Opinion: Sympathy for the Devil | Poli Psy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Opinion: Sympathy for the Devil 

Poli Psy

Published February 3, 2010 at 10:54 a.m.

Martha Coakley
  • Martha Coakley

I’m glad I don’t live in Massachusetts. Not just because my senator would now be Scott Brown, but because I would have felt obliged to vote for Martha Coakley — barely the lesser evil.

Lately reborn as a defender of justice at Guantánamo, Coakley is a leading legal light among sex-panic witch hunters. As Middlesex county district attorney and, since 1997, Massachusetts attorney general, she rose to prominence via the tireless prosecution of crimes that never happened: satanic ritual abuse of toddlers at the hands of daycare teachers, bizarre grandparental incest, and unfounded priestly pedophilia.

Coakley has tried and won these cases employing always dubious and now widely renounced investigatory tactics and junk forensic “science,” notably “repressed memory” theory. She has enlisted public hysteria, attacked her marks in the media, and fought like a Tasmanian devil to keep people behind bars long after they’ve been exonerated. In short, she has used her office to demolish the lives of many innocent people.

Throughout the Senate campaign, Coakley’s liberal supporters kept this record under wraps. Perhaps they feared jinxing an increasingly ill-fated run. My own suspicions are darker: that the Left does not care about sex-crimes enforcement, which may comprise the worst injustices of a brutal criminal system. This isn’t just because there’s no political advantage in standing up for suspected deviants. It’s because progressives are implicated in the creation of this sex panic, and even those who might be sympathetic to its victims don’t understand it.

Coakley made national headlines in 1997 for her role in convicting 19-year-old British nanny Louise Woodward for the shaking death of her charge Matthew Eappen. The evidence was slim that the defendant killed the baby — much less intentionally — but Coakley’s crew wanted to lock her up for life. The jury convicted on its only option, second-degree murder. The judge reduced the charge to manslaughter and the sentence to time served. Woodward returned to England disgraced, and Coakley rode the case to statewide office.

But Woodward was not the first trophy in Coakley’s misguided child-protective crusade. Her hand was heavy in two of the most notorious, and globally condemned, false-allegation cases of the daycare and satanic abuse panics. In 1993, Coakley railroaded Lowell residents Ray and Shirley Souza for molesting their grandchildren. The charges, which included abusing the kids with what they described as a machine as big as a room and forcing them to drink a green potion, were born in the therapeutically exhumed “recovered memories” of the Souzas’ eldest daughter and spread to infect the rest of the family.

Shortly after her election as attorney general in 1997, Coakley threw her power into trying to keep three innocents behind bars forever. Violet Amirault, 60, and her adult son and daughter Gerald Amirault and Cheryl LeFave were the proprietors of the highly regarded Fells Acres daycare center until they were swept up in the daycare panics. In 1984 a kangaroo court convicted them of abominations ranging from the anal rape of a 4-year-old with a butcher knife (which left no injury) to the severing of a squirrel’s legs in broad daylight (also unnoticed by anyone). By 1995, the patent falsity of these claims moved a judge to order a new trial and release the imprisoned women. Although Coakley had not prosecuted the case, she fought ferociously to send them back. Violet died of cancer, waiting. In 2000, the Massachusetts Governor’s Board of Pardons and Parole recommended commutation of Gerald’s sentence, citing lack of evidence of charges they called “extraordinary if not bizarre.” Coakley persuaded Acting Governor Jane Swift to reject the panel’s advice.

The Souzas served decades; Ray died and Shirley, still protesting her innocence, is a registered sex offender. So is Gerald Amirault, released in 2004.

Coakley also turned her zeal against “pedophile priests” — unfortunately, ones who were not guilty. In 1994, she insisted on prosecuting Father Paul Manning for molestation, even though the 11-year-old alleged victim said nothing happened. When the jury acquitted, Coakley went on TV to try to convict Manning there.

In 2002, Coakley presided over the crucifixion of Father Paul Shanley, painted as the most depraved of Boston’s disgraced priests. The case was tainted by sensationalist press coverage, multimillion-dollar pretrial settlements by the Church, and wingnut “experts” lending scientific sheen to repressed-memory theory, long invalidated by research and professional critique. Shanley was convicted solely on the accuser’s muddled memories — sparked by reading the Boston Globe — and sentenced to 12 to 15 years, a likely life sentence for the defrocked priest, now 79.

