Child Abuse and Vigilante `Justice'

WHEN a man on trial for child-molesting was shot in a California courtroom by the mother of an alleged victim, one response of the community to the murder was reported thus: "She deserves a medal."

No crime is more horrendous, especially to parents, than child-molesting. But does any crime justify a return "to the Old West - justice the old-fashioned way," in the words of townspeople endorsing this vigilante execution?

On the contrary, due process of the law ought to be especially guarded and cherished just when the accusation is most inflammatory.

If a climate of hysteria is to be avoided, the public and the litigants need to understand the frustrations peculiar to these trials. Often, it must first be proven that a crime has been committed at all before a defendant can be convicted.

The charges - recently discounted in an investigation - that Mia Farrow raised against Woody Allen, claiming that he molested an adopted daughter, are all too typical, depending on a small child's testimony. Did a crime occur as the child described it? Or was the child coached with leading questions until an event that never happened was "remembered"? Dr. Richard Gardner, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University, warns: "For 10 years I've been saying there are false accusations against peop le, accusations that were fueled by coercive investigators and overzealous prosecutors."

The charge of child abuse is a match thrown into gasoline, the crime is so appalling. If it can be proved, the offender deserves the severest punishment under the law. But if the defendant is innocent, he or she must be protected by the law against being falsely labeled a child-molester, a smear as cruel as being called a witch in 17th-century Salem. By maintaining judicial poise in cases of child-molesting, the courts can fulfill the highest ideal of justice: to submit barbarous acts to civilized scruti ny.

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