Monday, March 10, 2014

The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria & False Accusations Over Child Abuse

NY Times   Early in the 19th century, two unmarried women who ran a school for girls in Edinburgh found themselves accused by a student of being lesbians. The charge, quite grave in that era, was baseless, and in time the women won a libel suit. But not before they had lost everything, including their school. If this story rings a bell, it may be because Lillian Hellman used it as a starting point for “The Children’s Hour,” her 1934 play about a couple of schoolteachers whose lives similarly come unraveled after a malicious student falsely accuses them of lesbianism.

It has long been said, in varying language, that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. You do not have to reach back 200 years to Scotland to find enduring wisdom in that adage. You need return only to the 1980s and to the subject of this week’s Retro Report documentary video, part of a series re-examining news stories from the past. This week’s subject is the notorious McMartin Preschool abuse trial.

Starting in 1983, with accusations from a mother whose mental instability later became an issue in the case, the operators of a day care center near Los Angeles were charged with raping and sodomizing dozens of small children. The trial dragged on for years, one of the longest and costliest in American history. In the end, as with the Scottish women, lives were undone. But no one was ever convicted of a single act of wrongdoing. Indeed, some of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?

Still, McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details.

Criminal cases of dubious provenance abounded. One that received great attention involved Margaret Kelly Michaels, convicted in 1988 of rampant sexual abuse at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, N.J., where children said she had sexually abused them with knives, spoons and forks, and had urinated in their mouths. None showed signs of injury. Six years later, Ms. Michaels’s conviction was overturned. Another prominent case from those days involved charges of rape and sodomy brought against the operators of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C. As with McMartin, there were bizarre allegations early on about babies being murdered and children thrown in with sharks. Though defendants were found guilty, their convictions were later overturned and charges were dropped.[...]


  1. riveting

    We can't underestimate the yeitzer of finding someone to blame. It's the ole anti-Devil hysteria that overtakes Xty from time to time. SOMEone has got to be the bad guy...

    1. yy I disagree with your statement. I think it is a reaction to fear that children are being hurt. With the awareness that questioning can elicit horror stories from children as well as implant memories - this type of hysteria is much less than it was 30 years ago. However as Nachlaot has shown the problem is still with us.

    2. I think it's both. There is certainly fear of children being hurt... but as that documentary showed it, there was NO corroborating evidence except for statements by young children. That's absurd to use that to destroy a perfectly respectable adult's life.

      What drives communities to build up such a witch hunt type of mentality, blind to the facts, is, in my opinion, an hysterical need to find an enemy.

      It comes in many forms.

      Not truth, not prevention, but need for revenge and to fantasize that the "problem" lies outside our own arba amos.

      Again - don't misconstrue this to say I oppose investigating claims of child molestation. It's the hyper need to find and villify "the enemy" that concerns me.

      Weber, for instance, was not the problem. He might well deserve to be behind bars. But there is SO much more that is responsible for what that lady suffered than just that man.

    3. yy the reports make clear that the primary problem is the assumption that children will always give accurate reports. This is only true if they are not asked leading questions and primed with information. In other words they will rarely spontaneous make up a false report. These cases involved a lot of priming by investigators who thought they were helping the children.

    4. DT, the evidence in this documentary makes clear that this little girl gives a highly damning report of the doctor's "molestation" NOT in response to leading questions.

      Look again.

    5. yy yes in some cases such as with the doctor - questioning with a doll can also elicit false testomony. However the majority of problems as presented in the video and report come from leading questions and priming

    6. Your confirmation strengthens my thesis. If such a kind doctor-experience can be so easily and un-misleadingly twisted in a child's recollection, and numerous cases of innocent lives have been ruined based on such testimony - and we know that HALACHA certainly doesn't allow for a child's testimony to have such weight - then we must presume there is a deeper, problematic need driving those who are so fervent about demonizing anyone a kid points a finger at.

    7. yy we have two alternatives 1) false testimony can be elicited from children by using certain techniques 2) Man has to have a bad guy.
      Since explanation #1 explains the evidence and can be replicated and its parameters reliably defined - then why do you feel a need to focus on #2?

    8. one of the accused in NachlaotMarch 11, 2014 at 3:26 PM

      DT Having been one of the accused in Nachlaot and therefor witnessing this in the first person, I would strongly side with yy in this argument.
      It becomes very convenient to demonize rather than dealing with ones own problems in life. When all of ones problems are caused by some outside factor, then we can say my children have these problems because they were molested. or I am so messed up because I was molested. Rather than dealing with their 'issues'.It also gives a person meaning and focus in their life to demonize others.

    9. The problem for your explanation and why it doesn't support yy is that people are accused when there is no apparent problem that needs to be blamed on someone. Wild accusations come from mentally ill people and they are accepted. A child makes some random comment and after examination with leading questions - the believe that molesting occurs. These investigators view themselves as dilengently and righteously protecting children. It doesn't require the pre existence of a problem that needs to be blamed on someone.

      In short this is not the same thing as scapegoating which we find regarding racisim or anti Semiticism.

    10. DT, the need to demonize those who illicit fears in us is much more complex than you're making it out. Granted, it's not the same kind of pathology as antisemitic scapegoating, but tzarikh iyun.

      I'll try to spell out more of what I understand about the complexities of demonizing scary people when I have more time...

  2. The issue may still be a sensitive one in the mental health profession, if the conflictedness of Psychiatric Times is any indication:
    Psychiatric Times retracts essay on “satanic ritual abuse” (at the Retraction Watch blog, February 13, 2014)


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