Finally. Finally, the prominent former child psychiatrist William Hamilton Ayres saw fit to end the circus his legal battle over child molestation charges had become. Finally, he’s done all but admit his culpability although the no contest plea entered last week does allow some wiggle room for appeals and word twisting, as though the decision was one to simply stop fighting rather than concede the guilt of which so many people are certain. And finally it is time for San Mateo County, the county which not only prosecuted him but first gave him a big pat on the shoulder with years of court and school referrals, to take back the lifetime achievement award it bestowed in 2002.
Nearly a dozen years ago, Ayres was heralded as a role model, as a minor celebrity for his host of a popular sex ed series and as head of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as a pillar in the community for his work with the county’s youth all the while allegedly — let me be legally prudent here if not at all convinced of the need for caution — sexually abusing dozens of young boys in his care. But time has a funny way of tarnishing even the most shiny of facades and even back then Ayres’ reputation was starting to get a little dull. San Mateo police were already investigating him. At least one former patient was pointing fingers and readying a civil case in which Ayres would later admit performing “physical exams” of the boys as though what they had between their legs had anything to do with what was between their ears. Yet the San Mateo County courts were still referring him patients and the Board of Supervisors — let’s hope blissfully unaware rather than completely indifferent — gave him the Lifetime Achievement Award. An award that honored him, and I quote directly from the text, “for his tireless effort to improve the lives and adolescents in San Mateo County.”
Improve? Little did they know.
Yanking back the proclamation will be as symbolic as it having been awarded. Ayres is 81 years old and had his medical license stripped shortly after his arrest so it is not as if the county rescinding its honor will affect his livelihood. Undoubtedly, Ayres’ career has also seen the piling up of accolades many would argue carry greater weight so chances are he won’t be crying over the loss of the local award.
But the county’s seal of approval is different. Ayres muddied his own backyard and it’s time for the gatekeepers of that space to put things right. Nobody sitting on the current board can be held to answer for celebrating Ayres; all are gone and two — including now-Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who actually introduced the resolution of honor — now sit in the state Legislature. Perhaps that is for the best; this new board doesn’t necessarily see Ayres as the glorified doctor he once was. Instead, it may see him as those who only know his name through news clippings and trial hours do — an elderly man who escaped prosecution once through a mistrial, another through faking dementia and, depending upon his August sentencing, may not even see the time behind bars that his victims, their families and advocates feel is appropriate. For while Ayres’ lifetime is heralded as one of achievement, his former patients’ lifetimes have been ones of nightmares, of suicide, of criminality, of hoping beyond hope that they and their stories will be found as unimpeachable as the man they once called doctor.
The revocation of the lifetime achievement award may be just a crumb of kindness when stacked upon the atrocities Ayres inflicted but it is a crumb a hell of a long time coming.
The board choosing not to act previously, despite repeated pleas by those with a stake in the cause, is understandable. Every man is innocent until proven guilty and it would be uncouth to damn him before he had his time before a judge and jury. But that all changed last Thursday when Ayres unexpectedly pleaded no contest to eight felonies in return for as little as eight years and as much as 22 years in prison. The judge may show Ayres some leniency. Let’s hope the Board of Supervisors shows him none, or more accurately, no more than the past 10 years when it did nothing to show its constituency and taxpayers that awards it doles out are more than lip service. If the board hopes not to make a mockery of awards it most certainly chooses with a degree of thought and consideration, it must ensure lifetime achievement honors do not go to those whose only achievement is in ruining others. The original board may not have known better; this one does.
If they don’t act, who is to say what person with county ties may be next up on the podium? Perhaps former probation head Stu Forrest can get a shiny, framed accolade; he certainly hasn’t been convicted yet on his charges of child pornography possession.
Signs are positive the current board will do something. Supervisor Dave Pine is hoping for a June 4 discussion of rescinding the award, calling Ayres’ acts possibly the most heinous in county history and comparing his fall from grace to convicted former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.
At least one member of the former board is fine with the idea. State Sen. Jerry Hill supports the effort to rescind Ayres’ award. Gordon was unavailable for comment.
Let’s hope now the rest of Pine’s peers on the board agree enough is enough.
The county has taken measurable steps to see Ayres prosecuted correctly, most notably authorizing District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe to hire a retired prosecutor to aid the deputy district attorney who has had a bumpy road on the way to conviction. The supervisors obviously are not tone deaf which is why now the public should expect it to be willing to make the former doctor face the music with what little means it has available.
Of course, if a majority of supervisors don’t rescind the award, perhaps they can at least tweak it for accuracy, honoring the former doctor for lifetime achievement of beating the system.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: email@example.com or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.