IPT Book Reviews

Title: Guilty Until Proven Innocent  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Reverend Keith Barnhart with Lila Wold Shelburne
Publisher: Hannibal Books, 1990

Hannibal Books
921 Center
Hannibal, MO 63401
$9.95
  

Description:

This book is the true story of a midwestern pastor falsely charged with the sexual molestation of seven boys enrolled in the church day care.  In the beginning, a four-year-old boy at the day care told his parents that a two year old had rubbed his bottom with soap.  Mr. Barnhart thought the matter was taken care of when he explained to the mother that they use only liquid soap at the day care.  Unbeknownst to him, the parents began taking their child to therapists and doctors, until they found a professional who would pronounce the child molested.  From there, they called other parents, warned them their children were being molested, and recommended that they, too, have their children evaluated.

During his interrogation, and later during his arrest, the police assumed Barnhart was guilty and pressured him for a confession.  When he asserted his innocence, they demanded that he then explain how the allegations came to be.  Naive about these matters, it was during the painstaking preparation for his trial that Barnhart discovered the answer to that question.  He and his wife transcribed hours of videotapes and correlated these with various reports.  They discovered that the allegations were developed through the children's contacts with the police and health professionals.  One of the witnesses for the prosecution who identified herself as a professional had lied about her qualifications and didn't even have a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Mr. Barnhart received tremendous support, not only from the congregation of his church, but from other ministers throughout the state.  Doggedly, he continued preaching, although his family and church were receiving threatening, anonymous phone calls.  He and his wife couldn't leave their home without being followed by one of the accusing parents or verbally attacked in the market.  They were afraid that their own children would be taken by the authorities.  As the nightmare unfolded, his wife's father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, while Barnhart's mother had to put his father in a nursing home.  Despite their ordeal, the family hung together and gave each other much needed support.

When the matter was brought to trial, only charges by two of the boys were heard.  With funds raised by church members, Barnhart was able to fly in experts from Minnesota and California.  Through his attorney's incisive questioning, it became apparent that the prosecution's so-called medical evidence was a sham.  The suggestive and leading questions used by therapists and police were exposed.  One of the boys readily admitted on the stand that his mother helped him to remember what "Brother Keith" had done to him.  With the other boy, it came out in testimony that the father had pulled his son's pants down in order to "practice" the molest for court.  The trial lasted only one and one-half weeks.  Keith Barnhart was found not guilty.
  

Discussion:

Guilty Until Proven Innocent is the first book published about the personal experience of false allegations in a day care setting.  From a literary standpoint, the style is elemental, but from a social standpoint, the message is powerful.  Anybody can be falsely accused of child abuse.  Barnhart escaped total ruin and imprisonment because he was able to mobilize resources and received a fair and speedy trial.  He did not escape the humiliation of being exposed by the media, who exploited his misfortune with sensationalized coverage.

The prosecutor should never have brought the case to trial, but there were political points to be gained by the publicity of prosecuting a minister on this type of charge.  Fortunately for Barnhart, the court put a stop to it, and to the runaway train of professionals who went outside the bounds of science with no apparent concern for the consequences to an innocent man and his family.  Nor did Barnhart have recourse against them, for as he conveys with just a trace of bitterness, they have sovereign immunity from any kind of lawsuit.  Although the system of checks and balances worked in Barnhart's case, the reader is left to wonder what happens in those cases where the court jumps on the runaway train instead of stopping it.

Barnhart's Christian faith adds another dimension to his story.  What a difference it made to be part of the loving community he calls his "church family."  Of course, there were problems here, too one influential member of the congregation denounced Barnhart for not reaching out to the accusing families.  Mr. Barnhart describes how his wife drew strength from her own relationship with God, so that her very real anxieties were not a drain on their marriage.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent can be seen as completing a 1980s' trilogy on the false allegation experience that stretches from coast-to-coast.  In 1986, Dr. Lawrence Spiegel, a psychologist in New Jersey, published A Question of Innocence (Out of Print).  In 1988 Dr. Dana Ferguson wrote about events that unfolded in California in Bad Moon Rising: A True Story (Out of Print).  Now, in 1990, we have the work of Keith Barnhart, pastor of a church in Missouri.

Barnhart's book is especially poignant in demonstrating how increased efforts to protect children are having the paradoxical effect of decommissioning caretakers.  The church day care has been permanently shut down.  The dedicated women who worked there, having barely escaped indictment themselves, have all given up what was, for most of them, their life's work.  Barnhart himself is careful to avoid contact with children other than his own.  He is aware that, in the future, he can never consider a church that operates a child care facility.  His book is worth reading.

Reviewed by Deirdre Conway Rand, a psychologist in private practice at Marin Psychological Services, 6S0 E. Blithedale Ave., Ste M, Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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