Thirty years ago, Judy Johnson of Manhattan Beach, Calif., took her 2 1/2-year-old son, Matthew, to the pediatrician, fearing he had been sexually abused by his preschool teacher.You can read about the McMartin preschool trial or Day care sex abuse hysteria on Wikipedia.
By today’s standards, the medical evidence in Matthew’s case was inconclusive: He had a rash on his bottom and rectal bleeding. But at the time, his symptoms were viewed as serious cause for concern. And so Matthew’s trip to the doctor began one of the longest, most expensive and notorious criminal investigations in American history.
As other parents at the McMartin Preschool heard about Ms. Johnson’s suspicions, the investigation expanded to dozens of families. A Los Angeles grand jury charged Raymond Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the preschool, and six others with 321 counts of sexual abuse involving 48 children.
The accusations mounted, and went wild. Children said they’d watched McMartin teachers dig up corpses, that they’d been forced to drink rabbit’s blood. At a hearing before the trial, a prosecutor observed, “The kids are falling apart.”
In the end, after seven years and $15 million, the case fell of its own weight, ending without a single conviction.
McMartin was the first of a series of prosecutions in the 1980s that have come to be seen as a collective witch hunt, in which panicked parents and incompetent investigators led children to make up stories of abuse by adults at day care centers and preschools.
So why is this old story in the news? Because some joker, with his own victim-of-child-abuse story, has written a book complaining that exposing the witch-hunts has diminished the credibility of child abuse accusations.
The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children. By Ross E. Cheit. Oxford University Press. 544 pages. $49.95.I believe that people are innocent until proven guilty, so I was happy that the McMartins were eventually acquitted and the public was convinced that it was a hoax. I lived near the McMartin school during the original media frenzy, and we had daily front-page news stories about it.
But what if the skeptics went too far? What if some of the children were really abused? And what if the legacy of these cases is a disturbing tendency to disbelieve children who say they are being molested?
Those are the questions that frame this new book by Ross E. Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who spent nearly 15 years on research, poring over old trial transcripts and interview tapes.
His conclusion about the McMartin case is that the outcome was “doubly unjust.” While he acknowledges that some defendants were falsely accused, he argues that Mr. Buckey was probably guilty, meaning that some of the children were not only sexually abused but “have been demeaned by the witch-hunt narrative’s assertion that the entire case was a ‘hoax.’ ”
I remember the day that I stopped believing the stories. A front page newspaper headline said that the McMartin school was a ringleader for a 7-state child porn network. But the story failed to say that any pictures had been recovered, or how they were passed around, or even what the 7 states were. The article did not quote any defense spokesman or anyone with the obvious skepticism.
It seemed inconceivable to me that they could somehow know of a 7-state child porn network without recovering any pictures. I never believed any of the official stories about the McMartin school again.
This book author seems to have the attitude that even if 95% of the accusations were demonstrably false, it is still possible that some the remaining 5% was true.