Sickness in Society

August 01, 1993

In Baltimore, a parks and recreation employee is charged with molesting children. But the children recant their story, leaving tTC the state without a case. Is he then exonerated with appropriate apologies for the anguish such charges caused? No. Prosecutors, apparently more concerned with saving face than with pursuing justice, insist they will press on with the investigation.

Meanwhile, in an Anne Arundel County high school, a number of people saw strong evidence that a teacher, Ronald Price, was taking sexual advantage of teen-age girls. But the case was pushed aside. When it finally came to light this year, the perpetrator admitted -- even embraced -- his guilt and hit the talk-show circuit.

There is something sick about a society that hounds people, turning them into pariahs, even when there is strong reason to doubt that they have done anything wrong, while turning someone like Ronald Price into a celebrity.

It is common to speak with disdain about the witch hunts that tore apart Salem, Mass., three centuries ago. But it appears that in any age human nature can become susceptible to mass hysteria, persisting in believing things that are not supported by evidence or that are patently untrue. In some cases, fears of child sexual abuse may be giving rise to modern versions of the witch-hunt.

Child molestation does occur, although far less frequently than other forms of abuse and neglect. But a sex-obsessed society loses its sense of proportion, failing to pay attention to the differences between the ways children and adults perceive and communicate reality. As a result, adults sometimes put words in children's mouths, while at other times disbelieving or ignoring clear warning signs.

Confusion and hysteria poison the atmosphere, producing cases which charges don't hold up to scrutiny, but are relentlessly pursued nonetheless. A recent PBS documentary traced a sensational case in Edenton, N.C., in which children testified, long after the alleged abuse occurred, to such incredible acts as watching their care-takers shoot babies or being taken out in boats and made to swim with sharks.

Dr. Berry Brazelton, the well-known pediatrician, suggests some the hysteria about child sexual abuse may reflect parents' own guilt about having too little time to spend with their children. Whatever the reason behind the fears and suspicions, when prosecutors insist on pressing cases even when the evidence is flimsy, every person who works with children has good reason to wonder who will be next.

Clearly, there are Ronald Prices in this world who are eager to take advantage of minors. There is also reason to believe that innocent people are being tarred by the same brush. Working with children has never been a way to get rich. These days, though, it can be a good way to get sent to jail.

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