False Testimony

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The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax
by Debbie Nathan

[From The Village Voice, January 12, 1990. Reprinted in Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border, El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 1991. Copyright 1990 by Debbie Nathan. Reposted here with explicit permission of Debbie Nathan.]

After the First McMartin Trial

The eight kids sitting in Geraldo Rivera’s New York studio after the first McMartin trial ended could have stepped out of a candy bar commercial on Saturday morning TV. They gleamed with the healthy tans, shopping-mall clothes, and moussed sun-bleached hair of the southern California suburbs; their parents looked equally affluent. But these families were far from cheerful. "We were molested," a strapping blond teenager told the audience solemnly, "and that’s an honest-to-God fact." When some of the children – most of them by now adolescents – described suffering flashbacks and night terrors, their mothers quietly dabbed at tears. Other parents seemed angry and driven. "The parents and children standing up here will not stop," said Marymae Cioffi, who since the beginning of the case had been organizing to convince the public and the courts that bizarre sex abuse claims at places like the McMartin preschool should be believed.

As Cioffi spoke, her lips twitched in spasms of anger. The children sat politely. But when a relative of the defendants noted that the investigation had never produced any evidence against them, the eyes of a small, until then subdued 14-year-old boy suddenly turned to slits; his teeth bared and his lips trembled, just like Cioffi’s. For even though the jury had completely exonerated Peggy McMartin Buckey while acquitting her son Ray on most counts and deadlocking on the rest, Geraldo’s guests insisted their former teachers really were sadistic sex criminals.

Gerald reminded the audience that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But he also asked whether the acquittals spelled doom for child abuse prosecutions, and titled the program "The McMartin Outrage: What Went Wrong?" Finally, when he patted the children’s shoulders and remarked on their "sincere pain," it was clear this show was adding to the pressures that would lead to the current retrial of Ray Buckey on eight counts involving three girls.

What Geraldo neglected to mention was that none of these children had ever taken the stand: since McMartin first hit the media in 1984, his guests’ accusations had been so consistently bizarre and illogical that their testimony would only have damaged the case. There was 18-year-old Chris Collins, whose father belongs to a McMartin parents’ group that believes the teachers are part of an intergenerational Satanic conspiracy. Collins, who insists that he was molested attending McMartin in the mid-‘70s, remembers a room below the school office and "major, major sacrifices" connected with the "Satanic Church." The problem with his claim is that when Collins was at McMartin, Ray Buckey was in high school and, according to his mother, maintained a perfect attendance record – meaning he was never at the preschool when Collins was. Then there was round-faced, 10-year-old Elizabeth Cioffi. According to her father, she has talked about being molested under the school in tunnels lined with flashing lights and pictures of the devil.

Irrationality pervaded the McMartin case from the beginning. The first allegation came from a woman later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. After Judy Johnson noticed one day in 1983 that her two-year-old son’s bottom was red, she told police he said something about a man named Ray at his nursery school. In the next few weeks, Johnson accused 25-year-old Buckey of donning a mask and sodomizing her child while sticking his head in a toilet; of wearing a cape while taping the boy’s mouth, hands, and eyes; and of sticking an air tube in his rectum. She also said Ray made the child ride naked on a horse and molested him while dressed as a cop, fireman, clown, and Santa Claus. Later, she claimed that the McMartin teachers, including Ray’s 57-year-old mother, Peggy, jabbed a scissors into the boy’s eyes and staples in his ears, nipples, and tongue; that Ray put her son’s finger into a goat’s anus; and that Peggy killed a baby and made the boy drink the blood. She also told the D.A.’s office than an AWOL marine and three models in a health club had raped her son, and that the family dog was sodomized as well.

Within a few months, Peggy, Ray, his 28-year-old sister, his 77-year-old wheelchair bound grandmother, and three other women teachers would be jailed and charged with hundreds of counts of sex abuse. During the investigation, some parents would claim that hundreds of Los Angeles-area children were brutally molested in several day-care centers, over a 20-year period, by a conspiracy of Satanic child pornographers. Children would talk about playing the "Naked Movie Star" game, about being photographed nude, about sexual assault in hot-air balloons, on faraway farms, on the shoulders of busy highways, in cemeteries, in tunnels under the school yard.

The McMartin School was painstakingly probed for tunnels. None were found. Neither was child pornography, nor witnesses from the traffic-filled freeways, nor any other evidence. Doctors’ findings of physical abuse were later debunked by medical researchers. Child protection experts have since criticized the prosecution’s social workers for using leading, suggestive interviewing methods that resembled brainwashing. Judy Johnson was hospitalized for psychosis in early 1985 (she later died of an alcoholism-related liver disease.) An assistant D.A., who quit the case and then helped the defense told the press over three years ago that the woman had been mentally ill when she made her first charges – information the McMartin jurors were never allowed to hear.

