In a year that saw the long-hidden crime of child sexual abuse unmasked as a nationwide epidemic, there was no more shocking example than Jordan, Minn. The tiny town gained instant notoriety when 25 area residents were charged with sexually abusing more than 40 children from ages 2 months to 17 years. The complaints—containing tales of incest, sadism, bestiality and ritualistic sex parties—made headlines across America. And then the case appeared to collapse: Two defendants were acquitted, charges against all the rest were dropped. Uncertain what to believe, Jordan was seized with confusion and anger—some of it directed at Kathleen Morris, 39, the Scott County prosecutor whose dismissal of charges left a monstrous shadow hanging over the town. “I think there was some sexual abuse which probably won’t be prosecuted,” said Realtor Gerald Sandey. “But what Kathleen Morris has done to our town is terrible. I think they’ll hang her from the yardarm for her improprieties and get her to resign.”
Indeed, Morris is embattled on all sides and fighting to hold on to her job. Minnesota’s Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board is investigating two complaints alleging professional misconduct. The people she once prosecuted are now suing her, the county and private therapists for more than $300 million. She has been followed and harassed; her life has been threatened. Still, the combative prosecutor admits no mistakes and vows to continue her crusade against child molesters: She plans to prosecute another Scott County child abuse case in January. “It’s the do-gooder part of me,” she says. “I think all you have to do is care enough and the system will work—maybe not all the time but some of the time.”
While Morris prepares her next prosecution, crucial questions about her role in the original Jordan sex cases are still unanswered. Is Morris, as critics charge, an overzealous, glory-hunting persecutor who ruined innocent lives and smeared a town? Or is she, as her numerous defenders insist, a tough but fair prosecutor frustrated by societal and courtroom restraints on the conviction of deviants who prey on children? Morris’ next trial may well answer those questions. But whatever verdict she receives, criminal justice experts agree, Morris’ ordeal illustrates vividly the problems prosecutors from New York to California have faced this year in trying to bring child sex abuse cases to trial.
The story began in September 1983 when a woman complained to police that a neighbor, James Rud, then 26, had molested her 9-year-old daughter. The arrest of Rud, who, according to police, had been twice convicted of child molesting, was followed over the next nine months by the arrest of 24 others, including a local policeman and a deputy sheriff. All of them denied the charges except Rud, who pleaded guilty and later agreed to testify against other defendants.
When the first trial began last August 20, Morris’ case against Robert and Lois Bentz seemed solid. Six children—including two of the couple’s three sons—testified that they had been molested by the Bentzes. But then the prosecutor’s case suffered serious setbacks. Morris was not allowed to call expert witnesses on child sexual abuse, and the Bentz’s oldest son recanted earlier statements, denying that he had seen his brothers victimized. Under grueling cross-examination, another boy admitted that he had lied about one of his accusations. Defense attorneys seized on those contradictions to portray Morris as a “sick person” who used the children to “concoct” the case. After three days of deliberation the jury acquitted the Bentzes of all charges.
That verdict infuriated Morris and she responded with tears and an unprofessional outburst. “This means we live in a society that does not believe children,” she said, violating the unwritten rule against criticizing juries. Raging at what she saw as the injustice of the acquittal, Morris even attacked a cardinal tenet of the judicial system, telling the local media, “I’m sick to death of things like the presumption of innocence.”
Then on October 14, as opening arguments began in the second trial, Morris again shocked the community: She dropped the charges against all the remaining defendants. Morris claimed she took that step in order to protect her young witnesses from the “great emotional distress” of testifying—and also to protect the secrecy of an ongoing investigation of sex-related child murders. That announcement stunned Jordan. But a month later state and federal investigators announced that they had found no evidence of child murders and inside sources explained that two boys had recanted their stories of having witnessed sex slayings. In late November there came another blow. James Rud, the only defendant to plead guilty, claimed that he had lied about his co-defendants to get a lighter sentence. Although Morris’ reputation has plummeted, her original allegations of child abuse are being reinvestigated by State Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, and new complaints are still possible.
Meanwhile Jordan has grown fiercely polarized over the woman who started the furor. A divorcée with no children, Morris lives in a lakeside cottage with a golden retriever named Matthew. The daughter of an Illinois elementary school principal and a kindergarten teacher, she was a lackluster student at Southern Illinois University. After graduation she taught high school near Decatur, Ill. In 1973 she went to Minnesota to study law at Hamline University and was hired as assistant Scott County attorney in 1976. Irreverent and aggressive, Morris was soon making waves—and enemies. “I’ve always been mouthy and I didn’t lie down and play dead,” as she puts it. Minneapolis trial lawyer Joel Friedberg believes her zeal was directly responsible for the Jordan fiasco. “She’s a sincere person but a bad lawyer because she becomes too involved,” he says. “Somewhere along the line she sacrifices due process.” Morris’ self-defense rests on the purity of her motives. “I take it personally when we can’t save a kid,” she says. “Kathleen is strong and aggressive and commands attention, and she is a difficult person about whom to be neutral,” says Morris’ ex-husband, attorney Stephen Doyle.
Although she feels that the odds are stacked against the successful prosecution of child sex abuse cases, Morris will not back down from the challenge. She promises to continue her crusade even if she has to do it alone. “My parents raised me to stand up for what I believe,” she says. “And I think they did a good job.”