The Problematic Globe Article

On Sunday, 1 October 2000, something of a breakthrough occurred: a cover story on the Bernard Baran case appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. The cover alerted us that the article was not going to be favorable: a headless photograph of Baran with huge black letters proclaiming, “The Molester.” Inside, the article was illustrated with two unflattering photos of Baran, both printed at a slant, making him look sinister. The large photograph opposite the title page appeared to have been lit to resemble a still from a German expressionist horror movie.

The article itself was not as bad as the cover and illustrations would lead one to expect. For one thing, while the article gave no sense of what Baran is like as a person, it did at least report some of the horrors — rapes, beatings, other forms of abuse — that Baran has been made to suffer during his 16 years of wrongful imprisonment. Also, it does effectively discredit the two flimsy pieces of “forensic” evidence that were introduced at trial — Peter Hanes’ dubious gonorrhea test and Gina Smith’s hymeneal notches.

The article made a number of factual errors — errors that clearly were the fault of the author, David Mehegan, and not the Globe editors. The most serious is probably Mehegan’s claim that Baran was abused as a child by an adult relative. Baran was not and has never said so. This is particularly damaging in that there is a widespread cultural belief — promoted by therapists but not based on evidence — that most sexual abusers were sexually abused as children, and conversely that abused children are therefore disproportionately prone to become abusers themselves (unless “treated” by therapy). Mehegan even quotes one of the accusers, now a college student, as saying, “The reason he did the things he did was because someone did the same things to him when he was a child. He did not receive the support and encouragement that I did.”

Because this belief is so common, the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives once asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to verify this theory and to suggest ways to prevent this from happening. On September 13, 1996, GAO sent their report to Representative Bill McCollum, Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime. The cover letter states, “This report does not address a follow-on question that you raised concerning ways to prevent sexually abused children from becoming adult sexual offenders against children, because the existence of a cycle of sexual abuse was not established by the research studies we reviewed.”

Mr. Mehegan takes the word of prosecutor Dan Ford and Judge Simon that Baran was in view of the children when they testified. The judge and prosecutor could see the children, but Baran could not. The lawyers sat at a table in front of Baran. The children sat on the floor between the interrogators and the judge. Baran couldn’t see the children, and thus it’s reasonable to assume that the children couldn’t see him. Baran did tell me that one of his problems in seeing what was going on was that Ford, a man of enormous bulk, was planted right in front of him. But I grant that it would probably not be fruitful to pursue a new trial motion based on the prosecutor’s obesity. (As my dear departed father would have said, they must have made Dan Ford when meat was cheap.) Mehegan states, “the transcript makes clear in various places that Baran was in view.” Mehegan should read the transcript again. It makes clear that Baran is in view when adults are testifying. Nothing in the children’s testimony indicates that they can see Baran. One child even asks, “Where’s Bernie?”

Mehegan incorrectly states that the first complaint to the school occurred a few days before Baran’s arrest. Actually, it happened about a month before. The timing is important, because the first complaint occurred right around the date (9/5/84) that Gerald Amirault’s arrest became major Massachusetts news. The parents called the school to complain that Baran was gay, but that’s as far as it went. On October 4, they called one of their police “drug handlers” — a contact to whom these police informants fed tips about the local drug scene — to allege actual abuse. The parents had a full month to grill Peter about whether Baran had abused him.

Mehegan dismisses my suggestion that if Peter Hanes actually did have gonorrhea — and in all probability he did not — he might have been exposed to it by someone else, such as John Wilson. Mehegan claims that Peter accused Wilson “sometime in 1985.” It had to be very early in 1985, or late in 1984. DSS interrogated Hanes about his accusation against Wilson on January 18, 1985 — immediately before the hearing to determine his competency to testify against Baran. Mehegan says that DSS and police decided there was nothing to the Wilson allegation. As for DSS, what Mehegan says is demonstrably false. DSS substantiated the accusation against Wilson, and that’s a matter of public record. (When Mehegan went to Pittsfield, his busy schedule evidently didn’t permit him to go to the courthouse to look at actual evidence.) And it certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone that the police didn’t pursue the case against Wilson. They knew that Baran was going to be an easy conviction and they weren’t about to muddy the waters. As a final insult, Mehegan claims that “the other boyfriend did not arrive on the scene until 1985.” John Wilson and Julie Hanes grew up together. She said so explicitly at the civil trial.

Mehegan implies that there is good reason to consider Baran guilty because (1) the children didn’t tell “bizarre” tales and (2) they were properly interrogated.

First of all, it is not even true that none of the children told bizarre tales. Five of the six children were relatively unimaginative. Gina Smith was the notable exception. Under repeated questioning, she had elaborated a convoluted story concerning something she called “The Bird’s Nest Game.” Gina also spoke much about “pretend police,” “pretend worms,” the “pretend phone,” the “pretend bird.” Pretend was obviously a favorite word. (Ford did his damnedest to get Gina to elaborate the Bird’s Nest Game scenario in court, but Gina wasn’t in the mood to co-operate.) Gina also told a tale of Baran raping her in an open bathroom adjacent to a classroom, scraping blood from her vagina with a scissors, and then stabbing her in the foot with the scissors to cover up the fact that she was bleeding. Another teacher supposedly witnessed all of this.

