“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878
depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family
How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors
destroyed the lives of seven innocent North Carolinians – and
have yet to admit they were wrong
Steinem made case for believing the unbelievable
Sept. 1, 2015
“[As witnesses] children are even less likely to be believed when their stories involve extremes of sadism, collusion among families and communities (sometimes extending over several generations) and so-called ritual or cult abuse – including the torture and killing of animals to frighten children into silence – that are so terrible that authorities decide these things just can’t be true.
“Yet many instances of such ‘incredible’ crimes are documented, sometimes by adults after years of suppressed memory, sometimes by authorities who are now beginning to believe children enough to investigate their stories.....”...
– From “Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem” by Gloria Steinem (1993)
Steinem’s semi-autobiography was a best-seller, both profiting from and contributing to the nation’s heightened concern with self-esteem.
Dog bites man: ‘Paper will not be retracted’
Aug. 26, 2015
In November 2012 the journal Nursing Research declined my request to retract Susan J. Kelley’s 1990 article based on the existence of “satanic ritual abuse” in day cares. The editor contended that “Conditions that would lead to a retraction are not present.”
Nursing Research having since installed a new editor, I recently tried again. This time I was able to include two important academic developments: Richard Noll’s expose of the “satanic ritual abuse” movement in Psychiatric Times and Dr. Allen Frances’ personal apology for failing to do more to challenge that movement.
This is an excerpt from the response I received from editor Susan J. Henly, professor emerita, University of Minnesota School of Nursing:
“As I understood it, your argument for retraction [of ‘Parental Stress Response to Sexual Abuse and Ritualistic Abuse of Children in Day-care Centers’] was based on the rationale that: the title embraced and promoted the existence of ritual sexual abuse in day cares that did not exist, and that not a single respected academic or professional would be willing to give credence to claims about ritualistic sexual abuse from the times during which the research was conducted.
“In response, I re-read Kelley et al. (1990) many times, reviewed background information, contacted the author, and communicated with the editor of another journal that has published papers on child sexual abuse by Dr. Kelley. Documents related to the original peer review of the Nursing Research paper are not available, and the Editor (Dr. Florence Downs) who accepted the paper is deceased.
“I searched for other papers on this topic from the 1980s to the present and did not locate any, including other original research by Dr. Kelley, that had been retracted. I discussed the methods of the research with Dr. Kelley; she verified what was stated in the paper, which I found to be in accord with expectations for scientific standards and ethical conduct of research. The editor I contacted about a related paper said the journal stood by the integrity of their review process and quality of the scholarship that had been published.
“With regards to issues related to credence of claims about ritualistic sexual abuse, Finkelhor, Williams, Burns, & Kalinowski (1988) included this sort of abuse in their national study of sexual abuse in day care. More recently, Salter (2013) provided a critical overview of debates arising from allegations of organized sexual abuse and addressed issues related to terminology. (Dr. Michael Salter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Western Sydney). Also, a book by [Ross] Cheit (2014) summarized scholarly work that uses empirical data to challenge the view that cases from the 1980s were based on moral panic of the type described in your message. (Dr. Cheit is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University.)
“Findings from the many papers (thousands) in the peer-reviewed literature focused on the forensic, sociological, political, family and health aspects of child sexual abuse will no doubt, with time, contribute to better understanding that can be used to keep children from harm as well as protect the rights of those wrongly accused – both issues that are of critical importance to all citizens.
“Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to publications that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon (Committee on Publication Ethics, n.d.). Criteria for retraction of a paper include: clear evidence that findings were unreliable, the paper was redundant or plagiarized, or the research was conducted unethically.
“Using the process described above, I did not find evidence of any of these concerns in Kelley (1990). For this reason, the paper will not be retracted.”
Dr. Henly’s rejection letter is thoughtful and earnest, and I appreciate the time and effort it required. Some editors would’ve simply ignored me. But it is far too narrow, blindered to the big picture. This is from my response to her:
“The ‘satanic ritual abuse’ day-care moral panic is prominently in the news media these days with publication of ‘We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s” by Richard Beck. Unlike Ross Cheit’s revisionist “The Witch-Hunt Narrative,’ Beck’s book already has been positively reviewed in such periodicals as the New York Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. It is the long-awaited standard history of this era, and it establishes clearly that “satanic ritual abuse” was no more than a toxic myth.
