Victim Culture

What Fueled the Child Sex Abuse Scandal That Never Was?

A wave of scandals about brutal child sex abuse in the 1980s caused widespread panic. But many of the stories, pursued with zeal through the courts, were false and extremely destructive.

08.03.15 5:00 AM ET

It started in August 1983 with Judy Johnson, a resident of a wealthy and bucolic Los Angeles suburb, who told police she suspected her 3-year-old son, Matthew, was being molested by one of his preschool teachers. 

Matthew had been complaining of an itchy anus and was obsessed with playing doctor, a game he said he played at school. Johnson believed one of his teachers, Ray Buckey, had sodomized the boy with his “thermometer.” 

Soon after, other parents of children under Buckey’s care at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach alerted police that their children had confessed to being fondled, sodomized, and forced to participate in pornographic films. 

There were reports that McMartin teachers slaughtered animals and babies in front of the children before abusing them. 

Five McMartin teachers were ultimately arrested and charged, along with the school’s administrator, Peggy McMartin Buckey, and its 76-year-old founder, Virginia McMartin, with what detectives and child therapists determined was ritualistic satanic abuse. 

The school shut down for good in January 1984. But no evidence—no pornography, no semen, no corpses—was ever recovered. 

The McMartin case was symptomatic of a nationwide panic about an “epidemic” of child sexual abuse at day-care centers in the ’80s, with other high-profile cases in Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Texas all fomenting media hype, legislative changes, and mass hysteria.

It would be a decade before the panic that led to more than 80 convictions proved to be largely unfounded.

In his new book, We Believe the Children, author Richard Beck—also editor of n+1 magazine—revisits these Kafkaesque cases involving child pornography rings and devil-worshipping cults. 

Drawing on interviews, archival research, and court transcripts, Beck illustrates how “therapists, social workers, and police officers unintentionally forced children to fabricate tales of brutal abuse” that spoke to American society’s deepest fears and introduced the stereotype of the playground pedophile. 

Beck argues, convincingly, that the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s provoked a conservative backlash in the ’80s, fueling parental paranoia. The social and political conditions at the time set the stage for the most destructive moral panic since the Salem witch trials. 

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Indeed, the day-care investigations in the ’80s echoed several specific aspects of the 1692 witch hunts. 

“In each episode,” Beck writes, “children were thought to have been abused by a secretive group of conspirators, and each time it was the adults who first began to suspect that a conspiracy was at work.” 

Those accused in Salem were said to possess such demonic powers that their victims were re-traumatized during the trials, frequently crying out in pain in the courtroom. 

Concern in the ’80s that children would be similarly re-traumatized led the state of California to pass a law allowing children under 14 to testify outside the courtroom via closed-circuit televisions.

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While the judge and jurors who presided over the Salem trials eventually apologized and awarded monetary reparations to the accused, very few of the major players who relentlessly pursued the day-care cases apologized to those who were wrongfully convicted.

Many innocent people whose lives were ruined, including the children, have been denied reparations. 

When the McMartin trial finally ended in 1990 with no convictions, the McMartin family filed a slander suit against one parent who led the witch hunt in Manhattan Beach back in 1983. 

The judge ruled in the McMartins’ favor, but determined that the defendant couldn’t have damaged their reputations any more than the subsequent six-year-trial—the longest and most expensive ($15 million) in U.S. history to date—and national media coverage of the sex abuse accusations. The plaintiffs were awarded $1 each. 

Much of We Believe the Children centers on the McMartin Preschool case, with Beck devoting four of the book’s 10 chapters to the McMartin allegations, preliminary hearing, trial, and verdict. 

Coercive interview and interrogation tactics were used on children in many of the child sex abuse cases across the country. (Predictably, these led to false confessions.) 

To be sure, We Believe the Children does not set out to prove that child abuse never happened in the ’80s.

The Minnesota sex ring panic in 1983 began with a single allegation against James Rud, who turned out to have two prior child sex abuse convictions—one in Virginia and one in Minnesota. 

