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The Rape of the Souza Family

from Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (2nd edition), Upper Access Books, Hinesburg VT, 1996; pp. 378-384. It can be ordered by phone at 1-800-356-9315

Copyright © 1996 by Mark Pendergrast

Seven years after she ruled on the Amirault case, Judge Elizabeth Dolan also decided the fate of Ray and Shirley Souza, accused of molesting their two grandchildren. As this book goes to press, the Souzas have been found guilty and remain under house arrest in their Lowell, Massachusetts, home, awaiting the verdict of the appeals court. If they lose their case, they will eventually be separated and jailed for 9 to 15 years. Because they are in their early 60s, that possibly amounts to a life sentence.

The Souza case is especially interesting because it combines the two types of sexual abuse allegations -- repressed memories recovered by adults, and the repeated questioning of little children. Their story is tragic, but not unique. Throughout the United States, adult daughters have gone to therapy, been encouraged to find repressed incest memories, and then frantically questioned their own small children about what Grammy and Grampa might have done to them. Usually, these family mini- dramas go unpublicized, but because of the criminal trial, the Souzas have lost not only their entire family, but their liberty.

Lifelong residents of Lowell, a classic melting-pot New England mill town, Ray and Shirley Souza raised five children. Products of the Depression, the Souzas were determined to give their children many of the advantages and privileges their parents had lacked. Thus, Ray made sure his kids owned bicycles, because he never had one as a boy. Ray worked as an electrical lineman and Shirley as a part-time nurse. In a way, like many other parents in the 1950s, they reared their children permissively. At the same time, they appeared a bit overprotective and overinvolved. Their children came to rely on them perhaps too much.

Sharon, the oldest daughter, lived only two doors away and ate dinner with her parents frequently. Son Scott lived at home for quite a while, while Tommy also spent a great deal of time there as an adult, playing his drums in the basement. David kept more distance, because his wife Heather didn't get along very well with her mother-in-law. The youngest child, Shirley Ann, had a particularly difficult time breaking away from home when she went to college. After a near date rape and the subsequent trial, Shirley Ann sought counseling with a therapist, who apparently encouraged her to search for repressed incest memories and gave her The Courage to Heal. [Editor's note -- Ellen Bass and Laura Davis's The Courage to Heal, HarperPerennial, New York, 1988 and 1994, presents, among other things, a self-"help"(?) approach to "recover" memories of purported (but highly questionable) childhood sexual abuse.]

In a dream she had on Father's Day, 1990, Shirley Ann visualized a horrifying scene in which she was raped by her father, her oldest brother, and her mother. Despite the fact that certain elements in the dream appeared unrealistic -- Shirley Ann had no arms or legs, her mother had a penis, while her father inserted a crucifix into her vagina -- Shirley Ann immediately called her sister-in-law Heather to inform her that her parents were molesters. "Please, please," she said, "keep your children away from Mom and Dad."

As a result, Heather took her five-year-old, Cindy, to a child psychologist. At two, Josh seemed too young. The counselor failed to find any evidence of sex abuse, concluding that the mother was pressuring the child unduly. Undaunted, Heather sought another counselor, an "expert" in spotting abused children. On the very first visit, she proclaimed that Cindy suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from likely abuse. (Meanwhile, Heather herself, having read The Courage to Heal, sought therapy and recovered "memories" that her grandfather had sexually abused her.)

Eventually, all of the Souzas' children except Scott came to believe the charges, which escalated once the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) became involved. Although initially skeptical, Shirley Ann's older sister Sharon finally concluded early in 1991 that her four-year- old child Nancy had also been molested by their grandparents, after Sharon herself entered therapy and recovered what she considered previously repressed memories of incest and ritual abuse. In the meantime, as Heather and David's marriage deteriorated, Heather began to suspect that David, too, had abused their children. Under her intense interrogation, Cindy complied, telling her mother how David had molested her. Suffering from a nervous breakdown, he promptly checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Heather has subsequently divorced David and is now remarried.

Repeatedly questioned by their mothers, therapists, social workers, and police, Cindy and Nancy eventually "disclosed" how their grandparents sexually abused them.

