The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

Author: Ross Cheit
Publisher: Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 544p.
Reviewer: Nancy Whittier | March 2016

Ross Cheit’s masterful book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children, is the definitive work on the daycare child sexual abuse cases of the 1990s, including the actual events, investigations and prosecutions, media coverage, and implications for subsequent prosecution of child sexual abuse both inside and outside the home. What Cheit calls the “witch-hunt narrative” has been, until now, the dominant interpretation of these events. Constructed and promulgated by journalists, defense attorneys, academics, and expert witnesses, the witch-hunt narrative argues that a kind of mass hysteria overtook the country in the 1980s, leading to hundreds of false and outlandish accusations and widespread convictions of innocents. According to the witch-hunt narrative, Cheit writes, “coercive and suggestive interviews, conducted by biased interviewers, combined with hysterical parents, overzealous prosecutors, and an unduly credulous media to generate false accusations in cases that had no actual basis in fact” (p. 6). The book is the first serious, empirical examination of both these particular cases and the idea of a witch-hunt during the 1980s. It is utterly convincing in refuting the received wisdom that there were hundreds of cases during the 1980s in which innocent people were falsely accused of outrageous and improbable abuse of children in the context of Satanic and other ritualized acts. Cheit meticulously dissects these cases and the evidence that underlay them, showing that they were much more complex than the witch-hunt narrative claims, and that most had credible charges at their core. Yet the witch-hunt narrative has been widely accepted as fact. It has led to widespread discounting of children’s testimony about sexual abuse across the board, not just in multi-victim, multi-offender cases. The book is a powerful indictment of a media and public rush to judgment and the reliance on superficial, shoddy, and even outright distortion of data and research.

Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who has long written on child sexual abuse, systematically unpacks the cases behind the witch-hunt narrative. He argues that many cases did have a basis in fact and that, while the media were unduly credulous about the existence of Satanic cults abusing children in daycare, the pendulum quickly swung too far in the other direction. Journalists’ claims that most charges of child sexual abuse were false and that daycare cases were numerous and uniform were widely accepted with little scrutiny. The book contains three lengthy chapters that each examine one case in detail, and a fourth chapter covering most of the other cases cited as examples of witch-hunts. Another chapter debunks the idea that allegations of child abuse in daycare were uniformly over-charged during this era by describing cases in which charges were not brought, cases where there was incontrovertible evidence of elements labeled “fantastical” by critics (such as child pornography), and cases where the very young age of victims made charges impossible despite indisputable evidence such as gonorrheal infection. A final chapter examines the lasting effect of the daycare cases of the 1980s on the prosecution of child sexual abuse today.

Cheit systematically examines cases drawn from lists of putative witch-hunts. He shows that some never resulted in arrest, included only one alleged perpetrator, did not occur in daycare, or did not include any improbable or Satanic/ritualistic elements. Most importantly, he shows that many did not involve wrongful convictions. Unlike most coverage of these cases, Cheit discusses each case individually, and painstakingly analyzes the evidence for each aspect of the allegations. He distinguishes meticulously between legal guilt or innocence, that is, the outcome of trials, and the exploration of events that he undertakes in the book. He shows that most cases involved credible evidence against some defendants and unjustified charges against others. Three of the largest and most notorious cases, the McMartin preschool case (in Manhattan Beach, CA, 1983), the Country Walk Daycare case (Dade County, Florida, 1984), and the Kelly Michaels case (in New Jersey, 1985) are examined in great detail. Cheit assesses evidence related to each alleged victim and charge, including how children’s initial accounts changed over time and how they have been (mis)represented in media coverage of the cases. He convincingly suggests that one McMartin defendant was guilty, while others were falsely charged. In contrast, he argues that the other two cases involved either substantial and credible (Michaels) or extremely strong (Country Walk) evidence of guilt. Cheit makes the case with extensive analysis of trial transcripts and painstaking reconstruction of disclosures and medical evidence, clearly illustrated by L. Arthi Krishnaswami. While he concludes that many charges labelled ritual abuse were indeed fabrications, he shows that others (such as an assailant wearing a mask or penetration with objects) were strongly corroborated. Indeed, in the discussion of other cases, he shows that skeptics labelled many as witch-hunts because of quite ordinary and unremarkable elements such as alleged assaults involving sodomy or occurring in basements or bathrooms. He also shows that there were far fewer daycare cases than claimed, and that the vast majority of cases that appear on lists of “witch-hunts” either were small-scale, with clear corroboration, or did not result in prosecution (or both).