But none of these revelations seemed to dampen the prosecutors’, the media’s, or the public’s need to believe horrible things had happened at McMartin. For the first two years, the press slavishly trumpeted every illogical accusation, so that when charges against five women defendants were dropped in 1986 – after the Los Angeles D.A. called the evidence "incredibly weak" – polls showed that most people still thought that abuse had occurred at the pre-school. During the subsequent, almost three-year trial, neither the Los Angeles Times nor the rest of the metropolitan media bothered to critically dissect the case.

Finally the verdicts were announced, but the fact that they were overwhelmingly not guilty didn’t seem to matter much either. In each of the 13 hung decisions, from 7 to 11 jurors decided in Buckey’s favor, but this was glossed over by the press. So were the comments of jurors like Darryl Hutchins: he said that during deliberations he decided that Ray Buckey had molested the first child, but that he would have voted differently had the judge allowed testimony about the mother’s mental illness – or the defense’s contention that while the McMartin defendants were in jail, the little boy was molested by his father.

Refiling counts that most of the jury has rejected is almost unheard of. Immediately after the verdicts, however, McMartin parents began a media campaign to push the D.A. to prosecute Ray Buckey a second time. Again, the press dealt uncritically with the pressure. On tabloids like Geraldo and Oprah, support for a retrial was overt; "responsible" media like The New York Times were more subtle, suggesting, for example, that the jurors in the first trial were "stymied" by "the malleable memories of children and the distorting effects of questioning, particularly when a child has been traumatized." Hardly anyone acknowledged that most of the jurors had concluded the children had likely not been abused, except possibly by their own relatives and certainly by the investigation itself.

A National and International Panic

Clearly, the public had come to believe that something as monstrous–sounding, yet as patently absurd, as McMartin was eminently imaginable. So imaginable in fact that a rash of similar cases surfaced across the country. A month after the McMartin investigation started, a Jordan, Minnesota, garbage collector accused of molesting three girls told authorities several local families were in a child sex ring. The charges against the middle-aged couples met widespread disbelief. But as neighbors stepped forward to support the accused, they, too, were arrested – the children had named them as perpetrators. Stories of ritual and slaughter emerged after the children were removed to foster care and many were interviewed more than 30 times apiece. The murder tales were later deemed fabrications, and some children admitted they lied to get relentless interviewers to leave them in peace. A husband and wife were acquitted, charges against 21 others were dropped, and the garbage collector confessed to inventing the charges in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.

In Chicago, a child told her mother that a day-care janitor had tickled her vagina. During repeated interviews, some 300 other children accused 40 teachers of abusing them during Satanic rituals, complete with baby killing. No physical evidence was produced; the janitor was tried anyway and acquitted. Several other cases surfaced, and by 1985, McMartin parents with media connections were collaborating with ABC’s "20/20" on shows claiming that "Satanic" crime and day-care abuse were epidemic. Other journalists ran with the story, disregarding the lack of evidence. Meanwhile, prosecutors, police, and social workers were attending nationwide conferences to "network" with "experts" on Satanic kiddie-porn conspiracies and learn how to root them out of nursery schools. There was a wave of cases that year, among them one in El Paso, Texas, where two women teachers were accused. Investigators were in touch with McMartin child interviewers and with Satanic Conspiracy theorist Ken Wooden, who helped produce the "20/20" series. The preschoolers never testified; instead, parents described their children’s "outcries" since the investigation had started, and behavioral changes like masturbating, urinating on walls, and assuming "sexual" postures. The teachers were convicted.

In these and some thirty others covered by the Memphis Tennessee Commercial Appeal in a 1988 series, journalists noted striking similarities in what child protection officials dubbed "ritual abuse" cases. Investigations usually began because of vague medical symptoms or after an upper-middle-class child did something that adults thought inappropriately sexual. Then, even though most sexual abuse occurs within the family, investigators immediately directed their inquiries outside the home. Sometimes they even suspected community sex rings, but most often they focused on elite childcare centers. The first allegation sometimes seemed plausible. But in remarkable departures from forensics, police, social workers, doctors, and therapists badgered children to name more victims and perpetrators, ignoring answers that contradicted a ritual abuse scenario. As a result, many men were charged; but women were too, and this was especially shocking, since females have not been thought of as child molesters, much less sex torturers.

From 1984 to 1989, some 100 people nationwide were charged with ritual sex abuse; of those, 50 or so were tried and about half convicted, with no evidence except testimony from children, parents, "experts" expounding on how the children acted traumatized, and doctors talking about tiny white lines on anuses or bumps on hymens – "signs of abuse" that later research would show on nonabused children. By 1986, in many states, hastily reformed criminal statutes made it unnecessary for children to come into court; parents could act as hearsay witnesses, or kids could testify on closed-circuit TV, giving juries the automatic impression that defendants had done something to frighten the child. And once a person stood accused, the community often decided that something must have happened. Any remaining skeptics were blasted for "condoning child abuse" and some were accused themselves.

As the cases snowballed, many parents were skeptical, but therapists told doubters that unless they believed the allegations, their children would be further traumatized. Anxious, guilt-ridden parents formed organizations with names like Believe the Children, the group begun by the McMartin parents. Besides offering psychological support, these groups helped prosecutors put together cases, did media promotion, and lobbied for laws allowing children to testify outside the courtroom.