Because of snowballing allegations and various bureaucratic tangles, the case did not come to trial until January of 1993. Robert George, the Souzas' attorney, advised them to waive their right to a jury trial and rely solely on the decision of Judge Elizabeth Dolan, who had presided over the Fells Acres case. [FOOTNOTE: Robert George advised waiving their right to a jury trial because he knew that juries are often swayed by emotional testimony by innocent little children. It is inexplicable why he would have wanted Judge Dolan to be the sole arbiter, however, since George had worked in the office of the Fells Acres defense team, and he knew that she automatically accepted children's testimony and the reality of repressed memories.] By the time Ray and Shirley appeared before Dolan in late January, 1993, Cindy and Nancy had not seen their grandparents for nearly two years.

There was no hard evidence against the Souzas other than the word of the children and symptoms reported by their parents. When the children testified, they sat in little chairs at a miniature table, with their backs to their grandparents. Judge Dolan descended from her bench to sit next to them. During her testimony, seven-year-old Cindy revealed that her grandparents routinely locked her and her first cousin Nancy in a basement cage.

Six-year-old Nancy then told Judge Dolan how her grandparents had stuck their entire hands and heads into her vagina, where they would wiggle them around. They also abused her, she said, with a huge multicolored machine, as big as a room, which was kept in the cellar. She did not remember any cage, just as Cindy did not mention any machine. [FOOTNOTE: During videotaped interview sessions, Nancy had also alleged that her grandparents forced her to drink a green potion. By the time she testified in court, however, she apparently didn't remember it.]

Throughout the trial, Judge Dolan indicated that she considered herself an expert on the subject of child abuse. "You know, I've heard all of this material time after time after time," she lamented, adding, "I'm not trying to be a smart mouth or anything . . . . I'm not saying I know everything but, you know, I have heard a lot in this field over the years. And I've done a moderate amount of reading in this general subject area." She was overtly hostile to Richard Gardner, the expert witness for the defense. Gardner reviewed videotapes of interviews with five-year-old Cindy during which the little girl commented to investigator Lea Savely, "Mommy told me that Papa [her term for her grandfather] tied me up." Instead of picking up on this hint of Cindy's confusion, Savely zeroed in on the allegation itself, ignoring the reference to parental pressure: "Did Papa do that?" Cindy muttered, "Uh huh," and Savely followed up with "And what part of your body?" Cindy mumbled: "I forget."

Gardner also objected to the use of anatomically correct dolls because they "sexualize the interview, they draw the child's fantasies into sexual realms. These dolls have very explicit sexual organs with pubic hair, large breasts, often prominent nipples . . . . Some of them have open mouths, open anuses, open vaginas, larger than average penises." He said that, in other contexts, the use of such dolls would be considered inappropriate: "If this doll were to be used in a school situation, parents would justifiably complain about the competence of a teacher. If a neighbor were to subject the child to such a doll, there would be complaints and indignation." [FOOTNOTE: Several studies have shown that the use of anatomically correct dolls can contaminate interviews. Using the dolls in one recent study, Maggie Bruck found that 75 percent of preschool girls who did not receive a genital examination during a pediatric checkup incorrectly indicated that the doctor had touched their privates. "A child may insert a finger into a doll's genitalia," she notes, "simply because of its novelty." She and other researchers suggest that children point to their own bodies to indicate what may have occurred. Social workers resist such an idea, assuming that it would somehow traumatize the children.]

Dr. Leslie Campis, staff psychologist and associate director of the Sexual Abuse Team at Boston's Children's Hospital, was the prosecution's expert witness to counter Gardner. "Disclosure is understood to be not a single event, but a process," she told the judge. "Initially when asked, children might say no, that nothing has happened to them, because they may not be ready to tell their experience." The second level, she said, is "tentative disclosure," followed by "active disclosure . . . sometimes to the point where they talk about it excessively." Campis asserted that it is normal for some children to recant, because "it's their way of trying to make the anxiety go away," even though the abuse really occurred. She said that it is very rare for children to falsely disclose.

"What might a therapist do in situations where a child is not disclosing?" the prosecutor asked. "One would want to ask more direct questions," Campis answered. "And sometimes, one has to recommend that the child be in an extended therapeutic relationship for them to be able to disclose." Yet Campis insisted that "no one who is doing good practice in this area approaches any case with an agenda."

