Ruling in Beverly assault case leaves scars
By Richard Kindleberger
Boston Globe Staff
BEVERLY – The case seemed straightforward. Michael R. Ferguson, a 41-year-old former shop teacher, had pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his neighbor’s daughter on two occasions last year when she had spent the night at his house with his daughter.
When the time for sentencing arrived 10 days ago, the 8-year-old victim went to court in Salem with her parents. They had been told the sight of her attacker being led off to prison in handcuffs would help her on the long road to recovery.
But, instead of jailing Ferguson, as he had suggested he would two weeks earlier, Superior Court Judge John T. Ronan gave him a suspended sentence.
Members of the victim’s family have said they now feel doubly betrayed. A man they trusted has inflicted emotional scars on their daughter that they fear may be with her for life. And the criminal justice system has let the offender off with probation instead of sending him to jail.
‘It’s taken every ounce of strength to pursue this for 10 months,’ the victim’s mother said in an interview in her Beverly home. ‘I think it’s a scandal. It’s about the most horrible thing you can say about society that this is the best we can do to protect our children.’
Child protection specialists interviewed said deciding to spare a child molester jail is fairly common, but in their view it is a mistake. They said imprisonment is needed to make clear that sexual child abuse will not be tolerated and to assure the abuser’s victims that what happened is not their fault.
But as the case of Ferguson suggests, society is ambivalent in its attitudes toward sexual child abuse. While the child molester in the abstract is one of society’s most reviled figures, the specialists say judges and others frequently find it difficult in individual cases to believe that outwardly respectable middle-class men could represent a serious danger to children.
In Ferguson’s case, not only was the defendant backed in court by testimony from family, friends, and a psychiatrist, but his church pastor also took the stand on his behalf. Rev. Robert J. Wright of the Second Congregational Church of Beverly told the judge that a measure of the congregation’s support for Ferguson was that it elected him a deacon, a lay leadership position, a few weeks after his arrest last May.
Rev. wright in a telephone interview declined to discuss detail whether the case had been a source of controversy in the church, although he said the congregation in general had been ‘very supportive’ of the Ferguson family. He said the church was not minimizing Ferguson’s crime but rather focusing on god’s forgiveness and the belief that ‘one doesn’t condemn the sinner while one does the sin.
But Kim Wilkins of Project Rap, a Beverly social service agency, said she has heard reports the church is in turmoil because of the case. ‘I’ve heard from several people who were part of that church that it’s caused tremendous dissent, and some people are actually canceling their memberships because they’re so outraged,’ she said.
Thought hard about case
Ronan said in a telephone interview he had thought hard abut the case before sentencing Ferguson. In finally deciding against incarceration, he gave considerable weight to the half-dozen character witnesses who spoke on Ferguson’s behalf.
The fear that such offenses might continue was ‘pretty well demolished’ by the psychiatrist’s testimony that Ferguson’s crimes were isolated and unlikely to be repeated, ronan said. he said the testimony of Ferguson’s minister and friends showed a solid support system that would aid rehabilitation.
Ronan said he also had to weigh whether the community would be ‘scandalized’ if Ferguson were spared jail. he said he decided that would not be the case based on neighbors, ‘coming forward saying some pretty staggering things in his favor.’
Ferguson did not return a call to his home. His lawyer, Robert F. Peck jr., said in a brief telephone interview that ‘a lot of people…came out in support of Mr. Ferguson in spite of the nature of the charges, and I can only presume that there was a strong belief he is a man very capable of rehabilitation and not a danger of repeat behavior.’ he added that Ferguson’s 9-to-12 year prison sentence, although suspended, ‘is not exactly a slap on the wrist.’
Ferguson’s defenders have portrayed him as a solid family man and pillar of his church and community who regrettably erred in two isolated incidents when he was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. They said he was under stress from the illness of his father, who later died.
Accusers question picture
His accusers have questioned that picture. they suggested the offenses admitted by Ferguson, who himself had been sexually abused as a child, might be part of a pattern of such incidents and represent compulsive behavior that Ferguson, having avoided jail or prison, could be tempted to continue.
On March 2 Ferguson pleaded guilty to two counts of raping a child and three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child. Two weeks later Ronan gave him the suspended sentence to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction in Walpole and five years probation. Among the conditions of his probation are that his employment be approved by the probation department, that he undergo psychiatric treatment monitored by the department and that he participate in an alcohol treatment program.
The first assault occurred one night in winter of 1987-1988, according to court records. Because the victim did not report it at that time, the family was unable to pinpoint the date. But after the child’s second overnight stay at her friend’s house last may 6, her mother said, she came home to complain that Ferguson had come into the room where she was sleeping next to her friend and molested her.
The girl did not cry out and pretended to be asleep because she was afraid, said prosecutor David J. Swartz. he said the victim reported Ferguson fondled her and inserted his fingers into her vagina. Schwartz said that Ferguson, while pleading guilty to the rape charges, denied to his psychiatrist that there was digital penetration. Although a medical examination did not prove the attack occurred, Swartz said the victim – described as poised and intelligent – ‘would have made an excellent witness,’ and he felt the state’s case was strong.
Swartz said Ferguson’s offenses are considered rape because penetration allegedly occurred without the victim’s consent and because, as a minor, she was not in a position to give informed consent in any case.
Ronan in his interview suggested that the crimes, while serious, were not the kind of forcible sexual assault that has traditionally been designated as rape. ‘What used to be called rape is now called aggravated rape,’ he said. ‘this was rape in the modern sense of the word. This wasn’t intercourse.’
But what Ferguson did to their daughter has caused traumatic and continuing repercussions for her and the family, the parents said. The mother said the girl has had trouble sleeping ever since, waking up with nightmares and until recently insisting on sleeping in her mother’s bed. Even now she needs over-the-counter sleeping medicine several times a week the mother said.
The family calculates that its financial cost for counseling, medication and income lost by the self-employed father because of court dates and other legal obligations amounts to more than $6,000. They said they plan to pursue a civil suit to recover the money from Ferguson.
Supporters of Ferguson said he had lost his job as a shop teacher, that he and his family were suffering from his notoriety and that his conviction as a sex offender would be with them the rest of their lives. His wife, saying his children needed him, begged Ronan not to send him to jail.
Loretta Kowal, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children, said that for someone to molest an unrelated child, ‘seems to me even more out of control than to molest a child who’s lived in your house.’ She said she thought ‘putting him on probation really does give a message that sexually abusing a child is not something we take seriously.’
Wilkins said such a sentence undercuts the work of victim advocates because the victims and their parents may decide ‘it’s not worth the effort’ to come forward. ‘What that means is there’s not a lot of risk element for the offender,’ she added.