Despite the support they received from adults, instead of getting calmer as time passed, many of the children showed increasingly traumatized behavior, such as flashbacks. Their tales of abuse followed a pattern; at first they said they were merely fondled; later in the investigation, they mentioned rape, sodomy, and pornography; then they progressed to increasingly bizarre scenarios. Across the country, the molesters were described as black men, mulattos, deformed people, or clowns; the abuse took place in churches; adults wore masks and costumes; they urinated and defecated on children; they burned, stabbed, cooked, or drowned babies; they sacrificed animals; they molested children in funeral homes and buried Barbie dolls. Extensive investigations have failed to turn up material evidence to support any of those claims.

In a 1987 case in Holland, the authorities decided there were no culprits at all. A four-year-old boy in the town of Oude Pekkela returned home from a play area with a bloody anus. In the next few months, some 100 children told authorities that German pornographers dressed as clowns had kidnapped, molested, and tortured them in Satanic rituals, and as time passed they acted more and more traumatized. But after a massive investigation, officials concluded that the four-year-old had poked himself with twigs while playing with another preschooler; that no German pornographers – or any other molesters – had ever existed. And in suburban Philadelphia, where an investigation began last year into claims that a teacher and her 68-year old aide ritually assaulted three girls with excrement, the Bucks County D.A. dismissed the allegations as hysteria. Still, an unquestioning belief in ritual sex abuse in the U.S., Canada, and other post-industrial countries remains the rule. Here, not only religious fundamentalists and the unschooled, but large numbers of literate, secular people seem ready to accept the idea that scores of people in crowded daycare centers could engage hundreds of children in vicious – not to say extremely messy – assaults, and yet leave neither a scintilla of physical evidence nor an adult material witness. What’s going on?

In a sense, nothing new. Moral panics – the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, for example – have often run rampant through cultures in flux, and "ritual abuse" is today’s mythic expression of deep-seated worries over sweeping changes in the family. Since the 1970s, the number of working women have risen, and so have the divorce rates and female-headed households. Children are being socialized less by family authority and more by the media and its consumerist focus on the erotic, yet AIDS has imbued eros with a new danger. All these changes spell anxiety. For conservatives, they are literally sinful, and since moral traditionalists hate public day-care, a right-wing impulse to demonize childcare workers is not surprising. But many feminists and progressives have bought into the hysteria, too: ritual abuse panic has become an outlet for women’s rage at sexual violence and harassment. While this anger could hardly be more justified, it has increasingly been articulated through an anti-sexual current in the feminist movement, a current that jibes with the views of conservatives who loathe pornography – and who also fear women, their need for day-care, their independence, and their sexuality.

The Denial — and Redefinition — of Incest

Until recently, generations of silence and denial shrouded the problem of child sexual abuse, especially incest. Academic literature had long described it as a one-in-a-million event, and when women and girls told therapists and child protection authorities they had been molested, their stories were usually dismissed as nasty figments of the female psyche. But by the mid-70s, as feminists were fighting this society’s tendency to belittle and disbelieve women’s rape reports, theoreticians like Florence Rush began eloquently arguing that children – especially girls – had the same problem when they tried to talk about being sexually abused. Meanwhile, several studies reported that one out of every hundred women remembered having sex with fathers and stepfathers – and that did not even include experiences with other family members like uncles. By 1980, thanks largely to feminist efforts to create and publicize reporting systems, the government tallied almost 43,000 cases of sex abuse annually, up from a few thousand only a few years earlier. Most perpetrators were fathers and other male relatives and most of the victims were girls.

Feminists who analyzed incest defined it as inherently victimizing the daughter; they said her extreme dependence on her family and the men in it meant she could not give meaningful consent to sex. But then they made a dubious leap: they began applying their perspective on incest to non-relatives. Judith Herman, in her 1982 book, Father-Daughter Incest, wrote that any sexual relationship between an adult and a child, even if the child is a teenager, "must necessarily take on some of the coercive characteristics of rape." Florence Rush compared children choosing adult sex partners to chickens meeting up with hungry foxes.

Actually, studies show that the realities of transgenerational sex outside the family, where individual adults wield a good deal less power over children, are more ambiguous. Most male pedophilia consists of caressing and fondling. For most children, these experiences appear to be at best confusing, at worst traumatic. But others seem to willingly participate, and some adults recall that while still legally minors they accepted, even welcomed sex with grownups. (Many gay men, for example, say they instigated these encounters, and some suggest that such relationships offer the boys the only real possibility for healthy acculturation into homosexuality.) Nonetheless, the prevailing feminist view of child sexual abuse broadened its meaning to include, without distinctions, any contact between someone below the age of consent with someone older – even if that meant ignoring how the younger partner remembered the incident.

