Are school employees always guilty when children or teenagers tell stories of sexual abuse?
Take the case of Shaun Webb. A few years ago, Webb was accused of sexually abusing a young teenage girl at a Catholic school in Michigan, where he was employed as a trusted and respected building custodian.
Webb has now written a compelling book called A Motion for Innocence. While this book is a work of fiction, it is based on the true story of a teenage girl who accused Webb of the unimaginable and changed his life forever.
Why do I care about this particular story?
The book really hit home for my family and many of our friends. We knew Webb, as my daughter was attending the school while Webb worked there, and during the time he went through his criminal trial.
In addition, Webb's wife was (and still is) an elementary teacher at the same school. She was my daughter's drama coach, and Webb often helped his wife with the after-school drama duties.
Also, at the time of the incident, I was working out daily at Curves with Webb's first wife. During our workouts, I found out that she was his childhood sweetheart and on good terms with him, and that they shared parenting their adolescent daughter. Webb's former wife told me that despite the charges, she would absolutely still allow her daughter to see Webb regularly.
Because of my concern for the school, the family, and for the truth, I did an investigation of this case for a local newspaper. In fact, the newspaper story that I wrote about the case is referenced in Webb's book.
What did my investigation reveal?
After examining hundreds of pages of court records and talking to the many people that were involved, my conclusion is that only two people really know what happened.
However, while I could never know for sure, I do think that the system failed Webb, causing him jail time and the requirement to be labeled as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Researching the trial's documents shed a lot of light on issues that were not presented in court. Many of these documents suggest that the case may have had a different outcome if the time would have been taken to give Webb a complete and fair trial.
How does Webb's story compare with the book?
Anyone from the Detroit metropolitan area who follows local news will remember some of the stories and relate to many of the characters.
One of the key characters who determined Webb's fate in real life was Judge Deborah Tyner, who was ousted from the bench shortly after Webb's trial.
Tyner resigned after a television camera crew caught her spending her afternoons shopping, getting facials, dining and working out while attorneys and their clients waited for her. In fact, she usually started late and left at noon, even though the court was open for business between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Ironically, the judge in Webb's fictional book was late for his trial and rushed his case. Many of the witnesses were not allowed to testify, and his wife as a witness was made to stand in the hallway during the trial. Yet because of the rushed trial, she and others never even testified on her husband's behalf.
It is also ironic that the judge in the book also pressured the jury to hurry and make a decision on the fate of the defendant. Like the true story of Shaun Webb, the jury in the book found the main character innocent of the two major charges, but guilty of a third charge. This indicates confusion, since the charges overlapped.
Book raises issues related to our system of justice
The book raises many issues related to our system of justice.
The book also sheds light on the many problems related to the Michigan Sex Offender laws. Being a sex offender in Michigan is a lifetime label with many stigmas attached, and includes strict limitations on where one lives and works. Some of these sex offenders are teenagers who had sex with their underage girlfriends.
More importantly, the book raises the difficult question of how often we assume that a school employee or other person is guilty of something that a child accuses him of, when often there is no evidence beyond the child's word.
It is a disturbing dilemma, as a child's concerns should be taken seriously. On the other hand, after reading A Motion for Innocence, it is obvious that we as a society must also be careful not to judge when we do not know all of the facts.