And the charges against Arnold Friedman, a “beloved and award-winning” teacher in Great Neck, New York, (the Friedman family was the subject of Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans) were not entirely unfounded. In 1987 the Feds found a stack of child porn magazines in his basement.

“Whether Arnold Friedman was a child abuser became a very controversial topic in the late 1980s,” Beck writes, “but there is no question that he really was a pedophile.”

While there was ample evidence that Arnold Friedman was attracted to children, it was never clear that he acted on it. 

After Friedman’s son Jesse was also accused of abuse, he deliberately played into the hysterical narrative perpetuated by police and the media, claiming his father had homemade pornographic videos. But the hysteria ultimately obscured whether or not Arnold was guilty of abuse. 

The recent Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal at Penn State demonstrates the imperative of reporting allegations of child sex abuse.

But Sandusky got away with serially molesting young boys for years not because people mistrusted children’s accusations, but because those accusations were covered up by the corrupt bureaucracy at the university. 

We Believe the Children focuses largely on the children in the McMartin Preschool case—beginning with Judy Johnson’s son—who were grossly manipulated and even threatened by adults until they confessed to what the adults wanted to hear. 

Kee MacFarlane, an unlicensed therapist who worked with the nonprofit Children's International Institute, was hired by the Manhattan Beach district attorney’s office to help investigate the case. She designed sessions with 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children to mimic forensic interviews. 

Her priority was not children’s emotional well-being but ensuring that they recalled events accurately. 

Digging through transcripts, Beck finds that MacFarlane told one 5-year-old boy “you’re just a scaredy cat” when he repeatedly denied that he and other children had been inappropriately touched. 

“Well, what good are you?” she asked another child who wouldn’t confirm her suggestion that he had participated in sexual games with Ray Buckey. “You must be dumb,” she added, speaking to him through a puppet. 

Even when she wasn’t bullying her preschool patients, MacFarlane frequently interpreted children’s statements that were “clearly made in the context of some imaginative game as straightforward accusations of abuse,” Beck writes. 

By the end of December 1983, MacFarlane had interviewed more than 30 McMartin children, a number that would eventually balloon to 375. 

Like most people, MacFarlane genuinely believed these children were abused. But after jurors in the McMartin case reached a “not guilty” verdict, they told reporters that MacFarlane’s tapes made it impossible to distinguish less plausible accusations from more plausible ones because they “never got the children’s story in their own words.” 

After the McMartin trial wrapped, MacFarlane admitted in a 1990 interview with The New York Times that she was “naive in never having been part of a case like this,” but defended her controversial interviewing techniques.

“Neither in tapes [sic] on the witness stand do children just say what happened. Some children said they never went to the McMartin School, even though they did.”

MacFarlane was at least partially influenced by the psychiatrist Roland Summit, who rose to prominence in the ’70s and theorized that children were not psychologically capable of lying about sexual abuse. 

Beck points out that corroborating evidence then became “a superfluous adjunct to a truth the therapist already knew.” 

Many other therapists and social workers who worked with children on ritualistic sex abuse cases in the ’80s operated on the same dangerous assumption. So did parents and law enforcement officials. 

“Believe the Children” was not just an oft-repeated mantra in Manhattan Beach, but a community banner through which which some parents formed an organization and advocacy center where any and all information on ritual abuse was discussed. 

It gave many parents, particularly stay-at-home mothers, a sense of purpose and a role in bringing about political and social change. 

The irony, of course, was that their fevered determination to protect children caused them harm and suffering instead. 

It’s impossible to know the extent of the emotional damage that the McMartin children and others across the country suffered into adulthood (very few have spoken out publicly). 

But Beck interviews one pseudonymous woman, Jennifer, who was 7 when her mother first took her to the police in 1984, when her former day-care teacher was accused of sexual abuse. 

She began going to therapy shortly afterward and tells Beck “that was where all the trauma happened.” 