In the early 1980w, feminist sociologist Diana Russell asked women to remember any unwanted sexual contact before age 18, including with boyfriends of the same age – "sexual contact meaning anything from anal intercourse to glimpsing a flasher to an unwelcome hug." She also asked women to recall "incest," defined as sexual contact between relatives (even distant ones) more than five years apart in age. By Russell’s standards, tongue kissing between a 13-year-old and her cousin’s 19-year-old husband would be considered incestuous and therefore exploitative, even if the woman remembered enjoying it. Using her extravagantly broad definitions, she found that one in five women were "incest victims" and more than half suffered child sexual abuse. Because the media quoted this and similar studies without explaining how diverse the reported experiences were, it suddenly seemed to the public that little kids were in imminent danger of being raped.

Cultural Anxiety About Child Safety

But even before feminist anti-sex abuse efforts had begun, a national fear was growing that terrible, previously unheard of perversities were endangering children. It began with rumors of Halloween sadists. In 1970, The New York Times reported that the "plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block … may have a razor blade hidden inside." By 1972, many kids were not allowed to trick-or-treat; three years later Newsweek warned that several children were dead and hundreds more injured by viciously doctored Halloween candy. A few years later, kiddie porn was the new threat. In 1977, NBC reported that "as many as two million American youngsters are involved in the fast-growing, multi-million dollar child pornography business…" and "police say the number of boy prostitutes may be as high as half a million" (some 10 percent of all male adolescents in the entire country).

Then, in the early 1980s, following the New York City disappearance of Etan Patz, the kidnapping and slaying of Adam Walsh, and the murders of 28 Atlanta schoolchildren, the missing children’s movement emerged. Crusaders began describing a stranger abduction problem of astonishing proportion: U.S. Representative Paul Simon offered House members a "conservative estimate … 50,000 children abducted by strangers annually," and a leading child-search organization said 5000 of these children were murdered each year.

Research by journalists and sociologists has debunked all these claims. In the entire U.S., only one child has ever been killed by Halloween candy – and the poison was put there by his own father. Only 18 injuries were reported nationwide during the 25 years before 1984, the most serious one a wound requiring some stitches. Some of these were hoaxes or fabrications by attention-seeking kids. As for kiddie-porn, it’s estimated that even before 1978, when all production and commercial distribution of such material was banned under federal law, only about 5000 and 7000 children were involved worldwide. Since then the commercial market in America, miniscule to begin with, has been virtually wiped out.

Research into claims about mass kidnappings likewise deflates the hype: a recently released Justice Department study finds that almost all missing children are teenage runaways and throwaways. The typical kidnapping is committed by a divorced parent who has lost custody. As for stranger-abductions, the Washington D.C.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children currently lists about 240 children missing in the entire country. Still, much of the American public is convinced that molesters, sadists, kidnappers, and pornographers are major threats to our kids.

Paranoia about Satanism

This fear has been reinforced by yet another strand of irrationality – the rise of paranoia about Satanism. Religious belief in child-torturing conspiracies of devil worshippers – whether Christian, Jewish, or Satanist – has flowered and withered since the early days of the Church. Lately, the belief has resurged in the U.S. and gained widespread acceptance via tabloid media like Geraldo. Things have gotten so far out of hand that last year a Texas school district told students they could no longer wear T-shirts with peace symbols, since self-styled experts on Satanism say the design represents the devil. Another popular belief, that Satanists kidnap blonde virgins for sacrifice, cropped up nationwide in 1987 and 1988, and spawned a wave of what sociologist Jeffrey Victor calls "rumor panics": townspeople from Montana to Maine banned library books, armed themselves into vigilante squads, and raided purported "covens" that often turned out to be nothing more than teen punk-rocker hangouts.

The latest Satan scare has its roots in 1970s fundamentalism. In The Late Great Planet Earth and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth, both of which sold millions of copies, Christian TV celebrity Hal Lindsey decries the corrupting influence of the "New Age" ‘60s, yearningly prophesies the end of the world and Armageddon, and warns of the sinister power of rock music, witches and devil worshippers. Meanwhile, many white teenagers shocked their elders by reading popular works about Satanism, scrawling "666"-style graffiti, and listening to the music Cardinal O’Connor, in his recent "exorcism" sermon, called pornography in sound.

During the late ‘70s, "urban legends," or modern folk rumors, about devil worshippers spread across the U.S. One tale had it that Ray Kroc, former owner of McDonald’s, had tithed his hamburger profits to the church of Satan in exchange for prosperous Big Mac sales. Another was that Procter & Gamble’s century-old moon-and-stars logo was a secret Satanic symbol. (The rumor got so out-of-control that the company had to change the logo in 1985.)

"Recovered" Memories and MPD

Another evolution in the popular zeitgeist was signaled by the 1980 release of Michelle Remembers, coauthored by Lawrence Pazder, a Catholic psychiatrist from Vancouver, and his wife and former patient, Michelle Smith. The book recounts how Smith, in treatment for depression, underwent months of hypnosis and "remembered" being imprisoned at age five by her mother and a group of Satanists. She said she was locked up, buried with snakes, smeared with human waste, raped with candles and crucifixes, and finally forced to destroy an infant. Smith’s therapy consisted of more hypnosis, prayers to the Virgin Mary, and exorcism.

