THE BLOG
07/11/2014 12:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014

Mythical Numbers and Satanic Ritual Abuse

It's a mythical number that skeptics never question. And it's come up again and again in the national press for decades.

It's purportedly the number of victims from the infamous child sexual abuse cases of the 1980s and 1990s. Not child victims, though. The victims are said to be adults who were falsely charged and often convicted of sexual abuse, victims of a witch-hunt.

Christina Hoff Sommers used the number just a few weeks ago in a Time column, referring to those cases and writing that "hundreds of innocent adults faced charges of ritual child abuse."

She was echoing a January article in Slate, "The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse" by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, that claims people, who "number in the hundreds," had been accused of satanic ritual abuse by the end of the 1990s.

Sometimes the time period is shorter and the number smaller. In a February 19, 2014, column in The Nation, JoAnn Wypijewski limited the time scope: "In 1990, when the McMartin Satanic ritual abuse case finally ended in acquittals in Los Angeles, dozens of women and men were in jail elsewhere for fictional abuse."

The list goes back over the years. On November 18, 2011, Richard Beck, an associate editor at n+1, wrote of satanic abuse that "hundreds of people were sent to jail on these imaginary charges." In conjunction with the 1998 Frontline program, The Child Terror, writer Debbie Nathan increased the number: "Across the country, untold thousands of innocent people have been harassed during sex abuse investigations, terrorized, separated from their children, jailed and sometimes imprisoned."

The number of accused or jailed is always impressive. The abuse is always dismissed as imaginary. The cases are always cast as witch-hunts, with a narrative typically full of lurid details. The alarming words ritual or satanic -- sometimes both -- are often added for good measure.

It's a narrative that resonates with American history, echoing Salem and the McCarthy hearings.

And it's a story the country is eager to believe. We'd rather think that adults are falsely accused than acknowledge that children have been sexually abused and then discredited. The witch-hunt narrative has been bolstered by scores of articles and books, most prominently Satan's Silence - Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt by Debbie Nathan and defense lawyer Michael Snedeker. Nathan and Snedeker dedicate their book to fifty-some people they say were falsely imprisoned for satanic ritual abuse, the longest specific list of such alleged victims.

But the numbers don't add up.

There's no evidence of hundreds of cases of false convictions of child sexual abuse in this era. In my new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, I examine dozens of specific cases from the 1980s and early 90s that are said to be wrongful prosecutions or wrongful convictions. Aided by dozens of research assistants, I spent fifteen years doing the painstaking work of original trial court research to figure out what kind of evidence actually existed in these cases, including those on Nathan and Snedeker's list.

In many of the cases proclaimed to be witch hunts, looking closely at the record revealed substantial evidence of abuse and compelling reasons that jurors voted to convict. It's true that I also found cases where people were charged who shouldn't have been. Yet even in some of those cases, there was strong evidence of abuse. A crime was committed and a child was assaulted by someone who was never apprehended, but only the false accusation story lives on.

The three longest chapters in my book examine high publicity cases that came to define that era: McMartin Preschool, Kelly Michaels and Frank Fuster. In each of these key cases, prosecutors had good reason to investigate and bring charges. McMartin expanded to include innocent defendants; the other two cases did not. Another chapter covers, in less detail, many of the cases across the country that fall into the often repeated "hundreds of cases" claim.

McRobbie's article in Slate focuses on one of those, the 1992 conviction of day care owners Dan and Frances Keller for aggravated sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl. (The Kellers were recently paroled and they are seeking a judicial declaration of their innocence.) In her retelling, which has the hallmarks of the typical witch-hunt narrative, McRobbie plays up the fantastic elements of a "satanic ritual abuse panic" while dismissing the actual evidence of abuse. To start with, the article's title is misleading. The couple was not charged with, or convicted of, satanic ritual abuse.