Whether or not you consider Gina’s tales bizarre, the point is moot. Bizarre tales are not a necessary symptom of improper questioning. Non-bizarre accusations are, if anything, even easier to elicit. In the other daycare cases, most accusations were not bizarre. Some cases entailed no bizarre accusations. Journalists and supporters of the falsely accused have stressed the bizarre tales because they are clear and compelling evidence of the dangers of suggestive questioning. But the reality is more complex. What a child creates under these circumstances depends on many factors: the child’s imagination and native suggestibility, the interrogator’s expectations and persistence, the length of the interviews, the number of re-interviews, etc. (See the work of Ceci, Bruck, and others.) The essential point to remember: in the daycare cases, the narrators were the interrogators, not the children. Baran’s case came to trial quickly, Gina was the only highly imaginative child, and the now discredited theory of Satanic Ritual Abuse had not yet become entrenched in investigators’ minds.

The article’s most dangerous flaw is its implication that the children were properly interviewed. Mehegan completely ignores the hysterical climate of the early 80s. The McMartin case (which eventually resulted in no convictions after the most expensive trial in American history) dominated national news. Fells Acres was producing inflammatory headlines here in Massachusetts. Moreover, homophobia was at a fever pitch because of the AIDS crisis. (Pittsfield, in the best of times, is not what a reasonable person would call a gay-friendly community.)

In these cases, the worst interrogation is that done by the parents. A hysterical parent, told that his or her child is the probable victim of a disease-carrying queer, is not about to take no for an answer. When these parents get their answers, and go to the police or social workers, the claim is always made that the child made a “spontaneous disclosure.”

Since the videotapes made of the child interviews weren’t available to him, Mehegan takes the word of therapist Jane Satullo Shiyah (sixteen years after the fact) that she did not lead the children. But at trial, Shiyah disclosed her influences as two therapists (A. Nicholas Groth and Suzanne Sgroi) who believed that sexually abused children were locked vaults, that a no answer meant that a child was “in denial,” and that suggestive questioning was necessary to induce a child “to disclose.” Dr. Roland Summit proposed similar theories at around the same time. None of these theories was based on evidence. At Baran’s trial, Shiyah testified that “there haven’t been any cases of children falsely accusing somebody” and that children are “no more susceptible than the rest of us” to suggestion.

Groth and Sgroi were colleagues of Ann Burgess. The three of them even co-edited a book. Burgess trained Susan Kelly, who interviewed the Fells Acres children. These videotapes were preserved and I have seen some of them. Kelly’s techniques were grossly suggestive and misleading. I suspect Shiyah’s techniques were identical to Kelly’s. We know from a transcript that one of the other interrogators in this case used interviewing techniques that were suggestive in the extreme.

Mehegan claims that the police notes show no evidence of interviewer pressure. This isn’t quite true. The police notes on Satullo’s interview with Peter Hanes, for example, says, “When Jane tried to get more out of the boy on this subject he wanted to go to the bathroom. He went to the bathroom at 11:30 A.M. She tried to get more out of the boy but he didn’t want to talk about it.” Another police report on Peter says, “We talked to Peter about if he would touch Bernie or if Bernie wants to have Peter touch him and he became offensive to the question and became angry and told us no in no uncertain terms.” Also, we’ve compared the police report of an interview with the actual transcript. The transcript is patently grossly suggestive. But the corresponding police report makes no mention whatsoever of the suggestive techniques that were used.

According to the article, Shiyah has since discarded the theories of Groth and Sgroi. But even when “experts” learn from their mistakes, they seldom admit past error. A prime example is pediatrician Astrid Heger, the expert Mehegan quotes to discredit the hymeneal evidence. According to Debbie Nathan, “back in the 1980s, Heger traveled the country and the world lecturing, and made a videotape that taught doctor’s how to interpret ‘notches’ and other normal genital features as signs of abuse.” Heger presented “expert” medical “evidence” in the McMartin case. Heger has now very much changed her mind. But she has never admitted her errors in McMartin. Another expert Mehegan quotes is Andrea M. Vandeven, who has never admitted her errors in the Souza case.

I remain less optimistic than Mehegan that investigators aren’t repeating the errors of the past. Mehegan himself points out that half of Massachusetts counties don’t audiotape or videotape child interviews. Berkshire is one of the counties that does not. Mehegan quotes RoAnn Vecchia, a Pittsfield forensic investigator, who insists she doesn’t use suggestive techniques. Yet Vecchia was the interrogator on at least one highly dubious case — the case of Bruce Clairmont. Vecchia interviewed the children in that case in 1993.

Another disturbing fact is that Mehegan was given excellent leads that he apparently did not pursue. It’s possible that the Globe didn’t permit him to pursue them, or that Mehegan suffered other forms of editorial censorship. For example, a significant aspect of this case is that one of the accusers subsequently recanted. We had hopes that Mehegan was going to pursue this. Perhaps other journalists will look into the relevant documentation.

Given all of my concerns about the article, I am still glad to have co-operated with it and am very grateful that it appeared. Many people I have talked with have liked the article better than I did. Perhaps I just know too much about the details and care too much about the pain this very admirable and gentle person has been made to suffer. Nevertheless, David Mehegan has pulled Bernard Baran out of the obscurity he has been lost in these past 16 years. If we continue this fight for justice, the day may come when Bernard Baran will once again be free.

-Bob Chatelle