There is no confirmation that anything Smith "remembers" occurred. Psychiatric anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern, who has reviewed tapes of sessions similar to Pazder’s and Smith’s, says patients retain an unshakable belief in whatever a therapist suggests under hypnosis. Smith’s "memories," Mulhern says, were probably constructed piecemeal, with Pazder introducing the Satanic motifs. Still, Michelle Remembers became a "non-fiction" bestseller, and the authors appeared on national Christian talk shows. Another self-styled cult survivor had her story published in a tabloid, and by 1983 the FBI was getting calls from women around the country, claiming they too had escaped devil-worshipping cults. Their stories hardly varied: the cults were part of a generations-old, international conspiracy including prominent people, and practiced rites like the ones in Michelle Remembers; they also kidnapped and sacrificed children, which explained the country’s thousands of missing kids.

According to Kenneth Lanning of the FBI, at first the agency took the stories seriously. Perhaps there were a few isolated cults, maybe they could have killed some children. Authorities nationwide began digging up reported burial sites, but found nothing, and Lanning’s doubts increased as "survivor" reports mushroomed (the FBI now gets a call a day). "If the cults were real," he says, "they would constitute the greatest conspiracy in history."

Who, then are these "survivors" and what’s their connection to ritual abuse accusations? Sherrill Mulhern, who has spent years studying traditional cults and modern groups like Jonestown, began researching the "survivors" and their therapists about five years ago. She soon realized that she was looking not at a real cult, but at people linked by a delusionary belief in one.

Many "survivors," Mulhern says, are former teen runaways who lived on the streets and took up prostitution – behavior typical of incest victims. Many have abused drugs that produce paranoid delusions; many have been treated for schizophrenia and for borderline personality, which is characterized by compulsive lying. More recently, many have been diagnosed by therapists as suffering from multiple personality disorder. And virtually all had fundamentalist Christian parents or later converted. While being "born again," they were often hypnotized by fellow "survivors" of by self-styled Christian spiritual therapists.

The public knows about multiple personality from The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil. This diagnosis – which was called double consciousness in the 19th century and later fell out of favor – has been officially resurrected during the past 15 years by the American psychiatric profession. A century ago, Freud’s term for multiple personality was hysteria, and he first treated hysterical women during the 1880s. When hypnotizing deeply religious Catholic patients, Freud was struck by how many told trance tales of being raped by black-robed Satan worshippers, stories identical to those told by women during earlier witch trials. He speculated that these stories were actually sadomasochistic fantasies overlying memories of real childhood incest but articulated in the language of religion.

A century later, therapists started hearing the same tales again. This time around, they weren't so willing to call them fictions. The new, unqualified belief that all womens' and girls’ rape and incest stories were true reflected the reemergence of that strain in feminist thinking that condemned all sexual impulses as merely forms of male domination. In this view, men were inherently predatory, obsessed with penetration and violence – or, as Andrea Dworkin put it, "the stuff of murder, not love." Women, on the other hand, wanted gentle, not-necessarily-even-genital-sex. By analogy, children were just as pure.

Feminists like Diana Russell, Florence Rush, and Dworkin denied that sadomasochistic acts or thoughts could be erotic for women. Russell viewed them as inventions of the patriarch and reflections of women’s powerlessness; Rush, in her groundbreaking work on sex abuse, The Best Kept Secret, disapprovingly connected the "uncensored erotic imagination" with "the total freedom of the sadist." Besides being theoreticians, these women were also activists in Women Against Pornography, which was lending the right’s anti-porn crusade a modern "progressive" aura by arguing, despite the lack of evidence, that representations of women being wounded or sexually dominated by men cause sexual violence. At the same time, many therapists who considered themselves feminists adopted the belief that when patients bring up fantasies, dreams, or memories of coerced or brutal sex, they can never be products of the erotic imagination; they must really have happened – and anyone who says otherwise is an apologist for patriarchal violence.

This was the complaint lodged against Freud. During his early career, when female hysterics told him they had been seduced during childhood by their fathers and other adults, Freud believed them; he concluded that such violations were common and led to neurosis. Later, he decided many of the stories were untrue. Freud undoubtedly ended up underestimating the prevalence of abuse, though he never dismissed all his patients’ seduction stories. To explain the others as fantasies, he developed the theory of the Oedipus complex.

In recognizing children as intensely sexual beings, the theory was revolutionary. But its assumption that all women envy men their penises helped reinforce sexual stereotypes and encouraged therapists to mindlessly dismiss women’s memories of childhood molestation. Not surprisingly, then, Freud’s theories of sexuality were later just as simplistically attacked by feminists eager to conflate sexuality with male violence. Their criticisms were most forcefully articulated in 1984, with the publication of Jeffrey Masson’s The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory.

