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How Does He Get His Reputation Back?

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On January 12, 2010, a 12-year-old sixth-grader did an unremarkable thing that almost destroyed a good man and his family. She lied about being touched “inappropriately.”

Under a reasonable legal system, the transparent lie of an angry child would have caused little damage, but the current legal system does not resemble anything reasonable. Among the preposterous maxims it now embraces are “women don’t lie about rape” and “children don’t lie about molestation.”

Justice requires the active recognition of lies. That is to say, a just legal system must recognize that the average person occasionally lies and some people do so pathologically. People lie from fear or for revenge; they lie for profit or other advantage, such as child custody; they lie from a sense of entitlement, loyalty, or a need to assert power. Sometimes they lie from a stubborn need to stand by an initial statement that was a “mistake.” When few to no penalties are imposed for lying, it becomes more frequent.

At every turn, the tradition of Western jurisprudence acknowledges the human proclivity to lie; justice itself is deeply rooted in this acknowledgment. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof is placed on the accuser, not the defendant. The right to face an accuser means he or she must stare a defendant in the eyes while repeating an accusation; the anonymity that encourages false reports is stripped away. Trial by jury means 12 representative people must agree on the facts and the veracity of an accuser before guilt is adjudicated. In criminal cases, the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is applied in order to preclude other possible explanations for the crime charged, such as a desire for revenge by an accuser, before a defendant is judged guilty. The need for hard evidence and a presumption of innocence become all the more important in cases that devolve to “he said, she said.”

In short, preventing a lie from passing as truth is an intrinsic aspect of true justice, around which many due-process protections have been sculpted. If this were not the case, if an accuser never lies, then why would we even go to the trouble of a trial? Why not imprison the accused the instant an accusation is uttered?

Again, a key reason is because all people are potential liars, including women and children. This statement is no more cynical than the statement that all people are potentially honest is idealistic.

Specifics of the sixth-grader’s lie

By all accounts except his accuser’s, Sean Lanigan was a respected and well-liked soccer coach at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia. Kathy Young, a 6th-grade teacher at the same school, stated, “His heart was really with the kids. He’d pick kids up and twirl them. But what I really liked about Sean, as much as he liked playing with them, he’d always say, ‘Your schoolwork comes first.’” A Washington Post article went on to explain, “When Young’s future son-in-law died in a fire, Lanigan arranged a fundraiser. In 2002, when the school needed a new playground, he and another teacher helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to get one built.”

In December 2009, Lanigan headed the school’s safety patrols when a parent reported to him that a 12-year-old girl who patrolled the school bus was abusing other children. Lanigan warned the girl that she would be yanked from patrol duty if she did not treat others decently. According to witnesses and a subsequent trial transcript, the girl said at the time, “Mr. Lanigan’s a jerk. I’m going to make him pay.”

Lanigan issued a second warning to the girl in January 2010, upon which the girl and a friend began claiming that the coach had grabbed her the day before; he then allegedly carried her into the main equipment room, briefly touching her breasts and buttocks in the process. Once in the equipment room, she claimed he pushed her down on a tumbling mat, lay on top of her and (depending on the version presented) thrust himself against her. The “friend” allegedly stood in the open doorway and witnessed the event.

School employees pointed out that a tumbling mat could not even fit in the tiny equipment room. Other children in the gym denied seeing anything inappropriate. Both the accusing girl and her friend later recanted the most damning allegations of Lanigan’s pinning the girl and simulating sex; indeed, the accuser posted on Facebook that it had all been “a joke.” A fellow student told authorities that the accuser said “she was trying to get him fired because she didn’t like him” and, then admitted to lying about the incident.

Lanigan had a spotless record after years of teaching children. Nevertheless, without even interviewing the accusing child, the police arrested Lanigan based largely upon a police officer watching from another room as a social worker performed the interview. Social workers who conduct such questioning often call themselves “validators” because their role is validate the child’s voice. Dr. Richard A. Gardner, a Columbia University professor of child psychiatry, has stated, “They, of course, hold that ‘children never lie about sexual abuse,’ and they accept as valid every statement a child makes that might verify sex abuse.” Gardner openly dismisses the objectivity of such social workers and the claim that “children do not lie.”

