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


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."

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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.

Statutes of limitation for child abuse are now exceptionally permissive in Massachusetts; the statutory scheme (enacted when Scott Brown was a state senator) is a bit complicated but essentially allows for prosecution decades after the alleged abuse. It might or might not allow Brown's alleged molester to be tried, assuming he's still alive and apprehendable. So, all things considered, a successful prosecution seems unlikely. But it's quite likely that any living person named by Brown would be publicly condemned as a child abuser anyway, without proof of guilt, and made vulnerable to various forms of vigilante justice. The question before Brown, to name or not to name, is more complicated morally than his critics acknowledge.

It's further complicated by the emergence of additional claims of abuse at Camp Good News.  Brown "empowered others to come forward," Joan Vennochi observes (13 others so far.) Lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, famous for representing victims of pedophile priests, remarks, "It's a snowball effect. They are inspired by other people coming forward.'' No doubt. But are the accusations inspired by Brown's book accurate or true?

Press coverage of the developing scandal and discussions of Brown's proper role in it tend to treat the abuse allegations as true, and belief in them has been bolstered by the suicide of an accused camp worker, Chuck Devita. Even Devita's own mother believes in his guilt, Garabedian stresses. She claims that she had suspected her son of abusing children and reported her suspicions to camp officials (they deny her account.) Apparently unburdened by maternal sentimentality, she welcomes his suicide: "(H)e did the right thing, because he knew he couldn't come to me with that,'' Sandra Devita told the Boston Globe.

Maybe Devita was guilty of abuse and killed himself to avoid facing the consequences of his crimes. Maybe he was innocent and killed himself because he was terrified of being accused and had no one, including his own mother, to whom he might turn. Either scenerio seems plausible to me.

I have no hard information and, therefore, no worthwhile opinion about child abuse at Camp Good News. Like many cases involving allegations of past abuse, this one poses substantial epistemological challenges. Of course these challenges are not necessarily insurmountable and don't provide excuses for failures to investigate the camp. They do underscore the importance of reserving judgment -- especially when, in addition to the pedophile priest scandal, you remember the sorry record in Massachusetts of wrongful child abuse convictions, fueled by hysteria and ethically challenged, overzealous prosecutors. (The Fells Acres and Bernard Baran cases are prime examples.) When it's hard to know the truth of an allegation, it should not be so easy to judge.

Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque