Civil Liberties

The Return of Moral Panic

A scholar tries—and fails—to rehabilitate the sex-abuse hysteria of the '80s.


The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children, by Ross E. Cheit, Oxford University Press, 508 pages, $49.95

Twenty years ago, the elderly owner of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California; her daughter, grandson, and granddaughter, who worked at the day care center; and three female teachers were charged with unspeakable crimes against children. The allegations, which included not just sadistic sexual abuse and the production of child pornography but Satanic rituals, became fodder for newspaper headlines and breathless TV reports. After a three-year trial that remains the longest and costliest in United States history, the case ended in 1990 without a single conviction.

By then, the panic about pedophile rings and devil-worshiping cultists lurking in child care centers had already spread nationwide, with dozens of new stories springing up from coast to coast. In one of the most sensational cases, 24-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels, who had worked at Wee Care Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey, was convicted in 1988 on 115 counts of molesting 20 children ages three to five.

Five years later, Michaels's conviction was overturned after appellate courts found that the children's testimony was hopelessly tainted by suggestive and coercive questioning. This ruling, the Brown University political scientist Ross Cheit writes in his new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, marked "a turning point" in the backlash against a perceived hysteria around child sexual abuse—"a major shift in the press, academia, and the courts." Under the new view, the day care child abuse cases of the 1980s were irrational witch hunts that swept up the innocent and victimized the very children they were purporting to protect. By the time the movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial aired on HBO in 1995 to near-universal acclaim, this perspective had gone fully mainstream.

Cheit sets out to provide a counter-backlash. While he admits that there was some "overreaction" and injustice to innocent people—including "five, possibly six, of the seven defendants" in the McMartin case—he argues that the "Satanic panic" hysteria is a myth rooted in exaggeration and distortion. His argument is twofold: first, that the number of cases involving outlandish claims of large-scale molestation with ritual-abuse aspect is too small to sustain the notion of a national witch hunt; second, that many of the defendants, including Michaels, were almost certainly guilty.

Is Cheit's revisionism convincing? Much of his analysis, especially of the McMartin and Michaels cases—which take up more than a third of the book—relies on materials to which the reader does not have ready access, such as trial transcripts, investigation records, and author interviews. Thus, whether the book succeeds in making a dent in the witch-hunt narrative depends, to put it bluntly, on whether we can trust Cheit to give a fair and accurate account of this material. A close look reveals enough evasions, highly tendentious interpretations, and verifiable inaccuracies to conclude that we cannot.

Take the McMartin case. In Cheit's view, the only male defendant, Raymond Buckey, really was a child molester, and his actions may have been abetted by his grandmother, McMartin Preschool owner Virginia McMartin. As proof, he points to allegedly strong medical evidence of abuse in several children, as well as what could be considered unusual sexual behavior by Buckey.

Regarding the former, Cheit himself acknowledges that "changes in medical knowledge that occurred between 1984 and the late 1980s" cast doubt on much of the expert testimony for the prosecution: It is now known that anal and genital inflammations and lacerations in young children, once believed to be clear signs of sexual abuse, also occur frequently in kids who were not abused. But he asserts that for several children, including three-year-old Matthew Johnson—whose mother, Judy Johnson, was the first parent to raise the alarm about alleged sexual abuse at the McMartin Preschool—examinations yielded "evidence that seems significant even with the benefit of advancements in medical knowledge" (emphasis added). At times, Cheit admits that this evidence is inconclusive and hopelessly compromised by overdiagnosis.

As for Raymond Buckey's suspicious behavior, it boils down to testimony that he often walked around preschool grounds wearing loose shorts and no underwear, resulting in occasional accidental exposure; that he was once seen reading Playboy "with kids on his lap"; and that neighbors sometimes saw him masturbating in his bedroom without turning the lights off or pulling the window shades down. (While Cheit writes that "several neighbors" mentioned this to the police, the notes cite a statement from just one couple.) All this may be inappropriate, but it is hardly enough to indicate that someone is a child molester.

Cheit severely undercuts his own credibility when he sets out to rebut the claim that "the McMartin case was started by the delusions of a crazy woman"—Judy Johnson, who died of alcohol poisoning in December 1986. Cheit concedes that by the summer of that year, Johnson was clearly unstable and paranoid. (He leaves out the fact that she was hospitalized for a psychotic episode much earlier, in March 1985.) But he argues that it was probably the McMartin case that brought on her mental instability, not the other way round. Says Cheit, "What is taken as an article of faith—that Judy Johnson was delusional from day one—is flatly contradicted by all of the available evidence."

