THE BLOG
12/21/2011 10:52 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Remember the Wave of Satanic Child Abuse Hysteria? You Should

The accounts of sexual predation involving coaches at Penn State and Syracuse haven't yet boiled over into a full-fledged moral panic, but there's good reason for the media to be mindful of that potential. It happened before, notably in the wave of hysteria -- and prosecutions -- in the 1980s and '90s over sweeping accusations of ritual sexual abuse at child day care centers from South Florida to the Pacific Northwest.

The scale of that lunacy is rarely discussed now, and to people who weren't around it's almost unimaginable. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in a tough 1998 series by reporters Andrew Schneider and Mike Barber, summed it up this way:

"During a prosecutorial fury that swept the country from 1980 to 1992, there were at least 311 alleged child sex rings investigated in 46 states... Children told stories that were appalling.... sex rings were run by Satanic cults, dozens of children raped by scores of adults, dozens of babies were killed and eaten, horses slaughtered in playrooms, children raped by men in black cloaks while the women waited in line for their turn."

The scathing P-I series was prompted by an especially egregious case that broke in 1994 in the small central Washington town of Wenatchee, where 60-some people ended up charged with 29,726 counts of abuse involving 43 children.

By then, a national pattern had emerged of inquisitorial fervor and investigative contrivance: Triggered by fears with paper-thin support, panicky parents -- some of them unstable -- would demand action. Preschool-age children would be coaxed by so-called experts to recall, or imagine, spectacular sexual atrocities from months or even years before. Their denials were counted as symptoms of repression, hence as confirmation. Physical evidence was rare. Adult "witnesses" were leaned on heavily to back prosecution theories. Scores of people were convicted and sentenced to outlandish terms; many eventually were freed on appeal, some are still behind bars.

"Satan's Silence," a riveting chronicle of that period by journalist Debbie Nathan and defense lawyer Michael Snedeker, recalls a 1994 survey conducted by Redbook in which 70 percent of respondents believed in the existence of "sexually abusive satanic cults." A poll of California social workers found 45 percent convinced of "a national conspiracy or network of mutigenerational perpetrators where babies, children, and adults are sexually assaulted, physically mutilated, or killed." By 1993 the American Bar Association found more than a quarter of the country's prosecutors had handled at least one case involving ritual abuse.

Now occasionally, the news media -- notably reporters at the Los Angeles Times, spurred by the six-year McMartin preschool trial, and Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz, disgusted by a New Jersey case -- showed enough spine to ask whether everybody had gone nuts. But this was rare. For the most part, newspapers and TV performed their customary, credulous roles as prosecutorial assets, soapboxes for the most colorful denunciations, dispensers of learned counsel to worried parents.

The media's complicity in this witch hunt constituted, to me, one of the worst instances of professional dereliction in contemporary journalism, although I've never seen it mentioned in media ethics texts.

None of that is meant to suggest the Syracuse and Penn State cases are baseless. The accusers there aren't tiny kids wheedled into confirming grotesque fantasies. The weight of evidence is alarming, and the allegations must be taken seriously. If anything, the media apparently deserve reproach not for chasing imaginary witches but for ignoring real ones -- enabling other boys to be hurt.

But the potential is worrisome. Sexual abuse of the young is an utterly incendiary topic. All parents harbor a knot of suspicion from that first day of school, when they send off the dearest and most fragile person in their lives to be cared for by strangers. Our system of nurture rests, unsteadily, on a delicate layer of trust, and without it the whole infrastructure of indispensable grownups crumbles -- the teachers, counselors, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, youth group heads, choirmasters.

The wider danger from the current scandals is in the plausibility they might confer on more hysterical and farfetched accusations, in the credibility that other accusers who shouldn't be believed might now be given, and in the vast deterrent effect they might have on the next generation of mentors. Those are people we will need to help raise the young, and who won't if their motives and proclivities will be doubted groundlessly, and if even a caring hand on a youngster's shoulder will be suspected as signaling suppressed yearnings.

So the media should proceed with care into the next phase of this scandal, and there's certain to be one. Their temptation, having deferred unwisely to the men now accused, may be to regard the journalistic sin they should most avoid as restraint. The lesson of the satanic child abuse hysteria is that zeal too has its costs.