By Michael Rezendes, from the Boston Globe, March 3, 2010
Joel Silver can still remember his private sessions with child psychiatrist William H. Ayres at a renowned Boston guidance center decades ago. Ayres, then a freshly minted therapist affiliated with Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, would puff on a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and ask what seemed like the strangest questions.
At their very first meeting, Silver recalled, Ayres asked him to describe an explicit sex act, a request the 17-year-old Silver refused but one that would set the tone for future sessions. “I thought he was going to ask me why I didn’t like school. That’s why I was there. But everything was sexual.’’
Today, nearly 50 years later, Ayres is awaiting trial in the San Francisco Bay area on charges he sexually molested six boys, ranging in age from 9 to 13, while giving them physical exams in his West Coast psychiatric office. And Massachusetts authorities are taking a fresh look at Ayres’s child psychiatry practice in Boston in the early 1960s.
Boston police and the Suffolk district attorney’s office have filed a post on the “William Ayres Watchdog Blog’’: “If there are any victims out there or anyone that can provide any information on incidents that happened in Boston, MA, please contact me and or the Suffolk County DA,’’ wrote Sergeant Detective John Donovan, the head of the department’s Crimes Against Children Unit.
To date, no one has responded to the post, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. Ayres, who is 78 and a former president of the American Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, insists he is innocent of the charges he is facing. “He has spent almost all his life working with children and being dedicated to the community, so he’s anxious to clear his reputation and his name,’’ said Jonathan D. McDougall, Ayres’s lawyer.
Still, the six West Coast men referred to in the criminal charges, along with four additional men scheduled to testify, represent only a fraction of those who have told authorities they were molested by the once-prominent child psychiatrist. Indeed, more than 40 men have come forward with allegations dating to the 1960s that Ayres abused them, according to a California law enforcement source who asked for anonymity because the total number will not be shared with jurors.
And five years ago, Ayres paid $395,000 to settle a civil suit filed by a California man who was barred from pursuing criminal charges only because his allegations of abuse were too old to prosecute. The settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing.
Officials at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital acknowledged that Ayres was an instructor at Harvard and a resident child psychiatrist at the Judge Baker Guidance Center, from 1959 to 1963. Since then, the Center has been renamed the Judge Baker Children’s Center, located on Mission Hill.
Officials at Harvard and Children’s also said they have no complaints on file against Ayres.
At the Judge Baker Children’s Center, chief operating officer Stephen Schaffer said the organization does not have personnel records for Ayres because he was an employee of Children’s Hospital when he was working at the Center. He said the same thing about another resident child psychiatrist, Donald L. Rife, who practiced at the Center immediately following Ayres, from 1964 to 1966. Rife has had medical licenses revoked in Massachusetts and Vermont, and has been reprimanded in Florida, because of child sex-abuse allegations.
Schaffer said that the Center has the clinical records of children who were treated by the two child psychiatrists, but that privacy considerations prevent him from examining them without a specific patient request to do so.
Local law enforcement officials are interested in Ayres in part because they might be able to prosecute him on charges of indecent assault and battery, if they can show he committed crimes against children while living in Massachusetts. That’s because the clock in the state’s statute of limitations – the period after a crime during which prosecutors may file charges – would have stopped when Ayres crossed state lines to begin a new life in California.
On the other hand, prosecutors say, it is especially challenging to pursue sex-abuse charges based on decades-old allegations. Often, the circumstances surrounding such cases – the place where the alleged abuse might have taken place, for example – may have changed or disappeared entirely. Physical evidence, in all probability, does not exist. And additional possible victims may be difficult to find or, after so many years of silence, reluctant to testify.
“When you disclose 30 to 35 years later, there isn’t going to be physical evidence,’’ said Leora Joseph, chief of the Child Protection Unit in Conley’s office. “And what do jurors want? They want scientific evidence. They’re all watching CSI.’’
But it is hardly unheard of for prosecutors in the Boston area to win indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions based on decades-old child sex abuse claims. In 2005, for instance, Conley’s office agreed to a guilty plea by the Rev. James F. Talbot after charging the former Boston College High School coach with raping and sexually assaulting two of his students during the 1970s. Conley’s office was able to charge Talbot because he had moved to Maine, which meant the statute of limitations did not apply.
The California case against Ayres, as well as information about his past as a Boston child psychiatrist, sprang from a chance encounter between one of his accusers, Steven Abrams, and a New York freelance writer, Victoria Balfour, who had written a magazine article that mentioned her own experience as a victim of child sex abuse. As Abrams pursued a civil suit against Ayres – one that would eventually be settled with the confidential payment of $395,000 – Balfour researched Ayres’s career, and shared her information with police in San Mateo, Calif. Police, in turn, discovered earlier complaints against the noted child psychiatrist.
“When those allegations occurred, there was not enough evidence to proceed,’’ Deputy Chief Mike Callagy said, explaining why charges had not been previously filed.
When Ayres stands trial in April, it will mark the second time he has been forced to defend himself against the sexual assault charges leveled by the men who say that, as children, they were molested by him during physical exams given during psychiatric sessions. A trial last year resulted in a hung jury – underscoring the difficulty of pursuing old child sex abuse claims – but prosecutors elected to try him a second time.
When he took the stand in his first trial, Ayres testified that he was trained at Yale University and the Judge Baker Guidance Center. And he noted that psychiatrists are also physicians qualified to perform physical exams as part of a patient’s psychiatric therapy. At one point, he testified that he believes physical exams, which include genital exams, “develop a kind of trust’’ between psychiatrist and child.
Although many child psychiatrists would disagree, arguing that psychiatrists should perform physical exams only in unusual circumstances, prosecutors say that Ayres’s testimony seemed to persuade at least some of the jurors that the exams were legitimate.
“Much of the conduct in this case was well-disguised as medical treatment,’’ said Melissa McKowan, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ayres last year and is scheduled to retry him next month.
Although the work Ayres was doing in California is similar to the work he did in Boston decades ago, it is unclear whether he conducted physical exams during his sessions at the Baker center.
Meanwhile Silver, the man who still recalls Ayres’s strange questions, believes Ayres did not attempt to molest him in part because, at 17, he was older than Ayres’s California patients were when the psychiatrist allegedly assaulted them. Instead, Ayres asked Silver for a description of an oral sex act, and peppered him with questions about masturbation.
Silver also believes he may have been spared physical abuse because he was a lot bigger than Ayres’s other accusers.
“I played football and was a rugged guy,’’ he said, “not the kind of guy the average Joe would fool with.’’