As proof, Cheit invokes Glenn Stevens, the prosecutor who left the district attorney's office in January 1986 due to doubts about the McMartin case and gave extensive recorded interviews to screenwriters Abby and Myra Mann (the husband-and-wife team that went on to co-write Indictment) shortly thereafter. According to Cheit, Stevens told the Manns that Johnson had no mental health issues when she first reported her son's alleged abuse in August 1983 and was a "great" witness at the preliminary hearing in July 1984.

Yet in 1990, Stevens told the New York Times that "Judy Johnson was psychotic before she filed the first police report." And Cheit's insistence that "there is no evidence…that Johnson was mentally unstable" in August 1983 elides the fact that over the next several months, her allegations grew increasingly bizarre. By December, she was talking about children being taken to a car wash and a ranch to be molested. In February 1984, according to a deputy D.A.'s notes, her reports featured Satanic rituals in a church involving a goat, a lion, and the sacrifice of an infant whose blood her son was forced to drink; her son's ears, nipples, and tongue being stapled; and the claim that at some of the church orgies, Raymond Buckey "flew through the air."

In the Wee Care case, Cheit seeks to rebut the belief that the grotesque accusations against Kelly Michaels—who was said to have penetrated children with plastic utensils and made them perform oral sex, drink her urine, and eat her feces—were the product of an overzealous investigation in which kids were coaxed and badgered into disclosing abuse. (The panic was initially triggered by a little boy's comment, while having his temperature taken rectally by a nurse, that his teacher did this to him at school. Though he clarified that "her takes my temperature," his comment was taken as a reference to being sodomized.) While conceding that there were highly improper interrogations, Cheit argues that none of them involved children who actually testified at trial—and that a number of children did, in fact, make extremely damaging spontaneous disclosures and exhibit shocking sexualized behavior.

This contradicts the conclusions of the New Jersey State Superior Court, which clearly stated in its opinion overturning Michaels's conviction that all the children were exposed to improper influence—from investigators, parents, or classmates. According to the ruling, "The record of available interviews does not disclose that any of the children related their testimony of the alleged abuse by 'free recall.'" Cheit relies on parents' accounts of incriminating child statements and disturbing symptoms of abuse, but we only have his word that these accounts were not tainted by their context as well.

Yet Cheit's bias is evident throughout his counter-narrative. He is intent on reading something sinister into the fact that Michaels left her job at Wee Care shortly before the investigation began and into a teacher's testimony that Michaels once mentioned she wasn't wearing underwear. He mentions a psychologist's evaluation of Michaels as "sexually confused" without revealing that this determination was based largely on her possible homosexuality (Michaels had had some sexual experiences with women in college) as well as uncorroborated speculation about incest in her family. He omits the fact that, as Debbie Nathan reported in The Village Voice in 1988, a second expert who evaluated Michaels found "absolutely nothing" to suggest sexual pathology.

In a particularly deplorable innuendo, Cheit asserts that Michaels "wrote a 'poem' in her preschool roll book that contained arguably lurid lines" and that she was oddly evasive when asked about it. In the endnotes, he quotes only bits and pieces ("the smell of your flesh," "your body will leave me") on the grounds that the full text may be "copyright-protected by Kelly Michaels." He also says that this "strange" poem is quoted in Lisa Manshel's 1989 book Naptime, a pro-prosecution account of the Michaels case.

Intrigued, I ordered a copy of Naptime. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Are you
going about this
the wrong way?

He says what do you want?
I say, Hey, what did you say?

But I know
with the smell of your flesh, (I know)
in a flash as you dress
your body will leave me.

What's "lurid" and "strange" is the suggestion that this verse somehow incriminates Michaels as a likely child molester.

Cheit examines a number of other cases that have been described as day-care witch hunts (saving a major one, that of the Fells Acres Day Care Center in Massachusetts, for a future book). He claims that some of them don't fit the witch-hunt narrative at all because, for instance, they don't include allegations of Satanic rituals—even though, by that strict standard, the Michaels case doesn't fit the profile either. And he argues that while some of these cases did involve grave injustices to innocent defendants, most have strong evidence of guilt which the "narrative" leaves out.

I fact-checked, as best I could, one of his case summaries. It involved Sandra Craig, a Maryland-based preschool owner who was found guilty of molesting a six-year-old girl and was charged with abusing nearly a dozen more children (but never went to trial on those charges because her conviction was dismissed and the case collapsed). Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a hodgepodge of facts, half-truths, and evasions.

