Attributed to Groucho Marx, this question comically underscores the almost universal belief that our own eyes tell us the truth. But do they?
In Rose City, Michigan the arrest of Neal Erickson, a teacher at a local Middle School, prompted an outpouring of support for him. Erickson was arrested in December for molesting a 14 year old male student. He pled guilty to first degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor and was sentenced in July to serve 15 to 30 years in prison. Several teachers in the school district, a former student, and his wife wrote letters of support for Erickson to the judge.
Erickson’s wife, Toni Erickson, minimized her husband’s behavior by pointing out that we all make bad choices, we all make mistakes. And even though Erickson confessed, she said: “The Irony of this situation is that Neal’s actions were made public by an anonymous Individual that simply wanted to embarrass the school district, and expose others.” She went on to claim that the victim wasn’t really harmed: “While I acknowledge that Neal’s conduct with Cody [the victim] was wrong. I do not believe he was damaged by Neal’s actions and I base my opinion on my personal Interaction with Cody, both before and after Neal’s actions.”
It’s not all that uncommon for a wife to support her husband in this way. Toni’s first marriage to an “abusive alcoholic” ended in divorce. Her daughter, who has had little contact with her biological father, adores Neal. Sending Neal to prison would be “devastating” to her, Toni said.
The teachers and former student all had nothing but glowing praise for Erickson. Here are a few of their comments: he always had a “sincere desire to serve students and the community,” and “Neal has been a vital asset to the district and to the community and has given his life work toward good for students and for our school system,” and he “has done so much for the Rose City Schools.” One teacher wrote, “I have always been impressed with what a wonderful, caring person he was in the classroom.”
There were several references in the letters to this being the only time Neal had such a relationship, that it was a one-time thing. It must be, they said, because no other victims have been found by the police. Since this happened seven years ago and the victim is now over 21 and has maintained the relationship with Neal throughout those seven years, any punishment should be light. There is no reason to believe that Neal is a predator, they say.
All of these people insist that Neal is loving, caring, kind, wonderful man. This is what their eyes tell them. . . or is it their emotions that are informing them?
Let’s look at some of the facts here. First, I don’t know anything about the victim other than he told the prosecutors that he suffered emotional trauma, had difficulty coping, and he was confused. That really doesn’t make any difference at all, as far as prosecution is concerned. He was a child. Fourteen years old. And a 31 year old man initiated a relationship with Cody. Using his “loving, caring, kind, wonderful” ways Neal led that boy into a sexual relationship during a time in his life when he was legally incapable of giving consent. And when he was emotionally fragile.
Second, just because someone seems to be “kind, loving, caring and wonderful” doesn’t mean that they are. The term “con man” is short for “confidence man.” In other words, they gain your confidence, not be showing you their face, but by showing you their mask. Outcomes don’t always determine whether or not someone’s motives were kind. But actions and circumstances can give you a clue to a person’s motives. Forget the law for a minute. Is it kind and loving for an adult to lead a child less than half his age into a sexual relationship? By the way, con men are predators.
Third, most victims of child sexual abuse never tell anyone about it. Most are loath to speak of it for a multitude of reasons. Police can’t find victims if they refuse to admit what happened to them. So it’s not surprising that the police in Neal’s case couldn’t find any victims other than Cody. Neal decided to plead guilty, he said, because he didn’t want to cause Cody further pain. How nice. Isn’t it possible that Neal didn’t want all of the details about his conduct to be plastered all over the media in a trial that might expose his true motivations for his “kind, caring, loving, wonderful” ways and prompt other victims to come forward?
Fourth, predators groom entire communities of people, not just their victims. They want people on their side who will overlook, excuse, disbelieve, and deny if one of their victims happens to come forward with an accusation. The best predators are so good at this that more often than not the victim and the victim’s family is attacked as in this case in Michigan.
So, do your eyes tell you the truth? It really depends on what you look at, and how you look at what you see.
We’re all susceptible to being misled by predators.
Donald McGuire, a former Jesuit priest, was convicted in Wisconsin in 2006 for molesting two boys. In 2008 he was convicted in federal court for travelling overseas with a teen boy for the purpose of sexually abusing him. At age 79 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The evidence points to McGuire having abused hundreds of boys during his lifetime. One of the disturbing things about his case is that it was known within the Jesuit community that McGuire was a child molester as early as the 70’s. It became such a concern that he would embarrass the community his permanent assignment was taken away and he became a wandering preacher. Reportedly he was an exciting and interesting speaker who, on the surface anyway, held to the conservative values of the Catholic faith. He was much in demand.
Sometime during the 80’s Mother Teresa took an interest in McGuire. Supposedly she knew about his past, but chose to overlook it for some unknown reason. She asked McGuire to become the Spiritual Director for the entire community of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. He also became one of Mother Teresa’s personal confessors.
Throughout the year, McGuire would travel all over the world, from one Convent to another, leading Mass, giving guidance, holding retreats, observing and participating in the local work of the Sisters. During all his travels he was accompanied by a teenage boy, different on each trip, who acted as his personal servant. No doubt he also had encounters with children of the local poor and the orphaned children of the street that the Sisters served. While the Sisters served the children, it looks like the children served McGuire.
Mother Teresa continued to support McGuire until her death in 1997. Throughout his two criminal trials, members of the Sisters of Charity attended the proceedings to give support and comfort to McGuire, a man still revered by many in the order.
Even Mother Teresa could be fooled.
But you don’t have to be fooled anymore. Stop seeing with your emotions. Look at the relevant evidence and then, maybe, your eyes will stop lying to you.