Friday, September 18, 2009

The Boy Who Cried Wolf and the Children Who Just Cried

This is a sad story:
James Westcott, 66, admitted the young girl touched him during two separate incidents that occurred sometime between July and December 2008. He was arrested after the girl told her mother about what happened last December.
This aspect of the story is, potentially, just as sad:
A former elementary school teacher cleared of sexually molesting 11 of his young female students more than a decade ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to inviting a three-year-old girl to touch his penis.
In his decision dismissing the charges in 1999, Ontario Superior Court Justice Roydon Kealey said he found portions of the girls’ testimony “underwhelming” and there were too many “concerns and problems” surrounding it for him to convict Westcott.
Kealey noted that after “rumour and innuendo” began to spread through St. George’s about Westcott, several parents pressed their children to see if they had been touched. It was only under pressure from their parents, the judge noted, that the young girls made the allegations.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim that this conviction means that he was actually guilty of the allegations from 1999, but I think it's reasonable to start wondering.

In the 1980s, a wave of hysteria about child abuse hit North America.  Allegations of sexual abuse and satanic rituals being performed on children arose across America (and in Britain, too). Daycare Centres were shuttered, innocent people were jailed, and hundreds of children were put through the torment of recounting sadistic, and sometimes bizarre, sexual abuse.

Maybe some of it really happened.  A lot of it didn't.  Law enforcement, district attorneys, parents, psychologists and social scientists joined in on the hysteria; in fact, they stoked it.  Careers were made; reputations were manufactured; children were manipulated.  What may have started out as good intentions, turned into tragedy on a grand scale.

In 1993, Dateline NBC presented a story on GM trucks that were, allegedly, likely to explode during a side impact.  A couple from Atlanta had sued GM, as this was the cause of the death of their son, and, consequently, GM was in for a public shaming.  Unfortunately, it didn't go down that way.

Dateline decided, to make sure they got the best shot, they'd need to make the truck explode.  Days later, GM spoiled the party and exposed Dateline's deception.  Now, thanks to Dateline and their manipulation of tragedy, GM became the victims.  They won the PR war.

So, what to make of James Westcott?  Could overzealous prosecutors, police officers or psychologists have embellished the case against him in 1999 to try to ensure that they convicted a monster?  I can't say.  I did a search online, but I couldn't find any information from the 1999 case.  I hope this isn't what transpired, but still, the uncertainty just hangs there.

We worry so much about the boy who cried wolf.  We worry that false allegations of sexual abuse will have a chilling effect on future victims.  We worry that with each Crystal Gail Mangum and Tawana Brawney there will be more people who decide to suffer in silence, unwilling to come forward for fear of neither being believed nor being treated with sensitivity.

James Westcott could have been abusing a child in 1999, but hysteria could have so corrupted the case that the legal system had no choice but to turn him free.  Hysteria may have unleashed this monster on other children.

When we worry about the boy crying wolf, perhaps we should worry that the wolf is hurting someone else as the little boy cries out.

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