The witch-hunt narrative is a really popular story that goes like this: Lots of people were falsely convicted of child sexual abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s. And they were all victims of a witch-hunt. It just doesn’t happen to line up with the facts when you actually look at the cases themselves in detail. But it’s a really popular narrative — I think it’s absolutely fair to say that’s the conventional wisdom. It’s what most people now think is the uncontested truth, and those cases had no basis in fact. And what 15 years of painstaking trial court research (says) is that that’s not a very fair description of those cases, and in fact many of those cases had substantial evidence of abuse. The witch-hunt narrative is that these were all gross injustices to the defendant. In fact, what it looks like in retrospect is the injustices were much more often to children.
The witch-hunt narrative is now the conventional wisdom about these cases. That view is so widely endorsed and firmly entrenched that so widely endorsed and firmly entrenched that there would seem to be nothing left to say about these cases. But a close examination of the witch hunt canon leads to some unsettling questions: Why is there so little in the way of academic scholarship about these cases? Almost all of the major witch-hunt writings have been in magazines, often without any footnotes to verify or assess the claims made. Why hasn't anyone writing about these cases said anything about how difficult they are to research? There are so many roadblocks and limitations to researching these cases that it would seem incumbent on any serious writer to address the limitations of data sources. Many of these cases seem to have been researched in a manner of days or weeks. Nevertheless, the cases are described in a definitive way that belies their length and complexity, along with the inherent difficulty in researching original trial court documents. This book is based on the first systematic examination of court records in these cases.
For all this talk about us being a nation at war with child abuse, and for all the media hype about witch-hunts and false allegations — and don't ever let anyone use the word witch-hunts about this; there were no witches — the fact remains that in 1994, it is extremely difficult to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse. And the external forces of denial are almost overwhelming. If a case as verified as mine meets with denial, I dread to think about the experience of people who don't have the kind of corroboration that I do. And I really worry that we're getting close to a point where it's going to be impossible to prosecute child molesters, because we don't believe children, and now we don't believe adults. (Cheit "Paper presented at the Mississippi Statewide Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect" Jackson, April 29 1994.)
interview from Ross E. Cheit about The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children (Oxford University Press, February 2014).In the foreword to your book you mention a book titled Satan’s Silence was the catalyst for your research. Tell us about that. Cheit: Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker solidified the witch-hunt narrative in their 1995 book, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, which included some of these cases. I was initially skeptical of the book’s argument for personal reasons. It seemed implausible to me that we had overreacted to child abuse because everything in my own personal history said we hadn’t. When I read the book closely, my skepticism increased. Satan’s Silence has been widely reviewed as meticulously researched. As someone with legal training, I looked for how many citations referred to the trial transcripts. The answer was almost none. Readers were also persuaded by long list of [presumably innocent] convicted sex offenders to whom they dedicated the book. If I’m dedicating a book to fifty-four people, all of whom I think have been falsely convicted, I’m going to mention every one of these cases somewhere in the book. Most weren’t mentioned at all beyond that dedication. The witch-hunt narrative is so sparsely documented that it’s shocking.
witch hunts” in the 1980s. There were big mistakes made in how some cases were handled, particularly in the earliest years. But even in those years there were cases such as those of Frank Fuster and Kelly Michaels that, I believe, were based on substantial evidence but later unfairly maligned as having no evidentiary support.
