The ultimate weapon

Pederastic priests, molesting fathers -- charges of sexual abuse are everywhere these days. But a growing movement of aggrieved men claim the accusations have gotten out of hand.

By Chris Colin
May 22, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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The Rev. John F. Barrett cried. The 69-year-old Chicago-area pastor, recently placed on temporary administrative leave for a sex abuse allegation made a decade ago, declared through tears that "there is no truth to these accusations." Barrett has been pastor of the Mary Queen of Heaven parish since 1966, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. In the last five months, 10 priests have been removed from his parish following accusations of sex abuse.

"I am innocent," Barrett said at a press conference two weeks ago, responding to allegations that he molested a boy 34 years ago. "My reputation has been tarnished, and I wonder how I am supposed to refute unsubstantiated and terribly false accusations."


On the surface Barrett may be no different from the scores of other men accused of sexual misconduct each day, but his predicament couldn't be more central or timely. Nearly 200 priests have resigned or have been dismissed since the first wave of accusations early this year, according to the Boston Globe. As this number grows in the coming months, the potential for hysteria is likely to build -- and a strange, furious fellowship of false-accusation sentinels will be watching closely.

An aggressive resistance to America's occasional panic over molestation has mounted in recent years, complete with a substantial online network; it is largely concentrated in certain men's groups and fathers' rights groups. The lives of too many innocent men and women, these critics say, are ruined by baseless allegations of sexual misconduct. With its roots in the original backlash against recovered memory cases in the early '90s, this loose-knit community is intent on revising a culture its members say has overcompensated for the days when child abuse was largely ignored or underreported.

"It's a collateral-damage issue," says Dean Tong, a false-accusation consultant and professional forensics expert, of the unfolding Catholic Church scandal. "We're going to see more guilty priests in the future, and therefore more falsely accused priests. The motive and the means are there."


Tong and his allies were vocal before the priest scandal and will remain vocal long after it's passed. As they see it, any allegation of child abuse isn't a step toward closure, but rather a chance for an innocent man to go to jail, to lose custody of his children or to end up like Alfred Bietighofer, the priest who apparently hanged himself in a psychiatric hospital after resigning from his parish amid accusations of sexual abuse. At times they're spot-on in their critique of a frenzied, litigious culture. At times they prove to be just as hysterical as their adversaries in what they call the "child molestation industry." Their engagement with various child advocacy agencies has reached a standoff: Neither side -- not those fighting child abuse nor those fighting the perceived preponderance of false allegations -- can claim victory.

Whether or not they prevail, the so-called false abuse watchers have unwittingly shown that we are at a fundamentally murky crossroads: On the one hand, we trust kids. Having disregarded their rights in the past, we've since cultivated an atmosphere highly attuned to their reports of inappropriate behavior. On the other hand, Americans hate putting innocent people in jail. Our reluctance to institutionalize DNA testing in relevant murder cases notwithstanding, we can't get enough Hollywood fare about noble men falsely accused.

Near the front of the movement is Tong. Through high-profile consulting work and an impressive online presence, the 45-year-old has emerged as one of the leading voices for the cause. As a consultant, he advises clients on beating the rap ("You must prove your innocence, which equates to psychological, and/or psychosexual testing; and you must impeach the credibility of your false accusers"). He also testifies in court as a professional forensics expert, and delivers lectures about false accusation around the country. He's an advisory board member on the Coalition for the Preservation of Fatherhood, a member of the Children's Rights Council and a director at the National Fathers Resource Center.


Tong clarifies the motivation for the latest of his three books, "Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused," in his online press kit: "American Enterprise Institute legal scholar Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, says that 70 percent of child abuse cases are unfounded. A national study done in 1986 by the Child Welfare League showed that more than 60 percent of child abuse cases were proven false. Wouldn't it make sense that a system producing a 60 to 70 percent error rate be examined for deficiencies?"

Clearly, Tong and company have the potential to be involved in a noble fight. The prosecutorial excesses of the '80s and '90s aren't entirely forgotten (recall widely believed tales of underground tunnels and hot air balloon molestations) and in some cases, such allegations still happen. But unlike other noble movements in progress now -- say, matching DNA samples with convicted rapists to prove their innocence -- this one doesn't always stand on solid statistics.


