|| Guilty Until Proven Innocent
|| Reverend Keith Barnhart with Lila Wold Shelburne
|| Hannibal Books, © 1990
Hannibal, MO 63401
This book is the true story of a midwestern pastor falsely
charged with the sexual molestation of seven boys enrolled in the church day
care. In the beginning, a four-year-old boy at the day care told his parents
that a two year old had rubbed his bottom with soap. Mr. Barnhart thought the
matter was taken care of when he explained to the mother that they use only
liquid soap at the day care. Unbeknownst to him, the parents began taking their
child to therapists and doctors, until they found a professional who would
pronounce the child molested. From there, they called other parents, warned them
their children were being molested, and recommended that they, too, have their
During his interrogation, and later during his arrest, the
police assumed Barnhart was guilty and pressured him for a confession. When he
asserted his innocence, they demanded that he then explain how the allegations
came to be. Naive about these matters, it was during the painstaking preparation
for his trial that Barnhart discovered the answer to that question. He and his
wife transcribed hours of videotapes and correlated these with various reports.
They discovered that the allegations were developed through the children's
contacts with the police and health professionals. One of the witnesses for the
prosecution who identified herself as a professional had lied about her
qualifications and didn't even have a bachelor's degree in nursing.
Mr. Barnhart received tremendous support, not only from the
congregation of his church, but from other ministers throughout the state.
Doggedly, he continued preaching, although his family and church were receiving
threatening, anonymous phone calls. He and his wife couldn't leave their home
without being followed by one of the accusing parents or verbally attacked in
the market. They were afraid that their own children would be taken by the
authorities. As the nightmare unfolded, his wife's father was diagnosed with
Alzheimer's disease, while Barnhart's mother had to put his father in a nursing
home. Despite their ordeal, the family hung together and gave each other much
When the matter was brought to trial, only charges by two of
the boys were heard. With funds raised by church members, Barnhart was able to
fly in experts from Minnesota and California. Through his attorney's incisive
questioning, it became apparent that the prosecution's so-called medical
evidence was a sham. The suggestive and leading questions used by therapists and
police were exposed. One of the boys readily admitted on the stand that his
mother helped him to remember what "Brother Keith" had done to him.
With the other boy, it came out in testimony that the father had pulled his
son's pants down in order to "practice" the molest for court. The
trial lasted only one and one-half weeks. Keith Barnhart was found not guilty.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent is the first book published
about the personal experience of false allegations in a day care setting. From a
literary standpoint, the style is elemental, but from a social standpoint, the
message is powerful. Anybody can be falsely accused of child abuse.
escaped total ruin and imprisonment because he was able to mobilize resources
and received a fair and speedy trial. He did not escape the humiliation of being
exposed by the media, who exploited his misfortune with sensationalized
The prosecutor should never have brought the case to trial,
but there were political points to be gained by the publicity of prosecuting a
minister on this type of charge. Fortunately for Barnhart, the court put a stop
to it, and to the runaway train of professionals who went outside the bounds of
science with no apparent concern for the consequences to an innocent man and his
family. Nor did Barnhart have recourse against them, for as he conveys with just
a trace of bitterness, they have sovereign immunity from any kind of
lawsuit. Although the system of checks and balances worked in
Barnhart's case, the reader is left to wonder what happens in
those cases where the court jumps on the runaway train instead of stopping it.
Barnhart's Christian faith adds another dimension to his
story. What a difference it made to be part of the loving community he calls his
"church family." Of course, there were problems here, too —
influential member of the congregation denounced Barnhart for not reaching out
to the accusing families. Mr. Barnhart describes how his wife drew strength from
her own relationship with God, so that her very real anxieties were not a drain
on their marriage.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent can be seen as completing a
1980s' trilogy on the false allegation experience that stretches from
coast-to-coast. In 1986, Dr. Lawrence Spiegel, a psychologist in New Jersey,
published A Question of Innocence (). In 1988 Dr. Dana Ferguson wrote about events
that unfolded in California in Bad Moon Rising: A True Story (). Now, in 1990, we have
the work of Keith Barnhart, pastor of a church in Missouri.
Barnhart's book is especially poignant in demonstrating how
increased efforts to protect children are having the paradoxical effect of
decommissioning caretakers. The church day care has been permanently shut down.
The dedicated women who worked there, having barely escaped indictment
themselves, have all given up what was, for most of them, their life's work.
Barnhart himself is careful to avoid contact with children other than his own.
is aware that, in the future, he can never consider a church that operates a
child care facility. His book is worth reading.
Reviewed by Deirdre Conway Rand, a psychologist in private
practice at Marin Psychological Services, 6S0 E. Blithedale Ave., Ste M, Mill
Valley, CA 94941.