It is often said that Vietnam was the first television war. By the same token, Cleveland was the first war over the protection of children to be fought not in the courts, but in the media. By the summer of 1987 Cleveland had become above all, a hot media story. The Daily Mail, for example, had seven reporters, plus its northern editor, based in Middlesbrough full time. Most other news papers and television news teams followed suit. What were all the reporters looking for? Not children at risk. Not abusing adults. Aggrieved parents were the mother lode sought by these prospecting journalists. Many of these parents were only too happy to tell — and in some cases, it would appear, sell— their stories. Those stories are truly extraordinary. In many cases they bore almost no relation to the facts. Parents were allowed - encouraged to portray themselves as the innocent victims of a runaway witch-hunt and these accounts were duly fed to the public. Nowhere in any of the reporting is there any sign of counterbalancing information from child protection workers or the organisations that employed them. Throughout the summer of 1987 newspapers ‘reported’ what they termed a national scandal of innocent families torn apart. The claims were repeated in Parliament and then recycled as established ‘facts’ by the media. The result was that the courts themselves began to be paralysed by the power of this juggernaut of press reporting — ‘journalism’ which created and painstakingly fed a public mood which brooked no other version of the story. (p21)
It is worth — given the passage of time — recalling the basic architecture of the Crisis: 121 children from many different and largely unrelated families had been taken into the care of Cleveland County Council in the three short months of the summer of 1987. Behind these headline statistics were decades of neglect and/or misunderstanding of the issue of child sexual abuse, a long-running dispute between police and paediatricians over who should have primacy in the investigation of such cases and the presence of two dedicated paediatricians at Middlesbrough General Hospital. Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt had both understanding of, and training in, recognising the physical signs that a child’s body had been abused. One of these signs was — and still is reflex anal dilatation (RAD): a simple clue which is suggestive of anal penetration from outside. It had been recognised as a valuable weapon in the armoury of doctors examining children for many decades and was endorsed by both the British Medical Association and the Association of Police Surgeons. Yet by July 1987, the paediatricians were at the centre of a national storm of outrage — denounced by politicians, press, television and public opinion. The parents of the 121 children taken into care were lionised for their courage or portrayed as the victims of a monstrous witch-hunt. Their voices — sometimes their faces — dominated newsstands and television bulletins. When the courts seemed to be returning all their children to them, the nation seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, while simultaneously demanding the scalps of the paediatricians and social workers. (p18)In every case there was some prima fade evidence to suggest the possibility of abuse. Far from the media fiction of parents taking their children to Middlesbrough General Hospital for a tummy ache or a sore thumb and suddenly being presented with a diagnosis of child sexual abuse, the true story was of families known to social services for months or years, histories of physical and sexual abuse of siblings and of prior discussions with parents about these concerns. In several of the cases the children themselves had made detailed disclosures of abuse; many of the pre-verbal children displayed severe emotional or behavioural symptoms consistent with sexual abuse. There were even some families in which a convicted sex offender had moved in with mother and children. All of this information had been presented to the Butler-Sloss Inquiry. Virtually none of it had emerged from that inquiry into the public arena and certainly not into the vitriolic media coverage of Cleveland. To my colleagues and me this seemed initially impossible to comprehend: how could this have happened? How could truth have been turned on its head so completely? And why, given the apparent strength of the evidence, did the courts come to close their minds to these children's cases? (p20)
The people who were behind my abuse were very clever. They had created something which would be so difficult to explain, so difficult to make sense of, that it would be easier to dismiss it all out of hand as the ramblings of an over-imaginative child.Many people don't want to believe that child abuse exists, or are only willing to believe that certain kinds of abuse go on. They don't want to consider that something so horrific, and yet so widespread, is taking place in their community, perhaps only a door away from them, a few steps from their lives - or even in their lives if they would only open their eyes.I know this, not just because of my own personal experience, but through my work supporting and listening to survivors and those still experiencing abuse.To ask people not only to believe in the abuse but also to take on board all the details of what I'm revealing is a big step, and it has taken me many years to make the decision to tell my story, but it has to be done. This type of abuse is ongoing, as is the culture of disbelief to make people dismiss anyone who talks about it. This needs to be challenged. The things I'm telling you in this book have been kept close to me all my life; I have always known that talking of them, telling my full story, would make some people incredulous - but it's true. It's all true.Whatever the set dressing, they were rapists and abusers - just plain and simple/ The trappings that surrounded the abuse was just a way of creating something that would allow them to do what they wanted to, but which would also allow for confusion on our parts, and devotion on the parts of the 'followers'. I think this is what many people find so hard when they are asked to believe in this sort of abuse. It all seems so fantastical, so it's easy to dismiss. I'm not asking you to believe in any of that. I'm not asking you to believe in Satan, I'm not even asking you to believe in God. I'm just asking you to accept that there are some people who will go to extraordinary lengths to cover up the facts that they are abusing children.