Jim Hopper, a researcher and therapist at the trauma center of Boston University's School of Medicine, points out that Tong ties much of his work on the startling observation that roughly two-thirds of all child abuse accusations are "unfounded." The truth, Hopper says, is that two-thirds are unsubstantiated. Tong dismissed this difference in semantics as "six in one, half a dozen in the other," but the difference is huge. "Unfounded" implies allegations of abuse that simply didn't happen; "unsubstantiated," however, means that the relevant agency was unable to prove that the abuse happened.

The difference in the meaning of these terms is all the more significant given Tong's own critique of the child welfare agencies as overworked. Because workers can have up to 150 cases at a time -- a consequence, partly, of mandatory reporting laws -- they must drop the ones with some evidence for those with overwhelming evidence, Hopper explains.

"Either he's not thinking clearly or he's deliberately out to deceive people," Hopper says of Tong.


David Finkelhor, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire long involved with the issue, troubles Tong's understanding of the statistics further: "Two-thirds of the suspicions reported to the agencies are not confirmed -- that should be good from his point of view. It means a fairly high standard is in place."

A major national report in 1999 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a branch of the Department of Justice, brings further perspective to Tong's arguments: While innocent men and women may indeed go to jail sometimes, we're not so zealous that child molestation has been stopped altogether. Juveniles, like adults, only report 36 percent of all sexual assaults against them, according to the report.

But buried in Tong's bad math is a fundamentally sound point: Innocent men (and women) do get accused, and that shouldn't happen. There's no shortage of heartbreaking examples, but few are as well known as the case of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, once pastor to Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics. In November 1993, a Philadelphia man named Steven J. Cook filed a $10 million lawsuit accusing the 65-year-old cardinal of molesting him 17 years earlier. Cook was a 17-year-old seminary student at the time, and through therapy and hypnosis he'd recovered memories of Bernardin -- then archbishop of Cincinnati -- sodomizing him.


Bernardin, himself a vocal advocate of investigating claims of pedophilia by priests, suddenly found himself accused of sexual abuse. Accusations against clergymen were already of interest -- just a month before Cook filed his lawsuit, a priest named James Porter had confessed to molesting 28 children in the '60s -- and now a man eligible to become pope had been named. Long before any trial, CNN fanned the flames in its breathless "Fall From Grace" series.

Bernardin, of course, never fell. Discrepancies in Cook's story began unraveling the accusation, and in March, four months after he filed the suit, Cook announced that his recovered memories were "unreliable," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "If I knew at the time I filed the lawsuit what I know now, I would never have sued Cardinal Bernardin," Cook told the press, and he dropped his suit.

The cardinal chose not to countersue, though he said he'd been "publicly humiliated before the world." Instead, he forgave Cook, prompting a swift about-face within the media; stories with headlines like "A Lesson in Compassion" cropped up in the papers once awash in Cook's sordid accusations. Both men were dead two years later -- Cook, of AIDS, and then Bernardin of cancer. Newspapers solemnly reported that the pair prayed together toward the end.

Of course, recantations like Cook's are uncommon. Even when the truth does emerge, it rarely garners the same attention as the initial accusation; as dramatic as it is, vindication is largely a back-page phenomenon, and the smear never quite comes out.


Predictably, the specter of recovered memory looms over any discussion of false abuse. To those locked in permanent battle with the so-called pro-child establishment, recovered memory is their Berlin Wall. In the '90s, at the height of its popularity as a legitimate tool of psychic excavation, abuse victims came out of the woodwork. The popular press described countless cases of adult children recalling molestation that happened decades earlier.

Eventually, researchers began to find that some of the therapy sessions designed to uncover memories of abuse were actually creating them. As quickly as recovered memory therapy came on the scene, it nearly vanished. Though many experts argue that we've swung too far in our disavowal of it, fathers' rights groups largely hail the collapse of recovered memory as a colossal victory, and its failure continues to be used as ammunition in their fight.

