Chapter 9:And a Little Child Shall Lead Them (and Be Led)
Is it not plain that the people had frightened their children with so many tales that they could not sleep without dreaming of the devil, and then made the poor women of the town confess what the children said of them?
–Francis Hutchinson, Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718), describing the 1669
“seduction” of 300 children in Mora, Sweden, which resulted in the burning of 85 “witches”
While the search for repressed memories began in earnest only after the publication of The Courage to Heal in 1988, it was preceded and augmented by another witch hunt in which little children were led to accuse innocent adults of sexual abuse. Although this book focuses primarily on the adult recovery of supposedly repressed memories, the cases involving preschoolers are equally distressing, often resulting in unnecessarily traumatized children and lengthy jail terms for people who committed no crimes. As we will see, the two phenomena–induced child accusations and adult recovered memories–are not only parallel, but often interact with one another within the same family.
As a result of increased awareness of the true horrors of child abuse, Walter Mondale championed the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974. This landmark legislation offered matching federal funds to states which passed their own laws mandating that doctors, psychologists, police officers, teachers, nurses, and other professionals report any suspected child abuse to the appropriate child protection agency. The act offered anonymity and immunity from prosecution to anyone reporting child abuse. Those who failed to report suspected abuse faced fines or prison sentences.
The legislation has produced a self-sustaining bureaucracy of social workers, mental health experts, and police officers who specialize in rooting out sex abuse. The more cases they find, the more funds they receive, and the more vital their jobs appear. The result? Beyond question, many cases of actual abuse have been brought to light. But tragically, the legislation has also encouraged false accusations that have ruined the lives of innocent people. A network of self-righteous child protective service workers has blanketed America, eager to find offenses, even in cases where little or no evidence exists. A rumor or malicious allegation is enough to start the wheels rolling. Often, children are taken away from parents without notice, and the accused are arrested without ever being questioned. Those seeking an exhaustive investigative report on the day care cases should read Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt , by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, describing how, in the authors’ words, “the psychotic delusions of a few individuals were translated into public policy.”
McMartin: the First Day-Care Scandal
In August of 1983, in Los Angeles, Judy Johnson–diagnosed later as a paranoid schizophrenic–noticed that her two-year-old’s bottom was red and decided that he had been sexually abused. She called the police. Although the boy could not speak in complete sentences, uttering only the occasional single word, the police assumed that the mother was correct. They did not question the diagnosis of sexual abuse, but at first, it wasn’t clear who had sodomized the boy. Perhaps it had been someone in the park. Soon, however, after repeatedly questioning the child, the mother and police became more certain. It was 25-year-old Ray Buckey, one of his day-care teachers at the McMartin Preschool.
Without further investigation or observation of the day-care center, on September 9 the local California police sent a letter to 200 McMartin parents, warning of “possible criminal acts” such as “oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttocks or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of taking the child’s temperature.” As a result, concerned parents began questioning their children intensely. They also called one another and compared notes. The young children–most of whom were three or four–at first denied that anything bad had happened to them at the day-care center. Under a barrage of parental pressure, however, some began to tell stories of how they had been touched.
It is almost impossible to reconstruct how these rumors spread, but by the beginning of November, there was a full-scale panic among the parents, many of whom had taken their children to the police, who questioned them aggressively. Parents began to take their supposedly traumatized children to the Children’s Institute International (CII), where Kee MacFarlane and other experts in child sexual abuse interviewed them, using leading questions, coercive techniques, and “anatomically correct” dolls. Eventually, over 350 children submitted to the CII “therapy.” In Satan’s Silence , Nathan and Snedeker offer a devastating description of the interview process at CII:
To put the children at ease, the women [therapists] dressed, clownlike, in mismatched clothes and multicolored stockings, and sat on the floor with the youngsters. They talked in gentle, high-pitched voices, and encouraged discussion about genitals and sexual behavior that young children hardly knew words for. And they used a new diagnostic device: “anatomically correct” dolls, which came with breasts, vaginas, penises, anuses, and pubic hair. The children were introduced to MacFarlane’s collection of hand puppets…. The session became a scene of naked dolls with genitals touching, poking and threatening each other. Cloth penises were being inserted into mouths. “Did that happen? Ooh, that must have been yucky,” MacFarlane said. “It didn’t happen,” corrected Tanya; “I’m just playing.” There was talk of being spirited from the school to molesters’ homes, though whether they were people’s houses or doll houses was unclear. After prompting from MacFarlane, Tanya named Peggy Buckey as a witness to abuse.
About that time, the allegations expanded beyond Ray Buckey to include his sister Peggy Ann, his mother Peggy, his grandmother Virginia McMartin–a septuagenarian in a wheelchair–and three other day-care providers. MacFarlane and her cohorts soon elicited horrifying tales of how the Buckeys and other teachers had forced children to drink blood and urine and had killed animals in front of them, in what sounded like satanic ceremonies.
Meanwhile, Judy Johnson’s account of what her inarticulate two-year-old son was supposedly telling her became more graphic and bizarre. Ray Buckey had worn a mask and sodomized her son while sticking his head in a toilet. She also stated that he forced the boy to ride naked on a horse and molested him, while Buckey dressed alternatively as a policeman, fireman, clown, and Santa Claus. Her charges soon escalated to involve other McMartin Preschool teachers. They had purportedly jabbed scissors into the boy’s eyes and shot staples into his ears, nipples and tongue; they had also killed a baby and made him drink the blood. (Other abusers Judy Johnson identified included male models she saw in magazines and strangers following her on the highway. Two years later, she was hospitalized for psychosis, and a year after that, she died of an alcohol-related liver disease.)
Eventually, under intense questioning by therapists, parents, and police, many children came to believe that they had actually been molested, embellishing their stories with wild accusations of having been abused in hot air balloons, on distant farms, in cemeteries, and in tunnels under the school. Lawrence Pazder, the Canadian psychiatrist who co-authored Michelle Remembers , the 1980 book about repressed memories of satanic cults, flew in to tell the police and parents how to spot ritual abuse. Soon, more and more parents and children were convinced that the McMartin Preschool was part of a satanic cult ring of child pornographers and ritual abusers. Testifying before Congress in 1984, social worker Kee MacFarlane stated: “We’re dealing with an organized operation of child predators,” asserting that the preschool served as “a ruse for a larger, unthinkable network of crimes against children.”
The media unquestioningly lapped up the sensational McMartin story.