While many experts insisted that children seldom lie about sexual abuse, others claimed that young children often failed to distinguish between fact and fiction and might be susceptible to suggestion and pressure on the part of investigators. As more of these allegations arose in custody and divorce cases in which one parent was being accused, the issue of deliberate malice and vindictiveness on the part of the accusing parent became a matter for consideration. Were these parents intentionally coaching their children to lie in order to punish a hated ex-spouse or to gain advantage in a divorce settlement? There were many professionals—lawyers, judges, clinicians, psychiatrists—who became convinced that this was the case. Articles in respectable publications like Time and Newsweek cited statistics indicating that fictitious allegations made by divorcing parents were on the rise, and lawyers were quoted describing sex abuse allegations as the ‘atom bomb of custody disputes.’ There were also parents—predominantly mothers—who found evidence suggesting a good possibility that their children had been sexually molested by ex-spouses. Sometimes a child’s disclosures or physical or psychological symptoms led a mother to seek medical or psychological advice. Often the suggestion that abuse had occurred came not from the mother but from a doctor or a psychologist. Initial shock and disbelief on the part of these mothers was followed with the hope and expectation that the proper authorities, to whom suspicion of abuse was reported, would conduct appropriate investigations and take the steps necessary to protect their children. Rapidly they found that the systems response was very different from what they had expected. As protective mothers in cases against fathers, these women were automatically labeled vindictive, malicious, and paranoid, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Suddenly they found themselves in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of courts and state-run systems, among lawyers, judges, social workers, and experts, where the end result was almost always the same—returning or delivering the child to the alleged molester. Could this really be happening in America? Coverage of high-profile cases in the respected print media tends to reflect the attitudes of a handful of very vocal, self-styled ‘experts.” They have fueled the widespread public perception that false allegations of child sexual abuse are appearing with increased frequency in custody cases. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, this belief has been adopted by many in the legal profession and by a sizeable segment of the mental health community. The purpose of this book is to challenge these misconceptions. Sex abuse allegations that occur during custody disputes are frequently presumed to be false because they have arisen during or just before a custody case, regardless of the evidence. Because of this presumption on the part of private professionals and public officials, when children who suffer incest become the subjects of custody disputes, often their outcries are not believed and they are not protected. Custody of such children is likely to be given to the very adults accused of molesting them. (page x)
Talk of "witch-hunts" conceals an inconvenient fact: men charged with rape stand a better chance of walking free than other defendants. The conviction rate in rape trials – 63 per cent in 2012/13 – is quite a lot lower. Prosecutors are taking a bigger risk when they bring rape cases to court, especially when the alleged offences happened decades ago, leaving no forensic evidence.The Independent, 9 February 2014
A cult is a group of people who share an obsessive devotion to a person oridea. The cults described in this book use violent tactics to recruit,indoctrinate, and keep members. Ritual abuse is defined as the emotionally,physically, and sexually abusive acts performed by violent cults. Mostviolent cults do not openly express their beliefs and practices, and theytend to live separately in noncommunal environments to avoid detection.Some victims of ritual abuse are children abused outside the home bynonfamily members, in public settings such as day care. Other victims arechildren and teenagers who are forced by their parents to witness andparticipate in violent rituals. Adult ritual abuse victims often includethese grown children who were forced from childhood to be a member of thegroup. Other adult and teenage victims are people who unknowingly joinedsocial groups or organizations that slowly manipulated and blackmailed theminto becoming permanent members of the group. All cases of ritual abuse, nomatter what the age of the victim, involve intense physical and emotionaltrauma.Violent cults may sacrifice humans and animals as part of religious rituals.They use torture to silence victims and other unwilling participants. Ritualabuse victims say they are degraded and humiliated and are often forced totorture, kill, and sexually violate other helpless victims. The purpose ofthe ritual abuse is usually indoctrination. The cults intend to destroy thesevictims' free will by undermining their sense of safety in the world and byforcing them to hurt others.In the last ten years, a number of people have been convicted on sexual abusecharges in cases where the abused children had reported elements of ritualchild abuse. These children described being raped by groups of adults whowore costumes or masks and said they were forced to witness religious-typerituals in which animals and humans were tortured or killed. In one case, thedefense introduced in court photographs of the children being abused by thedefendants In another case, the police found tunnels etched with crossesand pentacles along with stone altars and candles in a cemetery where abusehad been reported. The defendants in this case pleaded guilty to charges ofincest, cruelty, and indecent assault Ritual abuse allegations have beenmade in England, the United States, and Canada.Many myths abound concerning the parents and children who report ritualabuse. Some people suggest that the tales of ritual abuse are "masshysteria." They say the parents of these children who report ritual abuse areoften overly zealous Christians on a "witch-hunt" to persecute satanists.These skeptics say the parents are fearful of satanism, and they use theirknowledge of the Black Mass (a historically well-known, sexualized ritual inwhich animals and humans are sacrificed) to brainwash their children intosaying they were abused by satanists. In 1992 I conducted a study toseparate fact from fiction in regard to the disclosures of children whoreport ritual abuse. The study was conducted through Believe the Children,a national organization that provides support and educational sources forritual abuse survivors and their families.