McRobbie provides bizarre details to paint a convincing, although inaccurate, picture of grave injustice. She opens with a list of "atrocities" such as "dismembering babies in front of the children" and "putting blood in the children's Kool-Aid." Then she writes vaguely that the jury believed "the Kellers had committed at least some of these acts." Which "atrocities" did the jury believe were committed? She doesn't say. Which were brought up at trial? She doesn't say that, either. How does she know the jury believed any of them? Again, we aren't told. The jury didn't convict the Kellers of any of the listed "atrocities." The atrocity the Kellers were charged with was sexually assaulting a preschooler, and that's what the jury convicted them of.

What about the satanic ritual abuse in McRobbie's title? Some parents and others connected with the case believed there was ritual abuse. But the case did not begin that way, and the charges did not involve such claims. And nobody is convicted of sexual assault based on what parents believe. As McRobbie admits, the topic of ritual abuse came up in the courtroom not because the prosecution raised it but because the defense did. It was a defense tactic certain to inspire eye-catching headlines -- even twenty-two years later.

McRobbie emphasizes only what strengthens her story, including details which weren't part of the trial. She devotes almost 300 words to an interview with a 5-year-old boy even though the interview wasn't used to convict the Kellers. At the same time, she leaves out information that would weaken her narrative. For example, on the day that the 3-year-old complained to her mother about Dan Keller pulling down her pants and spanking her at day-care, she later screamed while she was urinating, "It hurts, it hurts." That prompted her mother to take the preschooler to the emergency room.

The emergency room doctor found what he believed were two physical indications of sexual abuse: "what appeared to be lacerations of the hymen" and "a tear of the posterior fourchette," a fold of skin on the vagina. It might surprise readers to learn that a year after the 1991 added emergency room visit, the doctor "didn't have any independent recollection" of the exam and testified entirely from the medical records. McRobbie omits that fact in reporting that, when contacted by a newspaper in 2009, the doctor described a revelation that supposedly happened "years after" the trial. We don't know what year. But according to Dr. Mouw, while attending a professional training seminar, he saw a slide about normal variations in hymens and realized that what he thought had been lacerations in the Keller case were probably innocuous. In 2013, Dr. Mouw filed an affidavit to this effect. Notably, the affidavit does not withdraw his finding of a vaginal tear, which had been the more certain of his original findings. (For more information see my blog post here.)

It might also surprise McRobbie's readers to know that Douglas Perry, a friend of the Kellers, confessed to being at a beer-and-sex party where adults sexually abused a boy and a girl who were under the Kellers' care. He said that, "Fran had a pen and was sticking it in and out of the little girl's vagina." He identified the 3-year-old girl from the trial in a videotape. Perry later recanted his confession, but he also pleaded guilty to "indecency with a child by contact." Why not let readers consider all of this evidence?

There is one more significant fact that McRobbie omitted. When the family of one of the children in day care brought a civil lawsuit, a friend claimed that Frances Keller had confided in her about Dan Keller's "abusive habits towards children." Surely most readers would find that important.

The Kellers' attorney calls the case "a modern-day literal witch hunt." But is it? While I agree that the case took on some aspects of a moral panic, involving children and parents far beyond the original charges, it is much less clear whether an injustice was done.

Near the end of her piece, McRobbie links the Keller case to the case of Frank Fuster, writing, "As far as we know, only one other person remains in prison on a conviction stemming from the satanic ritual abuse panic: Frank Fuster." Again, she has it wrong. The conviction was for child sexual abuse, not satanic or ritual abuse. And it didn't stem from a panic.

The Fuster case originated with a child spontaneously talking about being abused. That clear statement caused two families to withdraw their children from Fuster's home daycare, which they did without informing anyone else. Months later, a spontaneous statement from a different child, started an investigation by law enforcement. An articulate 5-year-old boy was soon located, who gave several detailed statements that were later corroborated in various ways. The case was tagged by some as "satanic ritual abuse" because children made statements about Fuster wearing masks, killing a bird and playing with feces. Those allegations quietly disappeared from the witch-hunt narrative when adult testimony and photographic evidence corroborated these statements. But the satanic tag lived on. The leading academic psychologists on child suggestibility still claim that the case was filled with "fantastic" elements like "riding a shark." But the only child who said anything close to that was describing a Jacques Cousteau program. Hardly a matter of satanic ritual abuse.