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner's "Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited," published in 1990, became a seminal text for the false-accusation community, laying the groundwork for an argument that widespread panic about molestation had veered into actual mass hysteria. While acknowledging that many, if not most, abuse allegations are based in fact, Gardner says this hysteria has damaged our ability to accurately evaluate abuse claims. The book is a mix of impressive scholarship and disturbing theories -- at one point, Gardner suggests that molestation trials might be unduly shaped by judges who "have repressed pedophilic impulses over which there is suppression, repression, and guilt. Inquiry into the details of the case provides voyeuristic and vicarious gratifications." Lines like that earn Gardner prime real estate on a good number of false-abuse Web sites.

Another weapon in this fight is a statistic from the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information: Between 1986 and 1993, the estimated number of sexually abused children increased 125 percent, from about 133,600 children to 300,200. To Tong and his colleagues, statistics like this demonstrate not that we're finally tackling a problem, but that we've become too attentive to it.


What's more, they say, the system provides built-in motivation to prosecute excessively. "It's a very lucrative issue -- every time a child is taken from a family, the cash register starts ringing," Tong says. "Child Protective Services gets state and federal grant money once a child is taken. There is incentive to legally kidnap a child in America today."

As for accusations coming from children themselves, Tong describes a norm of coercion, distortion and questionable extraction procedures. "The boy that accused Michael Jackson was given sodium amytal, which is known to create false memories," he says at one point, referring to a 1993 GQ magazine article claiming Jackson's accuser made his allegations after being administered the so-called truth serum drug. That the boy's therapist actually gave him sodium amytal has never been verified.

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Some of those most concerned about false accusations of abuse have a way of letting it slip that they, too, have been falsely accused. Before getting into the case studies, data and advice that comprise "Elusive Innocence," Tong devotes the first 15 pages to the sad, odd train wreck of his own family. As he tells it, the wife went crazy, the divorce was ugly and her anger materialized in bogus charges of Tong molesting his 3 1/2-year-old daughter.


Diane, the daughter, had allegedly complained to her mother that "she hurt down there." This was in 1985, and the rest of the personal section of the book is devoted to a subsequent decade of hell for Tong. We follow him from accusation to denial to follow-up accusation, through suits and appeals and motions and depositions, into thousands of dollars in legal fees. In the course of his saga, Tong sees Carla get full custody of Diane, finds himself strapped in for a penile plethysmography test and even spends a week in jail ("I hadn't even made it to my bunk when a black man growled in my face, 'Baby Raper,'").

The strategic pointers that make up the bulk of the book are revealing enough -- "Shift the court's focus from the alleged conduct of the accused (you) to the psychological functioning of the accuser" -- but it's the end of Tong's own chapter that says the most: Nothing happens. Tong would seem to have beaten the rap, but as we learn, there are a number of raps in molestation cases, and a legally "innocent" man can still fail to regain custody. There's never a McMartin-like victory, and ultimately we never really know what to make of Diane's accusations -- and actual vaginal lacerations. The abrupt ending, and the lingering unease, service Tong's point, if only accidentally: At best, the misery of the falsely accused simply fades.

Still, it's the process, not the conclusion, that is the main concern of "Elusive Innocence." The details of Tong's own story are excruciating, in a Spy vs. Spy way, and they're presented as a study in strategy. At one point, he recalls a "major mistake" he made after an argument in his estranged wife's house:

"A short distance from the house I realized I had left my jacket. Returning to the house, I found the front door ajar, the master bedroom door closed, and the children left unsupervised in their respective bedrooms. Taking advantage of what I thought to be the perfect opportunity to remove my children from a negative environment, I hid in my son's bedroom. At 3:00 a.m., I packed up the children and drove north to my parents' home."

That Tong can be deeply unlikable shouldn't dilute his larger message: America needs to pay attention to the problem of falsely accused child molesters. But the extent of this problem is infinitely debatable -- to know who is right requires knowing the hearts of accusers, not to mention a precise definition of abuse and at least some agreement over statistical discrepancies. Still, Tong correctly argues that one innocent man in jail is too many, if it's avoidable.