far more cases (of ritual abuse) end in acquittal” than in conviction.In fact, 58% of the ritual abuse cases in the Finkeihor (1988) study that went to trial resulted in convictions. In the Kelly (1992b) study, convictions were obtained in 80% of the ritual and sexual abuse cases combined; since there were no significant differences between the rates of criminal conviction in these two groups, we can surmise that convictions were obtained in approximately 80% of the ritual abuse cases Kelly studied. Finally, and most significant given the thousands of cases studied, convictions were obtained in 11% of all ritual child abuse cases studied by Bottoms et al. (1991; 1993)."from Denying Ritual Abuse of ChildrenThe Journal of Psychohistory 22 (3) 1995
Not only do skeptics such as Lanning choose to ignore eyewitness/victim accounts of ritual criminal activity, they apparently also choose to overlook the significant number of cases of ritual abuse in which perpetrators have confessed to their crimes. In the Bottoms et al. (1991; 1993) study of 2,292 cases of ritual abuse, perpetrators in 30% of the child cases confessed to abusing one or more children, and perpetrators in 15% of adult cases confessed to perpetrating as well. In the case studied by Snow and Sorenson (1990), two adolescent perpetrators admitted to charges of abuse. Both of these sets of data require further analysis to determine which acts of ritual abuse were confessed to by what number of perpetrators.Corroboration and eyewitness accounts offered by children should also be given serious attention when therapists and investigators can demonstrate that no contamination of the children’s disclosures has taken place. In the case studied by Jonker and Jonker-Bakker (1991), children from different schools and different locales gave accounts of perpetrators, abuse locations, and abusive acts that were mutually corroborating. Accounts of tunnels under the McMartin preschool given by children claiming to have been ritually abused at the school were fully corroborated when the existence and location of the tunnels were documented by a professional team of archaeologists (Summit, 1994)."from Denying Ritual Abuse of ChildrenThe Journal of Psychohistory 22 (3) 1995
We must know something about malevolence, about how to recognize it, and about how not to make excuses for it. We must know that we cannot expect fair play.That is, perhaps, most crucial of all. Those of us who practice in this field must face the implications of the fact that we are dealing with sexual abuse. Child sex offenders-people who exploit children’s bodies and betray their trust-are not going to hesitate to lie outright. This is obvious but nonetheless frequently seems to catch people by surprise.Confessions of a Whistle-Blower: Lessons Learned Author: Anna C. Salter. Ethics & Behavior, Volume 8, Issue 2 June 1998
It is important to refuse to be intimidated. That refusal must not be based simply on a calculation of the odds of succeeding. At times, in my case, multiple lawsuits and an ethics charge seemed overwhelming, and the fact that I knew my work to be accurate and responsible was only partial solace. l was well aware that court, like the National Football League, is an arena in which, on any given Sunday, anybody can win.The refusal to be intimidated must come, in the end, not from a sureness of succeeding but from a knowledge of the cost of scurrying for shelter through fake retractions and disowned truths. It is a question, in the end of self-respect.Who among us could, in good faith, ever face a survivor of childhood abuse again were we to run for cover when pressed ourselves? Children are not permitted that choice, and the adults who choose to work with them and with the survivors they become cannot afford to make it. It would be a choice to become. Through betrayal and deceit, that to which we object.Our alternative, then, is not to hide. not to refuse to treat adult survivors, not to refuse to go to court in their defense, not to apologize and retract statements we know are true, but to cultivate endurance and tenacity as carefully as we read the research.Confessions of a Whistle-Blower: Lessons Learned Author: Anna C. Salter. Ethics & Behavior, Volume 8, Issue 2 June 1998
The discovery that detonated Cleveland is one of Britain’s great contributions to awareness of child abuse. In 1986 and 1987 the Leeds paediatricians Dr Jane Wynne and Dr Christopher Hobbs reported in the Lancet that they were seeing more children who were being buggered than battered. About 300 cases were corroborated. The children were young – two-thirds were pre-school children – and anal abuse was more common than vaginal penetration. They also noted that ‘boys and girls seem to be at similar risk’. Almost half of the children who suffered anal abuse also showed a sign written up in the forensic textbooks as ‘anal dilation’, an anus opening when it was supposed to stay shut; opening and expecting entry. What the paediatricians were observing was not an acute sign, the effect of a single intrusion – a spasm or seizure – but a sign that was telling a story about everyday life; the anatomy of adaption. Anal dilation seemed to describe the architecture of abuse: it allowed the body to receive an incoming object, regularly.
