March 7, 2014

Second of three posts

After our lengthy email exchange I took up editor Jon Conte on his offer to consider an expanded letter challenging the Journal of Interpersonal Violence’s past support of the “satanic ritual abuse” moral panic.

This is what I submitted on Oct. 25, 2013:

To the editor:

In December 1989 the Journal of Interpersonal Violence published “Stress Responses of Children to Sexual Abuse and Ritualistic Abuse in Day Care Centers” by Susan J. Kelley. In December 1990 it published “Ritualistic Child Abuse in a Neighborhood Setting” by Barbara Snow and Teena Sorensen. Both these articles endorsed, promoted and attempted to substantiate a concept that subsequent research has proven to be a quintessential moral panic. Today no respected social scientist will argue that satanic (or sadistic) ritual abuse ever existed in the nation’s day cares.

These articles in JIV, however, were unequivocally confident that it not only existed but also was widespread. From Kelley’s synopsis: “The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of sexual abuse and ritualistic abuse of children in day care settings. The sample was composed of 134 children; 67 children who were sexually abused and ritually abused in day care centers were compared on the Child Behavior Checklist with a carefully matched group of 67 nonabused children. Findings indicated that sexually abused children had significantly more behavior problems than did the nonabused children. Sexual abuse involving ritualistic abuse was associated with increased impact as well as increased severity in the extent of the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse the children experienced.”

Snow and Sorensen criticized “attempts to discredit victims and therapists” and seemed unaware that they were exposing the corruption of those therapists’ interviewing techniques when they wrote: “Disclosures were difficult and progressed slowly. The majority of children showed little symptomology at initial referral with significant increases during the disclosure process.”

The Little Rascals and McMartin cases were but two manifestations of this moral panic of  the 1980s and early 1990s. Dozens of less publicized prosecutions occurred across North America and as far away as New Zealand and Germany. The extensive literature illuminating the day care moral panic includes “Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend” by Jeffrey S. Victor, “Sex Panic and the Punitive State” by Roger N. Lancaster, “Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America” by Philip Jenkins, “The Satanism Scare” by David G. Bromley, Joel Best and James T. Richardson, “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance ” by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic” by Mary De Young and the latest edition of “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”  by Stanley Cohen – who coined the term “moral panic” in 1972.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Wee Care Day Nursery case in 1985. Among law enforcement reports debunking ritual abuse allegations the best known is “Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of ‘Ritual’ Child Abuse” by Kenneth Lanning, the FBI agent in the Behavioral Science Unit assigned to examine these cases. Similar reports have been issued in countries such as England (“Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse” byJ. S. La Fontaine), the Netherlands (“Report of the Ritual Abuse Workgroup”) and Australia (“Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service”).

Eventually the convictions of most of the day care providers in the United States were overturned.  Playing a major part in alerting appellate courts to the suggestibility of child witnesses was an amicus brief filed in the Wee Care case by pioneer researchers Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck.

Before the fever broke, however, untold harm was done to defendants,  families and child-witnesses. In the words of sociologist Mary De Young:

“Innocent people have been accused and convicted; the autobiographies of children have been usurped (and some children, now adults, have completely retracted their allegations); professional reputations have been destroyed (and some of the loudest proponents of the idea of ritual abuse have since retracted their claims); tens of millions of dollars were wasted on investigations and trials; it distracted attention, time, money and energy from ‘real’ cases of sexual abuse and from the fathers, brothers and other family members who most likely were the perpetrators; it made quality day care harder to find and drove out male providers who could have been valuable role models to children, especially boys; it eroticized abuse by focusing on rituals and masked and hooded perpetrators; it added nothing – absolutely nothing – to a clinical or scientific understanding of the traumatic effects of abuse because the trauma children experienced in these cases was iatrogenic, i.e., caused by investigators, interviewers, prosecutors and hysterical parents; it broke up families; and even dropped property values and interfered with commerce; and it introduced distrust, cynicism and incivility into our lives and into legitimate work on helping abused kids.”

The Journal of Interpersonal Violence should not allow these misguided articles from 1989 and 1990 to stand as its last word on claims of day-care ritual abuse.

Lew Powell

Charlotte, North Carolina

Alas, publication in the JIV now seems unlikely. Dr. Conte has not responded to my follow-up emails and phone messages over the past four months.  Why might that be?

Next: I’ll consider some possible answers.