Ironically, one of Tong's most important arguments verges on backfiring: In his efforts to expose America's tendency to condemn as-yet unconvicted abuse suspects -- "There's always that segment of America that doesn't see the word 'alleged,'" he tells me -- he never seems completely beyond condemnation himself. While he complains about a legal system in which a woman's word can convict a man, he expects us to accept that a man's word (printed, in this case) is enough to exonerate one.

Indeed, a strange convention of the allegedly falsely accused is the assumption that we'll believe them. Beneath the surface of many online rants about society automatically believing the accuser is the faith that the best of us will automatically believe the accused. Tong does cite evidence of his innocence -- normal responses to a psychosexual disorder questionnaire, for example -- but never with enough detail to squelch all doubt. The outsider's position, then, is a squirmy one: If Tong is blameless, our hesitation makes us part of the problem he writes about. If he's guilty, we're reading a pretty disturbing book.

When many of the men's groups now behind Tong first came on the scene in the '90s, they were taking back fatherhood -- putatively from a variety of sexist injustices and bum raps and crazed feminists. Some of these groups turned out to be impressive, insisting that fathers be recognized as vital participants in family life. Others spun out and veered into scary territory: Briefly, these more radical guys got a pass for their apparent concern, and took advantage of a slight opening in the cultural landscape for sensitive, proactive fathers. But once they had a platform, many of them revealed themselves to be bitter, paranoid fanatics.

"We automatically presume the dad's guilty. The fathers get cut off from all contact with the kid [after an accusation is made], giving the mom an opportunity to brainwash the kid," Stuart A. Miller, a senior analyst with the American Fathers Coalition, said in a phone interview. An occasional writer for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, Miller has been one of the more vocal advocates for fathers' rights in recent years. "Perjury of any sort is not punished in courts of family law. I don't know of one case where a woman was penalized for false molestation charges. There needs to be consequences for losing [the case]. The incentives [for winning] are already there."

Miller, who survived a scandal of his own ("I went through a nasty divorce 15 years ago. My ex-wife accused my mother of abusing my son"), employs the kind of logic that degenerates into lunacy after a couple of minutes:

Miller: Most false accusations are done out of malice.

Me: I was under the impression the vast majority of accusations are made in good faith.

Miller: There's no data on this.

Me: Then how do you know most false accusations are done out of malice?

Miller: Listen, [the police] can't come into my home and tackle me and point a gun in my face.

In their current incarnation as false-accusation zealots, these groups anoint themselves with Truth -- their literature is invariably plastered with quotations ("That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord" -- Isaiah 30:9). But they're not very adept at maintaining the facade. Inevitably, they tend to rage against women.

"Misogyny" is a word that gets hurled around indiscriminately in otherwise nuanced gender discussions; in the case of men like Stuart Miller, it's entirely appropriate. Significant, too, is the fact that, despite all their militancy on the subject of molestation, these groups have been relatively restrained on the matter of priest accusations -- without a vindictive ex-wife in the picture, it seems these men find little to sink their teeth into.

Tong, perhaps to his credit, claims to be distancing himself from these groups, if only for professional reasons. "I can't be seen as connected with them -- it affects my objectivity in court [as a professional expert]," he says. "I don't think judges like that."

Nevertheless, the disintegration of the American family -- an obsessive theme for fathers' groups, often pinned directly on the mother -- has a place in any discussion of child abuse, according to Tong. The way he tells it, America set a course for our false-allegation problem three decades ago when we first allowed couples to divorce through mutual consent. In doing so, he argues, the law encouraged women to initiate a divorce, entangle their husbands in false accusations and walk away with everything. "No-fault catalyzed this feminist women's movement," he says. "There's been an escalation of [abuse] allegations ever since."

Common wisdom among the false-abuse set holds that angry wives routinely leverage molestation allegations in divorce custody cases. They call it SAID (Sex Abuse in Divorce) syndrome; Tong calls it "the ultimate weapon." In a culture that fails to give fathers equal footing in divorce court, the false accusation is yet another tool at the mom's disposal.