Cheit stresses that the prosecution's medical expert found several girls at the day care facility to have "remarkably consistent" vaginal scarring similar to the girl Craig was convicted of abusing. He doesn't mention that this testimony was called into question on appeal, or that the girl was discovered to have named other perpetrators at various times, or that other child witnesses recounted such implausible acts as being anally violated with a screwdriver and buried in a box. He mentions that Craig's teenage son, Jamal, was also accused of child molestation, but he leaves out the fact that it was Craig herself who called social services to report that a girl had complained of sexual abuse by Jamal. He says Craig's defenders hyped the claim that she killed a rabbit as alleged proof of a Satanic ritual element in the case, and that they neglected to acknowledge that there really was a rabbit at the preschool and that it died. But the existence of the rabbit—which is, in fact, brought up in one of the appellate briefs for the defense—hardly supports claims that Craig bludgeoned it to death in front of the preschoolers. That the children's fantasies had some link to reality doesn't make them any less fantastic.

Do all these cases add up to a nationwide witch hunt? Cheit scoffs at claims of hundreds or even thousands of hysteria-driven child abuse cases. But even if there have been some exaggerated estimates, he ignores or brushes aside compelling evidence that the day-care sex abuse/ritual abuse panic in the 1980s (and even the early 1990s) was very real. While Cheit acknowledges the media hype surrounding the issue, he makes only passing mentions of the Los Angeles County Ritual Abuse Task Force, which he admits "followed dozens of 'leads.'" He does not mention the congressional hearings on the subject, or investigations such as the one conducted by University of California-Davis psychologist Gail Goodman for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. In a sample of nearly 7,000 psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who returned a questionnaire Goodman and her team sent out, 11 percent had encountered alleged ritual abuse allegations involving child victims and 13 percent had encountered cases of adults who believed they were survivors of ritual abuse. None of those cases could be substantiated.

Cheit almost completely ignores the phenomenon of adult "survivors" discovering, usually in therapy, "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse. Yet this was closely related to the child abuse hysteria, and it generated equally lurid and bizarre allegations. Nor does he acknowledge non-day-care cases in which such claims resulted in lengthy investigations, arrests, or even convictions. Ray and Shirley Souza, an elderly Massachusetts couple, were convicted of molesting their two granddaughters in 1993, based on fantastic accusations first elicited in therapy, and remained under house arrest until the sentence ended in 2002. In Pennsylvania in 1991, Richard and Cheryl Renee Althaus were charged with abusing their daughter Nicole, a troubled teen who had fallen under the influence of a teacher obsessed with the Satanic peril; eventually, Nicole began to claim that her parents were cult members and had used her to breed babies for sacrifice. (The case fell apart after FBI agents were brought in to look into the girl's allegations of kidnapping and homicide. Not surprisingly, they quickly realized these were fabrications.)

If it sounds like Cheit has an agenda to push, that may be because he does. In the preface, he claims that his personal interest in the subject stems mainly from his volunteer work with convicted sex offenders. But there is a more personal dimension, too: As a boy, he was molested by the administrator of a summer camp (who later corroborated the abuse in a taped telephone conversation). These experiences faded from Cheit's memory for years until he read a book on sexually abused boys. In his discussion of Cheit's story in the 1995 book Victims of Memory, journalist Mark Pendergrast notes that it's far from clear whether Cheit actually repressed the memory and whether he believes massive repression of memories is possible. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, Cheit emerged as a vocal polemicist against critics of the recovered-memory phenomenon.

The Witch-Hunt Narrative is a continuation of this crusade, with Debbie Nathan—whose reporting played a major role in the exoneration of Kelly Michaels—as Cheit's principal bête noire. (Nathan says that she provided Cheit, at his request, with important materials for his research. Her name does not appear in the acknowledgements.)

Cheit believes the witch-hunt narrative has harmed society, arguing that it has encouraged a dismissive and skeptical attitude toward children's reports of sexual abuse. Yet some of the cases he cites as proof of this dismissiveness ended in convictions that were upheld on appeal. Several times, Cheit returns to the cover-up of Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky's molestation of children as emblematic of our culture's failure to take child abuse seriously enough. But the Penn State fiasco had nothing to do with mistrusting children's claims and everything to do with bureaucratic incompetence and willful blindness to the misdeeds of a high-status local hero.

It is ironic, or perhaps symbolic, that this book has arrived in the midst of a new wave of sex-crime hysteria. Just recently, in the impassioned debate over the sexual molestation charges against Woody Allen, such feminists as Jessica Valenti and Roxanne Gay revived the call to "believe the survivor." The same mind-set also appears in the current campus climate of pressure to accept virtually all allegations of sexual assault regardless of evidence. Despite Cheit's attempted debunking, the lesson of the witch-hunts still stands: Emotion-driven, faith-based crusades against repellent crimes are a grave danger to justice.