And even as Masson institutionalized Freud-bashing, women and children were telling therapists and police rococo tales about sadomasochistic, diabolical assaults. How could these bizarre stories be true? But then, hadn’t we learned that sex abuse was much more common than previously thought?  The stage was set for McMartin hysteria.

The McMartin "Investigation" and "the child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome"

In 1983, as part of his upcoming, hotly contested reelection campaign, the Los Angeles district attorney commissioned a survey asking voters to name their biggest crime concerns. He was surprised to learn that their main worry wasn’t drugs or drunken driving – it was child abuse. At about the same time the pollsters were at work, a mentally ill mother was telling Los Angeles County authorities Story-of-O tales about the McMartin preschool. Following her first accusations, police sent 200 letters to parents, listing specific questions to ask their children about whether and how Ray Buckey molested them. Virtually all the children denied being abused. Nevertheless, at the suggestion of the prosecution, panicked families made appointments at the Children’s Institute International (CII), a Los Angeles abuse therapy clinic.

There, social workers plied the children with puppets, suggested ritual abuse scenarios, coaxed recalcitrant kids to "pretend," and said that if they didn’t tell the "yucky secret" it meant they were stupid. This interviewing method followed from Los Angeles psychiatrist Roland Summit’s "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome," a theory about incest. Summit argues that if there is evidence of sex abuse and a child denies it, this is only further proof that it happened and a therapist should use any means necessary to help the child talk. When this technique was applied to criminal investigation, there wasn’t supposed to be any problem with false allegations. Research has since suggested that as many as one in twelve sex abuse reports are fabricated, that in divorce custody disputes, the rate may be as high as one in two, and that a disturbingly common source of false allegations is mentally ill mothers who injure their children, even genitally, to get attention. But in 1984, few were thinking about such issues – conventional wisdom was that since children are innocent beings, they never lie about sexual abuse. If they later recant, that means they are under family pressure to protect the father – and their turnabout is further proof of the crime.

So no matter how much coercion was used to get an accusation and no matter if a child later retracted it, once Summit’s incest theory was applied, a charge of abuse became irrefutable. Child protection workers ignored the fact that this logic had little to do with day-care. After all, why would children staunchly deny abuse to protect an adult who wasn’t part of the family? And if they’d been so brutally attacked at school, why wouldn’t they tell their parents?

Therapists and investigators came up with all sorts of rationales. One was that the teachers threatened them by slaughtering animals and warning that the same thing would happen to their parents if they told. Kids who revealed nothing were said to have split off unbearable memories and developed amnesia. Following this line of thinking, it’s not surprising that some investigators and psychologists used hypnotic suggestion to get children to "remember" abuse; more typical was endless interrogation, much of it done by parents.

In imposing such techniques, adults no doubt injected their own motifs into allegations. Indeed, there is evidence that the details in ritual abuse charges come more from grown-ups than children. Lawrence Pazder, coauthor of Michelle Remembers, told the San Francisco Examiner he acted as a consultant to Los Angeles police investigating McMartin and to parents nationwide; McMartin parent Jackie McGaulley has confided she met with him during the early days of the investigation. Around the same time, Ken Wooden, the Satanic conspiracy theorist, mailed information to 3,500 prosecutors describing what to look for in ritual abuse cases. Women claiming to be survivors contacted McMartin investigators and parents; some even joined parents at nationwide child protection conferences to speak about ritual abuse. Meanwhile, prominent psychiatrists like Bennett Braun began appearing at symposia on multiple personality, telling colleagues that a fourth of the women with this diagnosis are escapees from cults organized like the "Communist cell structure." Soon, other therapists would be carrying guns for protection against devil worshippers. And soon, more and more prosecutors would make front-page news by leveling charges of unspeakably sadistic rape, sodomy and terrorism against people whose only previous experience with the law was in traffic court.

Yet Satanism as a motive in ritual abuse cases didn’t always wash: Though prosecutors tried to keep it quiet, if the public or jury found out that the accusations included the belief that the defendants danced around in covens, cases tended to become laughingstocks and collapse. (Indeed, the phrase ritual abuse was coined by child-protection people worried that Satanic abuse would evoke public disbelief.) So prosecution-minded child-protection activists tried to develop sensible-sounding explanations for why ordinary people would suddenly get the urge to stick swords up toddlers.

The New Psychology of Ritual Abuse

To do this, common sense had to be reformed. Nobody, not even the most jaded of cops, had ever heard of people with no relationship to enragé politics or cults and with no mental health problems practicing intricate sexual tortures against little children in nursery schools. The situation was akin to the dilemma faced by inquisitors during the witch trials, when one of the biggest issues was how to physically identify a consort of Satan. The accused would be stripped and a search would ensue for "devil’s privy marks": warts, scars, and skin tags, especially on the genitals. Such blemishes were said to prove the bearer had a compact with the devil. Three hundred years later, bodily flaws wouldn’t do. Now what was needed was a new psychology.