The survivor movements were also challenging the notion of a dysfunctional family as the cause and culture of abuse, rather than being one of the many places where abuse nested. This notion, which in the 1990s and early 1980s was the dominant understanding of professionals characterised the sex abuser as a pathetic person who had been denied sex and warmth by his wife, who in turn denied warmth to her daughters. Out of this dysfunctional triad grew the far-too-cosy incest dyad. Simply diagnosed, relying on the signs: alcoholic father, cold distant mother, provocative daughter. Simply resolved, because everyone would want to stop, to return to the functioning family where mum and dad had sex and daughter concentrated on her exams. Professionals really believed for a while that sex offenders would want to stop what they were doing. They thought if abuse were decriminalised, abusers would seek help. The survivors knew different. P5
Another preoccupation fed into this dynamic relationship between discovery and denial: does sexual abuse actually matter? Should it, in fact, be allowed? After all, it was only in the 19070s that the Paedophile Information Exchange had argued for adults’ right to have sex with children – or rather by a slippery sleight of word, PIE inverted the imperative by arguing that children should have the right to have sex with adults. This group had been disbanded after the imprisonment of Tom O’Carroll, its leader, with some of its activists bunkered in Holland’s paedophile enclaves, only to re-appear over the parapets in the sex crime controversies of the 1990s. How recent it was, then, that paedophilia was fielded as one of the liberation movements, how many of those on the left and right of the political firmament, were – and still are – persuaded that sex with children is merely another case for individual freedom?Few people in Britain at the turn of the century publicly defend adults’ rights to sex with children. But some do, and they are to be found nesting in the coalition crusading against evidence of sexual suffering. They have learned from the 1970s, masked their intentions and diverted attention on to ‘the system’. Others may not have come out for paedophilia but they are apparently content to enter into political alliances with those who have. We believe that this makes their critique of survivors and their allies unreliable. Others genuinely believe in false memories, but may not be aware of the credentials of some of their advisors.
(Talking about the movement to deny the prevalence and effects of adult sexual exploitation of children)So what does this movement consist of? Who are the movers and shakers? Well molesters are in it, of course. There are web pages telling them how to defend themselves against accusations, to retain confidence about their ‘loving and natural’ feelings for children, with advice on what lawyers to approach, how to complain, how to harass those helping their children. Then there’s the Men’s Movements, their web pages throbbing with excitement if they find ‘proof’ of conspiracy between feminists, divorcing wives and therapists to victimise men, fathers and husbands.Then there are journalists. A few have been vitally important in the US and Britain in establishing the fightback, using their power and influence to distort the work of child protection professionals and campaign against children’s testimony. Then there are other journalists who dance in and out of the debates waggling their columns behind them, rarely observing basic journalistic manners, but who use this debate to service something else – a crack at the welfare state, standards, feminism, ‘touchy, feely, post-Diana victimhood’. Then there is the academic voice, landing in the middle of court cases or inquiries, offering ‘rational authority’. Then there is the government. During the entire period of discovery and denial, not one Cabinet minister made a statement about the prevalence of sexual abuse or the harm it caused.Finally there are the ‘retractors’. For this movement to take off, it had to have ‘human interest’ victims – the accused – and then a happy ending – the ‘retractors’. We are aware that those ‘retractors’ whose parents trail them to newspapers, television studios and conferences are struggling. Lest we forget, they recanted under palpable pressure.