Cheit’s empirical research is deep and meticulous. Using trial transcripts, transcripts and audio or videotapes of interviews with children, police logs, and medical records, he constructs a thorough account of the evolution of evidence and charges in each case. Drawing on these primary sources, he reconstructs timelines showing which children said what over time, and what corroborating evidence existed. Analytically, Cheit focuses on these timelines of disclosure, medical evaluation, and forensic interviewing for each child in each case, showing how in some cases children’s initial plausible disclosures became contaminated through shoddy interviewing, and in other cases children’s partial disclosures over two or three interviews were coherent, not led by the interviewer, but nevertheless labeled a product of leading questioning by critics. Through this herculean research, Cheit shows that most of the notorious cases of the 1980s began with probable instances of child sexual abuse. In the majority of cases, he shows, there were credible claims of sexual abuse, but sometimes these claims were contaminated by poor interviewing techniques that drew in additional alleged victims or led children to augment their initial claims of sexual abuse with more fantastical claims. Some cases expanded to charge innocent people whereas others expanded to include charges by multiple children who likely were sexually abused. Cheit is also forthright about the limits of his research and the difficulty assessing evidence that has not been fully preserved. He discusses a handful of egregious wrongful convictions and charges, and he leaves some cases ambiguous.

The primary sources for these trials are voluminous, and accessing them was arduous, as Cheit’s discussion of methods makes clear. The data collection involved 80 student research assistants over 15 years. The scope of Cheit’s research is perhaps the most compelling evidence for the inaccuracy of previous accounts of these cases. No other writer on these cases employed these methods, and most simply relied on other accounts that themselves were not evidence-based. Cheit presents indisputable evidence showing how many accounts of these cases distorted, disregarded, and misrepresented sources, including excerpting, reordering, or outright rewriting quotations so as to make children’s disclosures seem coerced or unclear, and omitting relevant evidence. It is impossible to convey here the depth and nuance of the author’s analyses, or the shocking degree to which they contradict the widely-accepted accounts of these cases. The reader is urged to read them directly.

Besides analyzing the cases themselves, Cheit also shows how defense lawyers, journalists, and research psychologists contributed to the witch-hunt narrative and how this narrative bolstered claims about the suggestibility of child witnesses. Media coverage – sometimes written in conjunction with defense lawyers in the cases – convincingly framed virtually all child sexual abuse cases with multiple victims as part of a witch-hunt. He shows how academic psychologists who have researched child suggestibility and served as expert witnesses for the defense used the daycare cases to bolster their arguments but, in the process, elided evidence. A handful of research psychologists built careers on showing that children are highly suggestible and thus unreliable witnesses under almost all circumstances. This research drew on experimental studies and on shockingly misrepresented accounts of actual questioning of children in the notorious cases. Cheit disturbingly shows that this research became widely accepted in the courtroom, that expert witnesses testified to children’s unreliability in a wide range of cases including highly-corroborated charges of abuse, and that ultimately this has made the prosecution of all forms of child sexual abuse less likely. As children become viewed as inherently tainted witnesses, their accounts are suspect simply because they are young. In this way, the cases of the 1980s have had a lasting chilling effect on prosecution of any form of child sexual abuse.

The book has implications for how we understand our contemporary period as well. With the daycare cases of the 1980s long past, many point to sex offender policies as a contemporary example of excessively punitive reaction to child sexual abuse. Cheit nicely shows how these harsh policies “on the back end” of the CJ system, after conviction, coexist with skepticism about specific cases and low rates of prosecution. He argues strongly that critiquing sex offender policies should not be a distraction from continuing work on prosecution and prevention of child sexual abuse. But the legacy of the narrative of children’s suggestibility and putative invention of impossible charges has made that work less likely and less successful.

Despite the troubling subject matter and the length of the book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative is highly readable and compelling. It serves as a powerful caution about how commonly accepted narratives acquire credibility. It should be read by legal theorists and practitioners and all scholars and practitioners interested in child sexual abuse or prosecution of crimes involving child witnesses. In whole or in part, it should be assigned in graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses in criminology, law, politics, social work, and research methods.The Witch-Hunt Narrative is that rare book that persuasively reframes a particular series of events and, in doing so, raises much broader questions.

Nancy Whittier, Smith College

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