No matter what Jennifer said, her therapists insisted she had been abused. This led her to question her own memories of what had happened (she still questions them to this day), though she initially told the police she wasn’t molested. 

“I had rooms in my brain where I needed to think very clearly, and be honest with myself, and try really hard to remember if anything happened,” she tells Beck. “And at the same time, I had to keep it completely hidden and protected from my mom and the therapists.” 

The young children in the McMartin case also underwent forensic testing developed by a physician named Bruce Woodling: anal examinations (“wink tests”) in which he swabbed a spot near the patient’s anus that supposedly determined abuse.

If the child’s anus opened during wink tests, the child had been sodomized; the further the child’s anus opened, the more frequent the abuse.

Woodling hired an inexperienced assistant, Astrid Heger, to examine young girl’s hymens for microscopic abrasions and variations which, according to Woodling’s (now-discredited) findings, often indicated sexual trauma. 

Heger determined that 80 percent of the 150 children she examined had been abused, but she sometimes arrived at that conclusion even when she found no abrasions or variations.

“This was based on a conviction—one she shared with Roland Summit—that medical professionals had a special social role to play in bringing the problem of child abuse out of the shadows,” Beck writes. 

In cases across the country, medical professionals, detectives, prosecutors, parents, and therapists simply believed children had been sexually abused: They manipulated “the truth” to fit their version of the truth and fabricated evidence where none existed.

When cases went to court, the judicial system’s “innocent until proven guilty” model was seemingly inverted: as Beck puts it, “the pursuit of justice demanded the suspension of disbelief.”

In the court of public opinion, the only just verdict was a guilty one. 

The number of convictions that came out of these cases, almost all of which were eventually overturned, shows how easily we can deceive ourselves and others—how the pursuit of justice results in gross injustice—when “the truth” is preconceived. 

Beck attributes society’s unwavering belief in the ’80s child sex abuse cases to a number of forces that came together in America at that time: a conservative backlash against the counterculture that had dominated the ’60s and ’70s, with its rejection of law enforcement and authority; a similar backlash against the sexual revolution and feminism, which dismantled the nuclear family, sending women to work and children to day-care centers; homophobia linked to the AIDS epidemic and an attendant fear that men who were caretakers outside the home were pedophiles; the rise of conservative Christian evangelicals, many of whom had helped elect President Ronald Reagan and feared the proliferation of pornography. 

“Social hysteria is born of an unmanageable surplus of anxiety and fear,” Beck writes, “and as a result panics themselves behave in excessive ways, improvising a series of crises and fabrications that build until the whole process breaks down under the weight of its own internal contradictions.” 

It took a while for this particular panic to break down, and even then it occasionally resurfaced: in the mid-’90s, 43 adults were arrested on more than 29,000 charges of child sex abuse in a pedophile ring operation in Wenatchee, Washington.

There were also people like Ellen Bass, a poet turned activist, who piggybacked on abuse rhetoric at the tail end of the ’80s hysteria, spinning off the 1988 bestselling self-help book, The Courage to Heal.

The self-help element was grounded in the idea of healing through recovered memory, which therapists capitalized on in the mid-’90s.

Beck notes how the book recast victims as survivors and “made victimization into an identity with its own kind of bleak attractiveness...the testimony of some survivors suggested that much of what made the process appealing were the crises themselves.” 

But recovered memory therapy had its own traps, and many argued that the women who sought it out were not healing as much as they were simply being taken for a ride. 

Beck doesn’t suggest that the rhetoric in The Courage to Heal is echoed in some of the rhetoric surrounding sexual abuse today. Perhaps he did not want to be wade into that fraught feminist debate. 

But the desperation to protect children at all costs in the ’80s is not unlike the desperation to protect women on college campuses today amidst what many have declared an epidemic of campus rape.

We Believe the Children should serve to remind us of the dangers of the “we must believe the victim” mindset in the case of any criminal offense. A faith-based pursuit of justice can lead to a miscarriage of justice.