They Look Just like Us

By Eileen McNamara
Boston Globe
January 11, 2006

Did we all make a New Year's resolution to forget the lessons we have learned the hard way?

Nice kids do drink and drive. Pillars of the community do molest children in their care.

We could have been living in Pleasantville instead of Greater Boston in the last week for the level of denial in circulation. First, it was the unwillingness to face the likelihood that alcohol played a part in the crash that killed two teenage sisters in Southborough. Now, it is incredulity that a popular high school teacher could stand accused of molesting a student in Maynard.

After all the booze-fueled car wrecks that have claimed the lives of football stars and merit scholars, after all the rape trials that have resulted in the convictions of beloved priests and trusted teachers, why do we persist in this kind of magical thinking?

Not her. Not him. Not here. Not us.

Prosecutors and child abuse therapists have to struggle against our collective wish not to think the worst of those of whom we are so inclined to believe the best. How could a teacher who has been so kind to his students, so instrumental in their academic success, and so supportive of their dreams be accused of exploiting their innocence?

Because that is how child molestation often happens. No one jumps out of the bushes. No one waits in the dark. Someone ingratiates himself into a child's life. Someone takes the time to win his trust. There is even a name for it: grooming.

Those of us in Boston should know that better than most. We have spent the last three years processing the hard reality that so many predatory men in Roman collars molested so many vulnerable children.

Did those men look like ogres, or did they look like respected authority figures? The Rev. Paul Shanley ministered to runaways and drug addicts on the city's streets in the 1960s and 1970s; he also abused many of them. The Rev. Robert E. Kelley was solicitous of the little girls in his parishes; he also raped dozens of them. The Rev. Ronald H. Paquin took altar boys on overnight camping trips to Maine; he raped some of them there.

Have we forgotten so much so soon?

Joseph P. Magno, the Maynard teacher arraigned this week on charges of rape and indecent assault and battery, is presumed innocent because the criminal justice system affords him that fundamental right, not because he is a great guy who treated students to restaurant meals, Florida vacations, and secondhand cars.

The 65-year-old teacher and much-admired adviser to the high school radio station is entitled to every constitutional protection. He will have his day in court. A jury will decide whether his 17-year-old accuser is a credible victim or a "pathological liar," as Magno's lawyer says. That determination, though, will be based on facts, not on fantasies about what a sexual predator does or does not look like.

Other former students from Magno's 43-year teaching career at Maynard High School began to come forward this week to echo the initial allegations of molestation. Some of those allegations might be too old to prosecute because of the statute of limitations in Massachusetts for bringing sexual assault cases.

Maybe the complainants are copycats hoping to cash in. Maybe they are victims emboldened by one boy's courage to tell a long-buried truth. A dangerousness hearing will be held in Concord District Court today to determine whether it is safe to return a familiar face to his community, pending trial on charges so many in that community find impossible to believe.

Whatever the judge rules about Joe Magno, it is clear that a fresh resolution is in order for the rest of us: We need to learn how to live with life's terrible ambiguities.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at


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