Not surprisingly, in 2004 Coakley opposed efforts to create a state innocence commission, calling the idea “backward-looking instead of forward-looking.” Of course, that’s the point: to look back and redress wrongful convictions, two dozen of which have been overturned in Massachusetts. But Coakley never admits a wrong.

Massachusetts offers extreme cases of official collusion in mass sexual hysteria, going back to the Salem witch trials. But it is hardly alone: The nation is united in its war on perverts, making little distinction between violent rapists and teen sexters. Nor is Coakley the only law enforcer who has refused to make amends for the innocent lives she has ruined. Prosecutorial careers are built on such victories.

Yet, with few exceptions, progressives have kept their mouths shut about these injustices. For instance, the ACLU’s 2010 Workplan aims to dismantle “the Guantánamo Bay System of Injustice” and rein in excessive government surveillance. Yet it ignores the gulag of postprison psychiatric lockups and the parole requirements imposed on former sex offenders.


Of all “progressives,” feminists are most to blame. Feminists “discovered” rape and incest in the 1970s. This is good. But sexual conservatives in the women’s movement soon allied with the moral Right and law-and-order zealots to overblow the prevalence of sexual crime, particularly against children, and to oversimplify its traumatic potential. Both causes and effects of these exaggerations are the quack science, relaxed evidentiary rules, broadened statutory definitions and overlong sentences that pervade sex-offense policy and practice.

But liberals don’t generally listen to feminists. In fact, the male (now old) New Left condemned feminists and other cultural radicals for splintering solidarity and distracting activists from serious — that is, economic — matters. You need only peruse left-wing publications such as The Nation, the Huffington Post or The American Prospect to see that sex is an afterthought in their definition of politics.

Why does the Left avoid sexual politics? For one thing (and here’s reason two it won’t deal with sex law), it is desperate to look moral. Spooked by the Right’s monopoly on “family values,” progressives in the 1980s strove to seize upstanding morality as their own. Soon we had the Working Families Party and Families USA. Queers went normal and flocked to the altar, with progressives throwing the rice. In a “pro-family” agenda, there is no room for defending people accused, even wrongly, of incest or sex with minors. Indeed, one of the more distressing aspects of the priest scandals was the Boston gay community’s abandonment — nay, denunciation — of embattled clerics like Shanley, who had admitted to earlier sex with teenagers. This was even more painful given the city’s extraordinary brotherhood of gay adults and youth in the sexual liberation struggles of the past.

Third, besides Marcusians, Reichians and a few other marginals, progressive politicos are rationalists; they’ve been snail-like in grasping the emotional roots of political behavior. Part of progressives’ fealty to Reason is their antagonism to religion. A willingness to believe the worst about Catholics, journalist JoAnn Wypijewski points out, contributed to the Left’s piling on to vilify the accused priests.

Fourth, with the exception of anarchists, the Left trusts government. State child protection was invented during the Progressive Era. Fifty years later, feminist therapists, lawyers, and antiviolence activists — who had historically mistrusted the police — joined with law enforcers to turn child-protection agencies into machines of sexual reeducation and punishment. Meanwhile, many vocal critics of sex-crimes laws are right-wing libertarians, including Christians, whose children have been caught under the sexual surveillance regime. These people don’t trust the government to do much, least of all raise kids. They may believe that teen sex is wrong, but that doesn’t mean they want the cops slapping handcuffs on their sons.

Finally, criminal justice activists don’t recognize sex-crimes defendants among those ordinarily oppressed by the prison-industrial complex. A class-race analysis doesn’t work. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1996 70 percent of offenders incarcerated for crimes against children were white (of these, seven in 10 committed a sexual assault), compared with 40 percent of those who’d offended against adults. A quarter of convicted child abusers were over 40, compared with 10 percent of violent criminals whose victims were adults. And, while statistics don’t offer easy substantiation here, sex offenders appear to have more money and education than do their cellblock confrères. A cyber-nerd downloading child porn is unlikely to be a 19-year-old African American high school dropout. Only recently have prisoners’ and human rights advocates begun to attack the draconian penalties meted out to sex offenders.

Condemning the pro-choice, pro-health-care Martha Coakley for hunting witches may sound like single-issue politics. But her ambitious vengeance and embrace of junk science say everything about her; ignoring all that says a lot about her supporters. It is long past time that progressives demand of their leaders a commitment to justice — even for those they despise.

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.


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