“Your citations in defense of Dr. Susan J. Kelley’s article do nothing to disqualify your first criterion for retraction: ‘clear evidence that findings were unreliable.’
“The ‘ritualistic abuse of children in day-care centers’ motivating the article simply never happened – what evidence of unreliability could be clearer?
“Would Dr. Kelley today argue otherwise?”
‘Antifeminism’ to blame? Not so fast, Mr. Beck
Aug. 24, 2015
“[Richard] Beck is generally restrained in his narrative, letting the details pile up to a well-deserved indictment of the many players in the ‘moral panic.’ But in explaining how these fever dreams managed to seize the national imagination, he does a little witch-hunting of his own. The frenzy, he tells us, was a backlash by family-values conservatives to the social changes around them. It was a period of ‘an intense reactionary antifeminism.’
“This is an inexcusably partial interpretation. From Beck’s own evidence, feminists themselves were vital players in the hysteria. Gloria Steinem donated money to the McMartin investigation, and Ms. Magazine ran a 1993 cover article ‘BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists,’ even though, by that time, the general public had grown increasingly skeptical of the idea.
“In part because of her aggressive pursuit of child abusers – and conviction of a number of people later exonerated – a relatively unknown Dade County state attorney named Janet Reno was picked by President Clinton to become the nation’s first female attorney general. According to Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, the authors of ‘Satan’s Silence,’ [Kee] MacFarlane had been a lobbyist for NOW before she set about terrifying the children of Manhattan Beach.
“With his partisan recounting of the child abuse panic of the 1980s, Beck turns what could have been a careful history about one facet of the nation’s exhausting culture wars into one more illustration of them.”
– From “ ‘We
Believe the Children,’ by Richard Beck” by Kay Hymowitz
in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (Aug. 21, 2015)
I’m posting this criticism of Beck’s book – from an otherwise laudatory review – mostly for archival purposes. My own interest lies less in the tangled roots of the day-care panic than in its results: defendants wrongfully incarcerated, children profoundly misguided and therapists and prosecutors unjustly unscathed.
When imaginary crime leads to real punishment
Aug. 20, 2015
“In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine testified on behalf of an elementary-school teacher who had been accused of being a pedophile.
“A child had told his mother that the teacher had taught them about ‘boobies and dicks’ and had drawn a picture on the blackboard that sounded suspiciously to the mother like an image of an ejaculating penis.
“The police had raced to the classroom and confiscated the damning evidence: several copies of ‘Moby-Dick.’ What the teacher had drawn was a whale and its spout.
“Looking back, we can see that the only boobies involved in this case were the adults. But whenever we are in the midst of a moral panic, as we were in the 1980s, we feel that our alarm is reasonable and that punitive solutions are appropriate.
“Dicks? That child knew the word ‘dicks’? Cancel sex ed! Run that teacher out of town!...”
– From “A
Very Model Moral Panic” by Carol Tavris in the Wall Street Journal (Aug.
Prosecutors misused bail to squeeze defendants
Aug. 16, 2015
“In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it....
“Across the criminal-justice system, bail acts as a tool of compulsion, forcing people who would not otherwise plead guilty to do so....”
– From “The Bail Trap” by Nick Pinto in the New York Times (Aug. 13)
Could there be a more bare-faced example of “excessive bail” than that set for the Edenton Seven?
Bob Kelly, $1.5 million (later reduced to $200,000 – after his conviction was overturned – then $50,000 )
Betsy Kelly, $1.8 million (reduced to $400,000)
Scott Privott, $1 million (reduced to $50,000)
Shelley Stone, $375,000
Dawn Wilson, $880,000 (reduced to $200,000)
Robin Byrum, $500,000 (reduced to $200,000)
Darlene Harris, $350,000
Did prosecutors fear that the defendants would flee to Argentina? That they would prowl the town’s playgrounds in search of new victims? No, these absurd amounts surely had no purpose but to coerce confessions. How shocked and disappointed they must have been that not one of the defendants, though crushed financially, succumbed.
