Scott Brown and the Politics of Child-Abuse Allegations

Why we shouldn't be too quick to judge the Massachusetts senator for not naming his alleged molester more than 40 years later

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Scott Brown may never again underestimate the power of child abuse allegations and their unintended consequences. At first, Brown's account of being molested by a camp counselor at age 10 was greeted with predictable sympathy and praise for "coming forward." Now, on second thought, he's being chastized for not coming forward far enough and naming his alleged assailant. Criticism from the right is especially sharp. Columnist and radio talker Howie Carr has lambasted Brown for refusing to assist the district attorney investigating abuse at the Christian Good News Camp. "We look down our noses at people who see an assault in progress and just keep walking," Carr says. "I think Scott put this out on the table, and it's his job to follow through now ... and bring someone to justice who might still be a danger to kids today." Carr's WKRO colleague Avi Nelson agrees.

With a little less vehemence, centrist Globe columnist Joan Vennochi characterizes Brown's professed desire to "move on" as a self-serving failure of leadership: "from a perch of security and celebrity, he is leaving it up to other scared and abused victims to do what's necessary to unravel the truth about the camp ... he wants nothing more to do with a story that sells books and advances his political ambition."

Without doubting Brown's truthfulness, I reserve the prerogative to question his memory after 40 years, as well as his original 10-year-old boy perception of the alleged molestation.

Are these criticisms fair? Perhaps -- if you assume the accuracy of Brown's recollections and believe that it's generally fair and reasonable to prosecute people for crimes allegedly committed 40 years ago. I don't. Without doubting Brown's truthfulness, I reserve the prerogative to question his memory after 40 years, as well as his original 10-year-old boy perception of the alleged molestation. An allegation of abuse is just that -- an allegation, not an item of reliable information.  

For legal purposes, an allegation becomes information and the basis of a criminal conviction or civil liability only through a process of testing and substantiation (in other words, a trial), a process that becomes increasingly unreliable with the passage of time. Statutes of limitation -- laws requiring cases to be initiated within specified time periods from the commission of  alleged crimes or torts -- are necessitated by evidentiary difficulties like the death or disappearance of witnesses and their tendency to forget or distort important details over time. In recent years, statutes of limitation for child abuse cases have been dramatically lengthened, thanks partly to hysteria about recovered memories but also, at least in Massachusetts, in response to historic cover-ups of abuse by the Catholic Church.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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