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The Witch Hunt of the 1980s

Who remembers the witch-hunt that took place in the 1980s? Anybody who really knows me at all knows that I have been sexually abused. I was raped when I was a virgin. I was 15 years old. What most people don't know is I was also molested as a child.

I remember watching in horror in the 1980s when it was reported that a daycare center owner and her workers had sexually abused the children that were in their care. I could not believe it. I remember thinking it has to be true because all of those children wouldn't say it happened if it didn't. Children wouldn't lie about sexual abuse. How could they tell stories of sexual abuse unless it happened? Kids don't know about stuff like that on their own. Well, the kids weren't recounting these stories on their own. They had help from the adults. Now, I know that kids are capable of lying especially if they are coached into doing so.

I know first-hand that sexual abuse is insidious. Sexual abuse is a horrific crime. Children are usually abused by their relatives or family friends. Nonetheless, 30 years ago, America was described as experiencing an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in day care centers. Parents all over America questioned their children about what was happening in day care. Admittedly, I would've questioned my child too. However, some parents, social workers, and the police did more than question children once the McMartin case emerged.

With allegations that emerged of sexual abuse, people panicked. More allegations emerged of satanic rituals and even human sacrifice, particularly in the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California. The McMartin Case dragged on for more than six excruciating years. The allegations persisted despite the fact that there were no missing people, no bodies and no evidence to support the claims. The accused were innocent.

Geraldo Rivera added to the hysteria by airing a two-hour special, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” I watched that special. It aired right before Halloween. I remember saying: "There is a special place in hell for people who sexually abuse children." In retrospect, I commented that way because I was mad that I had been sexually fondled when I was a child.

"We believe the children" became both the unofficial motto of advocates for the prosecution and a catch-all response to those few who asked whether the accusers had completely lost their minds. The approach was based largely on the work of psychiatrist Roland Summit, who claimed that, of every 1,000 children who say they were sexually abused, only two or three are guilty of inventing or exaggerating. He also said it was normal for children who had been sexually abused to retract their claims and say they made it all up. The upshot: No matter what children said, they were sexually abused, and if you didn’t believe them, something was wrong with you. Yet “believing the children” glossed over the fact that, often, adults believed only what they wanted to hear. In the McMartin case, the social workers who interviewed children not only considered Summit’s theory as gospel but interrogated (not too strong a word) the children repeatedly, becoming more bullying with each session. When one child denied seeing a game called “Naked Movie Star” played at his preschool, the therapist replied: “Well, what good are you? You must be dumb.” Police were often no better. In one instance, when a child said “I don’t know” to a question about sexual games, the policeman said: “Did he take your underpants off? Can you say yes? Say yes.” As a Minneapolis Star Tribune story later reported, “Therapists acted like cops and cops acted like therapists . . . social workers went along on a search warrant party.” Predictably, many children subjected to repeat interviews “confessed” that the abuse happened. The McMartin case wasn’t the only example of such trauma inflicted on children. In Scott County, Minnesota, where 22 people were arrested on sexual abuse allegations, an 11-year-old boy was removed from his home after his parents became the target of allegations. He was interrogated on an almost daily basis for two months. Finally, he gave in and said that his parents had participated in orgies. “I was sick of being badgered,” he later explained. Another boy, after being interviewed 74 times, had a breakdown. Journalists began to question this by around 1990. It helped that a jury found the McMartin defendants not guilty on 52 counts and deadlocked on 13 others. But from time to time, the panic would resurface. In the mid-’90s in Wenatchee, Washington, a police lieutenant became convinced of the existence of a child sex ring in his small city of 22,000 and eventually filed more than 29,000 counts of child sex abuse against 43 people, resulting in 18 convictions. Nearly all the convictions were set aside by the end of the decade. The aftereffects continue. The cases added to the “get tough on crime” movement, which sapped power from judges as neutral arbiters of the law and gave police and prosecutors a vested interest in putting those accused in prison. And for all the day-care hysteria, the United States neither mandates paid family leave to help parents care for their babies at home nor subsidizes affordable child care. Motherhood may be sacred, but mothers are on their own. Some have drawn parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the false accusations of sexual abuse that swept America in the 1980s. The difference is this: Those falsely accused in Salem got public apologies from their accusers and reparations. No such luck for the dozens of day-care workers and others who were falsely accused and imprisoned in modern-day America. We should be ashamed.

I hope you guys didn't mind that long quote by Maura Casey who used the book We Believe The Children-A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck as her reference point. This topic is important to me. I have dedicated my higher-learning schooling and time to learning about sexual abuse and its horrible aftermath. In addition, I lived it. I can't imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused of the heinous crime of sexual abuse. When I realized along with America that the kids had been shown different sexual acts with the dolls and they were being told what to say, my mind was blown. I took a class called Women & The Law at the University of Michigan that taught me more about this case. The McMartin Case always makes me remember that everyone who is accused isn't automatically guilty. Instead of saying that there is a special place in hell for child molesters. I now say I wonder if that is true. When we know better, we do better.

Here I am purposely engaging in living an inspired life!


Rachel Mason


Mar 18, 2022

Great read!

Mar 18, 2022
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