When the charges emerged in the home daycare case, Frank Fuster was on parole for sexually assaulting a 9-year-old two years earlier. The jury that convicted Fuster in 1985 was unaware of this prior conviction. But others who have embraced Frank Fuster as innocent know about it and claim that lighting struck twice -- Fuster was innocent the first time, too. But the fact is that Fuster admitted in his parole violation hearing on the 1984 charges that, in the course of driving the girl home, he made her sit on his lap and he touched "her chest area" and "her vagina area." Nevertheless, Fuster is one of the names that Nathan and Snedeker included on their dedication list.

To understand the witch-hunt template that has been applied to Fuster and the Kellers, we need to go back to the most infamous child sexual abuse story, the 1984 McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California. In its wake, more cases were publicized around the nation. For the first time, child sexual abuse was covered extensively in the press.

But then the McMartin case mushroomed out of control. What began as a charge against one defendant grew to encompass seven. Some of those involved were convinced that a child's silence or denial meant the child had been abused. Some interviewers believed that, if a child mentioned an adult, that incriminated the adult, no matter how equivocal the statement. Charges also became less and less credible, with stories about tunnels under the day care center and a farm visit where children saw a horse beaten to death.

At first the media didn't question the allegations. Television and print reporters, while adding the requisite word "alleged," reported increasingly fantastic details as fact. People magazine called the McMartin preschool a "sexual house of horrors."

Here's what makes the media coverage in McMartin significantly different from the cases that followed: the publicity started weeks before the D.A. charged anyone with crimes. (Usually the publicity in sexual abuses cases comes after the investigation and charges.) The media and public grew increasingly vocal about the lack of charges, convinced there had been horrible crimes that nobody was addressing. The D.A., who'd been appointed to fill a vacancy and would soon be up for election, came under intense political pressure to act. Failing to scrutinize the evidence, his office rushed the case to grand jury and then significantly overcharged it.

But after those first years of unquestioning coverage, the tide turned. Charges against five of the seven were dropped after the preliminary hearing. Daycare director Peggy Buckey was acquitted of most charges and the judge dismissed a final charge after a hung jury. As to the final defendant, Peggy Buckey's son Ray, jurors deadlocked twice on charges against him. The charges were dropped after the second hung jury.

Those in the media who'd embraced the bizarre stories not only reversed their position; they also came to realize they'd been gullible. As media critic David Shaw wrote in the Los Angeles Times after the trial ended, the media "didn't light a match within three miles of the D.A.'s feet during the first year or two of the case." Early on, reporters simply hadn't asked the prosecution hard questions.

Chastened, the media largely stopped covering such cases. What arose instead was a new narrative to explain the period we had just been through -- the narrative of a witch hunt.

Soon dozens of cases that were not like McMartin and had none of its fantastical elements were pegged as witch-hunts "just like McMartin." Labeling other cases from the 1980s and 1990s as "just like McMartin" obscured the fact that many of them cases were brought to trial because there was serious evidence of sexual abuse, including the McMartin case.

If a witch hunt consists of one part moral panic and one part injustice, McMartin comes closest of the high-profile cases. At least five people who never should have been accused had their careers and reputations ruined. They suffered a monumental injustice. If there is only one McMartin story to be told, that is the story we will hear. And indeed, it is still being told, most recently by Hoff Sommers in Time and in a March Retro Report, in the New York Times titled "McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic."

Yet there is more than one way to look at McMartin. What is missing from the legitimate tale of fantastical claims is the equally legitimate reality that there was credible medical evidence of sexual assault.