Serious research was no help. Most male molesters and pedophiles who commit non-violent offenses score normally on psychological tests, but one would expect a Rorschach to ferret out something remarkable about a person who rubs feces on toddlers and barbecues babies. Nevertheless, batteries of exams given to ritual abuse defendants turned up virtually nothing unusual. This was especially remarkable when it came to women, since the few female child molesters mentioned in earlier medical literature had invariably been diagnosed as mentally retarded or psychotic.

But in the 1980s, rapidly increasing reports of incest included several cases with female perpetrators. Recent studies suggest that these women are unusually emotionally disturbed, abuse drugs, and were themselves incest victims. When molesting their children, they do it nonviolently, by fondling them during diaper changes, for example; and they often feel ashamed and turn themselves in. Others report helping their husbands molest their daughters. These women seem to share many traits with battered wives, and after escaping abusive marriages, some have willingly confessed their former complicity.

As soon as female incest offender studies were published in the mid-1980s, prosecutors of ritual cases rushed to pound the accused into the profiles. In most cases, it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to link ritual abuse defendants with incest offenders. Accused groups have usually contained more women than men, and that doesn’t fit the battered or dominated wife profiles. And virtually all the defendants have insisted they are innocent even after generous plea bargaining.

Nevertheless, zealous child protection authorities keep trying to suggest "profiles," even if it means fictionalizing defendants’ lives. In several cases, with no supporting evidence, officials have told journalists that the accused were "abused as children." In others, prosecutors have intimated that benign activities, often having something to do with sex, reflect psychopathology. In one case, a middle-aged married woman had an affair (with a man) while she was working at a preschool; one week, when she was considering leaving her husband, she signed the daily attendance sheet with her maiden name. At trial, the prosecutor displayed the signatures and implied the woman was mentally ill.

Another profile gained popularity after the 1985 Meese Commission hearing where critics of adult pornography were joined by spokespeople for the kiddie porn, missing children, and ritual abuse panics. Appearing with a chart supposedly describing confessed and convicted male sex abusers, the FBI’s Lanning advised cops to check whether a suspect seemed Regressed ("low self-esteem"); Inadequate ("social misfit"); Morally Indiscriminate ("a user and abuser of people"); Sexually Indiscriminate ("try sexual – willing to try anything"). Though this typology is about as scientific as a horoscope, Lanning, a vocal Satanic-conspiracy-theory skeptic, has cautioned his chart wasn’t developed for women or ritual abuse defendants – which hasn’t kept prosecutors from using it.

Even so, the search for a more convincing profile goes on. In response to true believers’ urgings, the federal government followed Meese Commission recommendations and funded studies that accept, a priori, the validity of ritual abuse charges. In 1985, the University of California at Los Angeles got $405,000 to monitor into adulthood the "coping" skills of children allegedly molested in local preschools, though authorities later dismissed virtually all their stories as unbelievable.

One researcher for this study is sociologist David Finkelhor, a self-styled sexual progressive and longtime colleague of feminist Diana Russell. Finklehor got a grant to profile day-care sex crimes. Again, most of the cases he researched had so many investigative and evidentiary flaws that they never made it to trial. Except for idle speculations, Finklehor found nothing remarkable in ritual defendants’ histories or personalities. But instead of asking if this meant the charges were false, he implied that since the accused are normal, being normal is part of the typology of the ritual offender. With this sleight of hand, the study, titled Nursery Crimes, immediately became a bible for child protection fanatics eager to supply incredulous communities and journalists with a "scientific" rationale for their paranoia.

The Margaret Kelly Michaels Case

The updating of ritual abuse hysteria with pop psychology is vividly illustrated in New Jersey’s Margaret Kelly Michaels case – the northeast’s version of McMartin. Michaels, a teacher at a suburban Newark day-care center, was accused in 1985 of assaulting preschoolers sexually with peanut butter, swords, bloodied tampons, urine, feces, and terroristic threats. She was said to have committed these crimes against dozens of children daily, for seven months, in a crowded facility, without any adults seeing her and without leaving any physical evidence.

After investigators made all the mistakes that characterized McMartin, they still had no evidence that Michaels was in a cult. So they searched for psychopathology. Again, nothing strange in Michaels’ background. They pressed on anyway. To fit her into the incest offender profile, prosecutors played up unfounded rumors that her father fondled her during jailhouse visits. At a preliminary hearing, they brought in the FBI’s Lanning to "instruct" the judge that women don’t have to be psychotic to molest children. Both in court and off the record, the prosecutors plugged Michaels into anything that passed for a profile, even those developed for men. They suggested she was "dissociated" – i.e., a multiple personality – because she did dance exercises at the day-care center while looking "spacey." They implied she was a pedophile – a term never before applied to women – because she took photographs at the playground. And the fact that Michaels adamantly insisted she was innocent was supposed to mean she was "morally indiscriminate." As proof of her cunning, prosecutors told the jury that during one psychological evaluation, Michaels drew a person with one foot turned inward; but another time she drew it pointed out!