Dr. Andrea Vandeven, a staff pediatrician at Children's Hospital, took the stand to discuss her examination of the children, during which she spread their labia and examined their hymens carefully, taking photographs of their private areas. She found no irregularities. She then turned them onto their stomachs, rear ends presented to her invading finger, covered by a surgical glove. Vandeven told Judge Dolan that Nancy's exam was "consistent with anal penetration," particularly because she felt that her anus "spontaneously dilated" more than most she had seen. Under cross-examination, the doctor admitted that there was no evidence of penetration. She noted, however, that "normal rectal exams are consistent with penetration, with or without dilation." In other words, any exam of a child would be considered "consistent with penetration."

Ray and Shirley Souza testified that they never abused their grandchildren. It was obvious that their attorneys had not prepared them for cross-examination, and they came across as extremely defensive. Various old friends and fellow workers briefly took the stand, recalling the loving, unfearful relationship the grandchildren seemed to have with their grandparents. These character witnesses were dismissed by Dolan as "window dressing."

The trial was also notable for those who did not testify. Shirley Ann Souza, whose dream sparked the entire affair, did not appear, nor did her therapist. Carmela Eyal, the therapist who finally concluded that Heather Souza was applying undue pressure on Cindy, did not testify. Jeanine Hemstead, the therapist responsible for getting both Cindy and Nancy to disclose, never took the stand. Aside from Dr. Gardner, the defense called no expert witnesses -- no scientists who had conducted studies on the suggestibility of children, no pediatricians who had studied normal children who present with the same "fissures" and "tears" that supposedly indicate abuse.

After a week and a half of testimony, Judge Dolan took another 14 days before she pronounced the Souzas guilty as charged. In her opinion, Dolan acknowledged that "children are quite capable of intentional falsehoods," but she obviously did not feel that they can easily incorporate false memories into their belief systems. She dismissed any inconsistencies or unbelievable stories because of the children's ages: "Age impacts upon perception, memory and verbal capacity." She was particularly impressed by the children's knowledge of wet vaginas. "As a general premise," she wrote, "most young children do not have knowledge of adult sexual activity to support a convincing, detailed lie about sexual abuse."

On the other hand, Dolan also interpreted unconvincing details as proof that abuse occurred. Commenting on Nancy's rather odd testimony about feet and elbows being stuck into her vagina, the judge said: "A child who has been coached, programmed or rehearsed in a fabrication is unlikely to include elbows and feet." In other words, if the story appeared plausible, it proved abuse. If the story was implausible, it also proved abuse. Incredibly, Dolan asserted, "There was no evidence of [Sharon's] malice or bias against her parents" -- ignoring her therapy-induced beliefs that her parents had ritually abused her as a child. (The judge had not allowed this evidence to be presented.)

At the end of the trial, Sharon and Heather read emotional statements calling for lengthy jail terms and quoting from letters purportedly written by Cindy and Nancy. Sharon asked Judge Dolan not to be influenced by her parents' age. "People may say they're so old, why send them to jail? I say, they've not always been 61 years old, and they've been doing this for years."

Before the sentencing, however, a public outcry erupted, largely due to the efforts of Richard Gardner, the outspoken Columbia University psychiatrist who had testified for the Souzas in the trial. After the media picked up the story, Dolan repeatedly delayed sentencing. Eventually, she handed down a judgment of 9 to 15 years, but rather than sending the couple to jail, she confined them to house arrest pending their appeal.

Unhappy with their first lawyer, the Souzas have secured Dan Williams, who successfully represented Kelly Michaels in her fight to clear her name. The Souzas have lost an initial round of appeals, but they remain hopeful that they will be freed eventually, especially in light of the decision to free Cheryl LaFave and Violet Amirault in the Fells Acres case.

While awaiting the outcome of their appeal, they continue to live in the home they purchased 25 years ago, wearing awkward electronic ankle monitors and sending their picture by fax telephone ten times a day to the Department of Corrections. Their children speak out frequently on the perils of sex abuse and are trying to sell their story to Hollywood.

"When those kiddos grow up," Ray Souza says of his grandchildren, "they're going to realize that these things never happened. They're bright children and they have a mind of their own, and when nobody's prompting them, when they grow up, they're going to remember, and we'll embrace." [FOOTNOTE: I hope that Souza's prediction is correct, but the McMartin case offers a less optimistic scenario. Now teenagers, many of the accusing children still maintain that they were abused when they were in day care. It has become an essential part of their belief systems.]

A brief status update (1999) on the Souzas, by HSC

Return to Bob Chatelle's Fells Acres report (most up-to-date coverage)

Return to index of "Fells Acres and the Boston Press."