A judge sent the case to a grand jury for indictment, and the county prosecutor refused to dismiss even after both the accuser and her friend recanted most of the story.

Lanigan faced up to 40 years in jail if convicted of the worst charges of pinning the girl and simulating sex; after those charges dropped away, he faced up to 20 years. Pending trial, he was suspended from teaching and could not work elsewhere as a coach because he was not permitted to associate with children other than his own three. Every week he met with a probation officer who specialized in monitoring sexual offenders. Eventually he spent $125,000 in legal fees.

For all of this, Sean Lanigan is a lucky man … for two reasons.

First, his family stood by him; people who knew Lanigan stood up for his innocence, with neighbors bringing by meals every day in support of the distressed family.

Second, in an unusually short trial, he was utterly exonerated. The Washington Post reported:

When his attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, discussed the devastation to Lanigan in his closing argument, West [a juror] broke down in tears and the trial was briefly recessed. West and other jurors said the 12-year-old accuser “had no idea of the consequences” of accusing Lanigan of molesting her. “This poor man. That’s why I cried.”

Going past the simplistic problem

Why did a hideous ordeal befall a good man? The simplistic answer: a girl lied. I am not satisfied with that answer. And, so, despite strong feelings on the subject, I will back away from condemning the 12-year-old girl. The main blame lies elsewhere. Dr. Gardner argues, “[T]here’s a network of school workers, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officials that actually encourages charges of child abuse — whether they’re reasonable or not.” Without the institutions that now comprise a “child abuse industry,” the lies of a vindictive girl could not have harmed Lanigan. With this industry, there is a network of well-paid people whose purpose is not to investigate but to validate accusations. Indeed, under the Mondale Act — a child abuse protection Act sponsored by Senator Mondale and passed in 1973 — an ‘evaluator’ who does not report an accusation of abuse to the police is subject to imprisonment if the child is further abused. The incentives to always believe the child are huge.

Libertarian commentator William L. Anderson explains,

One cannot understand what is happening … without understanding the Mondale Act. This is a law that not only encourages aggressive prosecution for alleged child abuse, but has a big payout as well, and that is where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play because the Mondale Act provides a number of incentives for the authorities to act unjustly — and be paid big bucks for it.”

The Mondale Act merits a book of analysis. The point of this article, however, is limited. The point is: justice requires the recognition that people lie: men lie, women lie, children lie. And people in authority do so as well, especially when they given incentives and no punishment.

What of Lanigan now?

Immediately after his acquittal, Lanigan was reinstated as a coach by Virginia’s public soccer leagues. Nevertheless, the school district continued an internal reprimand process. Lanigan was transferred from Centre Ridge school in Fairfax to one in another city. Because of the commute, he was no longer able to fill as active a parenting role; his wife quit her job to assume care of the family.

The police had stonewalled the case and will not permit anyone who was officially involved to be interviewed; the district attorney refuses comment. And the school district seems eager to be rid of the situation by firing him.

The Washington Post reports, “[I]n December, as Lanigan pushed to have his legal fees reimbursed, the district presented him with two pages of specially tailored ‘guidelines and expectations.’” The guidelines included: “Do not touch FCPS students as a means of greeting, playing with, showing approval of, or otherwise interacting with them…. Avoid placing yourself in close physical proximity to any student…” According to a friend of Lanigan’s, “They are so fixated on him being guilty that they’re pushing to put the set of expectations in his file, so he could inadvertently trip on one of them and cause them to dismiss him. They can’t see that everyone knows him as an honest and decent man.”

Clearly, the school district fears a lawsuit. In March, it offered to reimburse $60,000 of the $125,000 Lanigan spent on legal fees, but only if he dropped the possibility of future legal claims. In April, it ‘de-staffed’ him from a new school, leaving him with a need to apply to some other school within the district.

What are the odds of his being hired?

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).