With such nonsense offered – and largely accepted – as "motive," it was unavoidable that Michaels would be demonized for any sexual behavior not conforming to the strictest traditional standards. At her women’s college, for example, she had experimented with lesbianism. The prosecution insinuated that Michaels’ homosexual experiences and the fact that she had not slept with a man until age 25, were proof of "confusion" that would cause her to torture children. Michaels was ultimately convicted on 115 counts of abuse. The case against her, permeated as it was by the testimony of social workers and psychologists, exchanged open talk of Satanic conspiracies for a secular, feminist-sounding idiom that nevertheless couches a profound hostility towards women and a loathing for any erotic impulse.

Even children’s play with each other is becoming suspect. Abuse-finders now worry that preschoolers who play sexually with their peers may be "perpetrators" or pedophiles-in-the-making. CII, the Los Angeles clinic known for its abominable McMartin interviews, is now treating "offenders" as young as four years old if they have so much as "verbally cajoled" a younger child into sex play that CII deems not "normal." While researchers say most of the "offenders" were themselves sexually abused, the clinic’s history of eliciting false allegations makes any such claims suspect. More telling is the CII therapists’ disapproval that some of their little girl patients said they acted sexually not out of "love and caring," but simply "to feel good."

While such rhetoric may still be patently laughable, repressing older kids is another story. Teenagers are increasingly victimized by laws denying them access to birth control, confidential abortions, or a sense that sex is anything more than a deadly disease. The trend is now justified via the rhetoric of "child protection"; in Arizona, after a law passed mandating teachers and counselors to report sex abuse victims, officials in the state’s largest school district gathered the names of sexually active students and handed them over to the cops.

Edenton, North Carolina

Meanwhile, in divorce disputes and especially on the day-care front, hysteria continues unabated. Across the country, more and more losers in custody battles are accusing spouses of being Satanic cult sex abusers. And since 1989, the town of Edenton, North Carolina, has been disrupted by charges that five women and two men associated with an elite preschool molested, raped, and filmed sex acts with 70 young children and infants. Earlier in the investigation, officials said they had photographic evidence of the crimes, and the D.A. claims the children have made most of their allegations to therapists. But the only "evidence" to emerge is one Polaroid photo, found in a woman defendant’s home, of her having sex with her fiancé (an adult); at least one therapist is giving Satanism and ritual abuse seminars around the state, and some parents of the alleged victims are active in Believe the Children.

The North Carolina kids’ stories have unerringly followed the ritual abuse plot, progressing lately to tales of witnessing babies slaughtered. Perhaps not coincidentally, their most bizarre allegations began surfacing this past fall, around the time that 27 million viewers watched Do You Know the Muffin Man?, a CBS move that rehashed details from several ritual abuse cases, but included the wholly fictional climax of parents discovering day-care teachers worshipping the devil amidst piles of kiddie porn. Or maybe the North Carolina children saw an earlier Oprah Winfrey show in which a Jewish woman, accompanied by her Jewish therapist, claimed to be a survivor of childhood cult ritual abuse and added that Jewish families had been sacrificing babies since the 1700s.

The Lasting Damage Done by McMartin

A few months later, during the taping of the Geraldo post-trial show, the McMartin children and their parents sat under bright lights and gave their names. Back at a Los Angeles studio hookup, a girl sat in a darkened area, anonymous. She told how when she was five she used to spend after-school hours with Ray Buckey helping him clean up classrooms, yet he never molested her. She recalled going to CII during the investigation, and how the therapists kept suggesting the details of ritual sex games before they even started up the tape recorder. Then they turned it on, all the while telling her things she’d never heard of, and insisting she repeat them.

She wouldn’t, and now six years later, a boy sitting in the bright lights – one whose parents parade him on national TV and make speeches about Satanist sex abuse networks in Episcopal churches – glared at her silhouette and insisted she was really molested. The girl sat in the shadows, afraid to show her face or give her name. She and her family fear harassment – not for proclaiming she was raped, but for insisting she wasn’t.

As for the children who sat in the light, their parents have invested years believing in demonic conspiracies and underground nursery tunnels. (Until recently, the parents were still digging. They came up with Indian artifacts.) They have spoken unremittingly of such things, to the world and to their sons and daughters. They have told their children, over and over again, that they were abused, then rewarded them for acting traumatized. They have put them in therapy with adult fanatics who have done the same, and enrolled them as guinea pigs in the "research" projects of zealots.

The McMartin kids, and hundreds of others in ritual abuse spin-offs across the country, have spent years trapped in clans now extended to include psychologists, social workers and prosecutors –– clans whose identity derives from a tent-revival belief in their children’s imagined victimization. Right wing devil-mongers may find the subculture to their liking, but the rest of us ought to recognize the harm it is wreaking, not only on civil liberties and the falsely accused, but also on day-care, on women’s rights, and especially on children. Because the kids involved in this hysteria have indeed suffered, but not at the hands of their teachers. And the abuse perpetrated against them by the child-protection movement gone mad are every bit as awful as the tyranny of incest.