Strange, then, that research regularly refutes this thinking. Studies in the journals Child Abuse and Neglect and Child Sexual Abuse have demonstrated that allegations of molestation are not significantly more common around the time of divorce. "On the basis of research that has been conducted so far, it is difficult to support an assertion that there are high rates of false allegations of sexual abuse consciously made by mothers in divorce situations," write Kathleen Coulborn Faller, David L. Corwin and Erna Olafson in the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children Advisor.

Finkelhor agrees. "Most of the accusations that come out in the divorces -- and that get anywhere [in the courts] do tend to have some [merit]."

It almost doesn't matter what the data proves or the researchers say. SAID has symbolic, not statistical, currency. What it represents is standard-fare frustration about the collapse of the American family -- its cousin is family values -- and this always manages to bubble up to the surface in the passionate blurts of false-accusation types.

"You can see this gradual erosion of Ozzie and Harriet in this country," Tong says. "Now it's No-Touch-Rules America 2002." ("'Ozzie and Harriet' was just a TV show," I say. "In a lot of cases, abuse was going unreported back then." Tong replies: "I know what it was like back then -- I'm older than you.")

But Tong and company have a way of resuscitating the discussion just when they start muttering their way toward complete irrelevance. Fathers aside, some say, false abuse takes a toll on children. They propose a legitimate, if familiar, question: Has our increasingly child-sensitive justice system actually worked against children in some ways?

"The ramifications [of so many false accusations] are not benign or innocuous," Tong says. "We're creating a new class of victims."

Even experts outside Tong's camp acknowledge the possibility that America might be cultivating a damaging sense of victimhood in anyone who ever had a hand slapped away from the stove. Hopper agrees that "it does have a certain currency and power in our culture to cry abuse, and we do sensationalize it."

In fact, there's a good deal of what comes out of Tong's mouth that outside experts can agree with. Hopper -- one of the saner and more balanced voices in the field of abuse studies -- is willing to accept Tong's critique of social service agencies as employers of underpaid and undertrained workers. Finkelhor takes issue with the notion that we've grossly overcompensated in our historically new attentions to child abuse, but he concedes some merit to the complaint that "it's too easy to bring allegations against someone."

Looking at the various cultural alarms about molestation, it's not hard to see Tong's point about fear-mongering. "Predators are everywhere and they can strike at any time," warns Leigh Baker's new book, "Protecting Your Children From Sexual Predators." Baker's camp has gotten downright theatrical on the subject at times over the years, blowing whistles about the predator next door, or in the next parish, or in the master bedroom down the hall. It's not that child abuse isn't as bad as they say, of course, but the panicked demands for attention tend to distract from the actual problem.

But Tong and his cohorts can be just as hysterical with their anti-hysteria -- they even use the same rhetorical strategies. "Could you be next?" Tong asks, the implication being that the police might knock at any moment.

Tong is "addressing an important issue," Hopper says, "but he polarizes the issues and exacerbates the problems he addresses."

Yet Hopper stops short of categorically dismissing Tong. He describes a national debate where piling on has been the norm, and where the norm has resulted in few long-term solutions. Hopper proposes a rethinking of the way we handle false accusations, perhaps even hiring mediators in cases like Tong's. "You could take care of your needs without destroying the other person," he says. "It's all part of a larger tragedy."

Bernardin, and a few others like him, set a precedent for peaceful and open response to false allegations. To the extent that Tong and his colleagues add more hysteria to the molestation equation, they bury precedent under hostility and ignorance -- elements that they purport to despise in the so-called child molestation industry.

"I'm a strategist," Tong told me. "Think of this as a football game. I hand the ball to the attorney, and hopefully he runs it to the end zone."

The problem is that Tong and his colleagues don't seem to have figured out what the end zone looks like. If our mistreatment of the falsely accused goes as deep as they say, our larger understanding of molestation is in bad shape. But to the extent that reformers use distorted statistics to disguise a regressive, reactionary agenda, they only prolong any resolution of the child abuse problem in America.

Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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