Aug. 10, 2015
Since I undertook this blog in 2011, I’ve been waiting for a mass-market book that recalls the “satanic ritual abuse” day-care era with authority, insight and thoroughness.
“We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s” comes pretty darn close to meeting that standard. (I do wish author Richard Beck had addressed the significant post-panic contributions of Richard Noll and Allen Frances.)
I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and later an interview with Beck.
Meanwhile, I’ve been pleased to see the reviews in the news media – so far, all largely appreciative.
“...This book does a devil of a job correcting... all the lies and self-deceptions, so credulously believed in the 1980s....”
– From “Child Abuse Cases Endure as Lessons in Hysteria” by Mark Oppenheimer in The New York Times (Aug. 6)
“ ‘We Believe the Children’ should serve to remind us of the dangers of the ‘we must believe the victim’ mindset in the case of any criminal offense. A faith-based pursuit of justice can lead to a miscarriage of justice.”
– From “What Fueled the Child Sex Abuse Scandal That Never Was?" by Lizzie Crocker at the Daily Beast (Aug. 3)
“ ‘We Believe the Children’ reveals the various combinations of ignorance, venality, arrogance and zealotry that characterized the major players who fueled the moral panic.”
– From “A Very Model Moral Panic” by Carol Tavris in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 7)
Immunity lets off miscreant prosecutors scot-free
Aug. 9, 2015
“Suppressing evidence, coddling informants, even outright lying are some of the instances of prosecutorial misconduct that sent away nearly half the 1,621 people convicted for crimes they didn’t commit since 1989, according to the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations. These are only the cases we know about, surely only a small fraction of the wrongly convicted....
“In a 2011 report on 707 such cases, only six prosecutors [none in “satanic ritual abuse” day-care cases] were disciplined. Almost all still have their licenses, and are still practicing law....
“Prosecutors are granted immunity for most kinds of misconduct. It’s easy to see the reasons for this policy: otherwise, every well-heeled convict would sue, clogging the system and making it impossible for prosecutors to do their jobs. At the same time, that immunity is so absolute that prosecutors simply get off scot-free, even when misconduct is established. Even worse, most states lack any meaningful oversight of prosecutors: no commissions, no review boards, nothing.
“America is the only country in which many prosecutors are elected.... The disciplinary commission that sanctioned Mike Nifong – prosecutor of the Duke lacrosse team on false rape charges – noted his upcoming primary election as a motivating factor for his misconduct. The pressure to produce wins has led to a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality in some offices, especially when voters reward such behavior.”
– From “It’s Not Just Bad Cops: Prosecutors Run Wild” by Jay Michaelson at the Daily Beast (Aug. 8)
For whatever reason, voters in the First Judicial District declined to “reward such behavior” by Little Rascals prosecutors H. P. Williams Jr. and Nancy Lamb. District Attorney Williams failed to win re-election in 1994, and Lamb lost her bid for DA in 2014.
Injustice without amends: ‘We should be ashamed’
Aug. 4, 2015
“Some have drawn parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the false accusations of sexual abuse that sweptc America in the 1980s. The difference is this:
“Those falsely accused in Salem got public apologies from their accusers and reparations. No such luck for the dozens of day-care workers and others who were falsely accused and imprisoned in modern-day America.
“We should be ashamed.”
– From “How
the daycare child abuse hysteria of the 1980s became a witch hunt,”
a review of “We Believe the Children,” by Maura Casey in the Washington Post (July 31)
I’ll have more soon on Richard Beck’s important new addition to the “satanic ritual abuse” bookshelf.
The Little Rascals case in brief
In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent's complaint about punishment given her child.
Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth "Betsy" Kelly, Robert "Bob" Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.
Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.
By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina's longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did.
Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series "Frontline." Although "Innocence Lost" did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.
With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.
This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.