid of somebody saying something that isn't true.'' A child or an angry ex-girlfriend might twist the truth into a lie. A tickle becomes molestation; a hug is lechery. He knows firsthand that children do lie.

Yeah, it haunts the child who is forced to lie, and maybe as much as actual molestation might haunt the child. He was forced to changed how he approached children based on the testimony he was coached to give.

Please read the article, folks. And think about what George Bush would do to solve this. My bet is that he would fight to keep the guys in jail, no matter that all the testimony has been recanted. Because George Bush is beholden to a viewpoint that sees things rigidly. He is beholden to a religious right that has no problem with this kind of hysteria that sometimes traps and dooms innocent people, in this case with no physical evidence whatsoever.

Pardon my ranting. I know this is an uncomfortable subject. I know that all of us viscerally want molestors punished. I also know that there are people in this country who have gone to jail for decades based on false charges based on hysteria.