When Satan Was Spotted at Head Start

A professor tries to rehabilitate ritual-abuse prosecutions of the 1980s and '90s.


Ross Cheit's new book The Witch-Hunt Narrative is a revisionist take on the Satanic panic of the 1980s and '90s, attempting to make the case that "there was not, by any reasonable measure, an epidemic of 'witch hunts' in the 1980s." The National Center for Reason and Justice, which advocates for people it believes have been falsely accused or wrongly convicted of crimes against children, has posted a long rebuttal to Cheit's text. Here's a sample:

The devils come to school.

Cheit marshals extensive minutiae to "prove" that Nancy Smith, a middle-aged, white Head Start bus driver in the 1980s, was guilty as convicted: that she joined with a black ex-con Joseph Allen to take the children from Head Start and ritually molest them at Smith's and Allen's homes. But he deletes the exculpatory evidence contained in a clemency petition for Smith, filed in 2012 by the Ohio Innocence Project. Cheit glancingly refers to the petition, but not to its meticulously documented contents.

For instance, he goes on at length about the accusing children's knowledge of a pink dress Joseph Allen allegedly wore while molesting them. He does not say that the children were told about items in Allen's home before they were questioned—so it's no surprise they could describe the dress to the police. He does not mention that in the Allen lineup, only one of four of the alleged victims picked Allen. The rest picked other men. Parents can be seen on video whispering into their child's ear while the child was picking from the lineup. One even moved their child's arm toward Allen. Cheit omits the letter from initial lead investigator Tom Cantu to the Ohio Innocence Project (Jan. 25, 2007) stating that he had interviewed the children involved in the complaints and that they all denied that Nancy Smith had done anything to them. Cantu, now a sheriff's deputy in Las Vegas, said he never believed charges were warranted and told his superiors as much.

And Cheit neglects the most glaring piece of evidence of Smith's and Allen's innocence: Head Start attendance records, attached in an appendix to the clemency petition, show the children were at preschool on the days and times they were supposedly at Smith's and Allen's homes being molested.

There is much more, which you can read here.

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  1. I think an even more interesting question raised by the whole witch-hunt debacle is: why were parents so easy to rope into it? Why were so many parents completely willing, almost seemingly eager, to believe their children had been molested, even when the evidence seemed thin or absurd, to the point that they would push their kids to lie or make things up? If the kid has to be coached, isn’t it more likely that nothing happened in the first place? There’s a nasty bloodthirsty undercurrent to the whole thing.

    1. Perhaps there’s something about human nature that has a tendency to believe the worst about other people. And the fact that people seem to love to be morally indignant.

    2. the kid has to be coached, isn’t it more likely that nothing happened in the first place?

      The fact that you had to coach your kid merely proved that their memories of being molested were repressed, and all the more horrifying for that.

  2. there was not, by any reasonable measure, an epidemic of ‘witch hunts’ in the 1980s

    If by epidemic, we mean a big increase in witch hunts, then he may be right. The Satanic child molester panic may not have been an aberration, merely a highly publicized but otherwise ordinary travesty of justice.

  3. Spire Christian Comics– I remember those!

    I was always amazed that they were somehow able to get the rights to do their own version of Archie. If anyone is wondering, the picture is from Archie’s Something Else by Al Hartley (who seems to be the only writer and artist that Spire had).

    (Interesting fact– Al Hartley was the primary artist {and maybe writer– I’m not sure} on Marvel’s old Patsy Walker series. Patsy later went on to marry the Son Of Satan in the ’80s. I always wondered what Al thought about that.)

  4. OT (sort of):

    Did your parents apologize for the Satanic Panic? (focuses on the “D&D is of the Devil” scare)

    1. You sugarfree’d the link.

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