THE BOSTON GLOBE
Sunday, March 26, 1989
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.