SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT PROJECT JERICHO
editorialists and television commentators are suddenly able to
acknowledge that accusations of child abuse are occasionally false.
This newfound objectivity comes after two Saskatchewan men, John
Popowich and Richard Klassen, won lawsuits against officials
who accused them, in two separate investigations, of being ritual
Klassen, the fight to clear his name drove him to the brink
of madness. To him, of course, it seemed like the authorities
were the ones who were insane. Klassen was caught up in a wave
of ritual abuse accusations that
swept the continent fifteen years ago. Hundreds of people were
accused of molesting children, sacrificing animals, infanticide,
and conducting satanic rites.
We cannot close the door on this twisted chapter in our legal
history without revisiting Canada's largest ritual abuse investigation,
which started in the town of Prescott, Ontario in 1989. Here was
a small community in which social workers, police and prosecutors
claimed to find 119 pedophiles engaged in a multi-family, multi-generational
orgy of child molestation. 275 children and adults were declared
to be victims, 42 children were taken from their homes and 28
were eventually made wards of the crown. Social worker Pam Gummer,
who helped coordinate the investigation, later said that "[Prescott]
is not a unique situation in terms of abuse," as though almost
any town the investigators cared to examine might yield up the
The Prescott investigation started with three children, whom journalist
Judy Steed called Lucy, Freddy and Joey in her 1994 book about
child abuse, Our Little Secret. Lucy was the oldest at
seven and her younger brothers were barely verbal. There is no
question that the children were neglected by their mother. It's
also a fact that children are more likely to be abused by a live-in
boyfriend than by their birth father, and the common-law husband,
Billy Elliott, was father to none of the children. The house was
a pigsty and the family was being supervised by Child Protective
Services. The authorities were right to intervene with this family.
But in this case, they took a bad situation and turned it into
Lucy, Freddy and Joey were apprehended and placed in a succession
of foster homes. Their third set of foster parents reported that
the children were telling bizarre stories of sexual abuse, of
strange rites in the basement with groups of adults "dressed
in gowns and masks," of being given "yucky juice"
to drink, of animal sacrifice, of digging up skeletons from the
cemetery, being threatened with guns and knives and being sexually
assaulted and videotaped. Steed wrote that the police found "evidence"
to corroborate the charges. Whatever the evidence was, it was
not videotape. No videotape evidence was ever presented. The only
evidence Steed actually mentions is that Lucy claimed to be abused
in the basement and lo and behold, investigators found a crawl
space under the house and animal bones in the backyard.
Over a period of months, the accusations bloomed to include the
murder of a baby named Joshua. The police found no evidence that
Joshua ever existed, but the investigation into the charges was
called Project Jericho in his honor. As the investigation progressed,
Billy Elliott's relatives and acquaintances also came under suspicion.
According to Steed, the accused could be described as hillbillies
or "white trash." Many were uneducated, poor, on welfare
and of below-average intelligence. One man was pulled off the
street for questioning because neighbors pointed him out as a
weirdo who was always hanging around. Cecil Miller was retarded,
illiterate and slightly crazy. He cracked the case wide open for
the Prescott investigators -- he admitted to abusing 17 children
and he named other adult abusers. Another mentally handicapped
man was described as "easily manipulated." He was one
of those who pled guilty.
Because the abuse had supposedly persisted for generations, some
persons were identified as both perpetrators and victims. So how
did a perpetrator fare in court if he did not also claim victimhood?
And how could he claim victimhood without accusing others? One
young mother said she accused her own parents because that's what
the police and social workers wanted to hear. They had apprehended
her son, whom she desperately wanted to get back.
One of the accused committed suicide. The web of accusations and
counter-accusations grew to ensnare hundreds of people. Entire
families were decimated. It's as though a slum clearance project
was conducted with social workers instead of bulldozers. Bulldozers
would have been kinder.
Many adults were sentenced to prison while the children were sentenced
to counselling. In her book, Steed describes the interactions
of the therapists with the children. One doesn't know whether
to laugh or cry while reading this section. In one passage, a
little boy is told to make a cardboard suit of armour while the
therapist feeds him psychobabble, as though a young child could
possibly understand the metaphorical meaning of "armour"
and "boundaries." "You got hurt," she tells
him, "and you needed armour to protect you but now it's getting
heavy and rusty..."
But even as the Prescott investigators pitted one family member
against another, California's McMartin
day care case disintegrated as the jury realized that the
children had been improperly questioned and pressured into making
absurd accusations. Even as the police were excavating backyards
in the search for baby Joshua, researchers such as Dr. Maggie
Bruck of McGill University were doing ground-breaking research
into the suggestibility of young children. There was ample evidence
to conclude that mass molestation cases must be viewed with suspicion.
While it's possible that some genuine pedophiles were caught in
the Project Jericho dragnet, a reappraisal of the case would demonstrate
that the investigators wreaked needless harm and wasted millions
of tax dollars. The television program The
Fifth Estate did much to bring to light the absurd injustice
of the Klassen case -- will no one do the same for Prescott? It
is reprehensible that no legal or governmental body, nor professional
association, nor investigative journalist has re-evaluated Project
Jericho in light of today's hard-won wisdom.
addendum by Adriaan J.W. Mak:
Note re R
Although Francois, one of the men convicted in this case, had
a record of child molestation, the case that send him to jail
is a bizarre one.
His accuser denied twice, once in writing that she had sexual
relations with anyone prior to age 14. Since Francois was one
of the many suspects in the case, following suggestive questioning
she recovered allegedly repressed memories that Francois, who
was mentally ill, had sexually abused her at a prior age contradicting
thereby her sworn statements.
took the case into appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada deciding
that the repressed memory testimony was more acceptable than the
earlier writtten testimony. Along with the similar fact evidence
it convicted Francois.
This ruling established the acceptability of repressed memory
testimony in Canadian Law.
Side of the Story:
The Project Jericho
investigators published a handbook which tells the story of the
legal case from the point of view of the social workers:
- From Crisis to Coordination: An Integrated Community Response
to a Multi-Victim
Child Sexual Abuse Crisis - by Sherry Galey