For almost 25 years, the story has been one in which parent Judy Johnson supposedly panicked and set off the witch hunt. Retro Report repeated this charge as did Hoff Sommers. But what did Judy Johnson do to set off the "witch-hunt?" She saw a spot of blood on her son's anus and called the police, who told her to take him to a doctor, which she did. She was then referred to a pediatric specialist, who reported to the Manhattan Beach Police Department that "the victim's anus was forcibly entered several days ago." That's why the original defendant, Ray Buckey, was arrested.

Retro Report, despite its stated goal to "peel back the layers of some of the most perplexing news stories of our past," buys in completely to the conventional telling of McMartin. Its video disposes of the rest of the medical evidence with a single claim that nothing was "definitive." They don't tell their audience that even the defense lawyer, Danny Davis, allowed that the genital injuries on one girl were "serious and convincing." (His main argument to the jury was that much of the time that this girl attended McMartin was outside the statute of limitations.) They don't mention that vaginal injuries on another girl, one of the three involved in both McMartin trials, were described by a pediatrician as proving sexual abuse "to a medical certainty."

Perhaps the biggest omission in Retro Report, like other media accounts of McMartin, is the fact that in both trials, many jurors believed the original defendant Ray Buckey was guilty and voted to convict him. Within an hour after the first trial ended in a hung jury, seven jurors held a press conference to announce that they thought children had been sexually abused. They spoke about the difficulty in proving such claims "beyond a reasonable doubt."

So even McMartin wasn't "just like McMartin." The original arrest was based on credible medical evidence of sexual assault. Yet this side of the story is largely lost to history, replaced by the much simpler narrative of an outrageous witch hunt.

But that was then and this is now, right? Unfortunately not. The problems, as I discuss in my book, go beyond the distortion of the historical record about these cases. There's the larger truth that, as the witch hunt narrative took root, prosecutors became increasingly reluctant to bring cases, the media sided with the defense, and children were less likely to be believed -- all based on a narrative that is at its core inaccurate.

Children are now subject in some states to "taint hearings" before the trial, hearings in which a judge rather than a jury decides if a child is a reliable witness after having gone through the interviewing process. This can occur even if there were corroborating witnesses or strong medical evidence. If the judge finds the child unreliable, no trial takes place, thus removing the decision from the hands of a jury. If the judge deems the child a reliable witness, the ordeal for the child isn't over. He or she then has to endure testifying again, during the trial itself.

This reflexive disbelief of children has real-life impacts: research shows that future health outcomes for abused children depend, to a significant extent, on whether the child is believed. When they are not, it adds injury (not just insult) to injury.

Another serious consequence of the witch-hunt narrative's popularity is that it shifted the media's focus. Even though the media got a lot wrong at the beginning of McMartin, their focus was on the sexual abuse of children and the increased recognition of it as a serious problem. That focus has largely disappeared. Now, while the media publicizes sexual abuse stories about celebrities and cover-ups of abuse in the past, and repeats the mythical numbers from the witch-hunt narrative, they overlook a real number that concerns real victims -- the number of children being sexually abused today. It's a major public health problem that gets almost no attention at all.

While this type of crime is, not surprisingly, difficult to quantify, studies over many years have found that 20 percent of women and 5 to 10 percent of men report having been sexually abused as children. Just last month, a study in the American Journal of Public Health showed much higher rates of male victimization than previously thought. There's every reason to believe that child sexual abuse is still widespread. Yet how often do the media delve into that real problem? How often do they examine the enormous gap between the number of children -- judging from studies -- being abused today and the number of their abusers who end up in court, much less in prison?

To be sure, in media coverage of an issue, the pendulum can swing far one way with stories growing ever more sensational, and then swing back. What's unusual here is that, for the most part, the pendulum has been stuck off to one side -- where the witch-hunt narrative prevails and the real abuse of children is minimized -- for more than 20 years. It's time to start focusing on sexual abuse of children today.

And it's long since time to subject witch-hunt claims to healthy skepticism, casting aside convenient narratives and replacing them with a careful and unbiased look at all of the evidence.

Ross E. Cheit is professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. His new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, was juts published by Oxford University Press.