Oprah And McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

One evening in 1984, working late in the offices of the Los Angeles Times, I was interrupted by a reporter giving a local woman a tour of the premises. The woman’s name was Judy Johnson, the reporter informed me, and she was the principal source for a story that had just broken—and had hypnotized Los Angeles and, not least, the Times: the McMartin preschool sexual abuse case. Three generations of the McMartin family—77-year-old Virginia McMartin, her 56-year-old daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey, and two grandchildren in their twenties, as well as three teachers—had been arrested and charged with multiple counts of child molestation involving dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children over two decades of their nursery school’s existence in nearby Manhattan Beach.

The numbers were staggering, and the details were lurid: A generation of preschoolers had been subject to all manner of sexual degradation and physical abuse, including rape; small animals had been ritually sacrificed and children fed their blood; there had been field trips to local cemeteries to dig up corpses. Peggy McMartin Buckey was accused of “drilling” the limbs of students, and her 26-year-old son was alleged to have levitated inside the schoolhouse.

In retrospect, of course, the details were not just lurid but ludicrous. The McMartin preschool had been a popular institution in Manhattan Beach, and since the opening of its current location in 1966, no child or parent had ever mentioned such practices or mistreatment. But some months before she was shepherded around the Times newsroom, Judy Johnson had suspected that her son might have been molested at the school—he had painful bowel movements—and one thing led to another. A mistaken diagnosis of possible sexual penetration led to a police inquiry, and while Judy Johnson’s son repeatedly denied being molested, parents were invited by police to share their suspicions, and children were interviewed by local child-protective services to solicit details.

The results were sensational: The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

For a couple of reasons, I remain haunted, to some degree, by my brief encounter with Judy Johnson. I confess that I had not paid much attention to the McMartin story, which was regularly featured on the front page of the Times; but I mildly distrusted the reporter involved, and Judy Johnson struck me that evening as disturbed. (She died of alcoholism, age 42, two years later.) Shortly thereafter I approached the op-ed page editor with the suggestion that since the McMartin allegations seemed so preposterous, and the principal complainant was self-evidently unstable, perhaps the Times should invite a literary psychiatrist to ponder the phenomenon of “satanic ritual abuse” and public hysteria?

Fixing me with a look of unexpressed horror, the editor dismissed my bright idea with a shake of the head and wave of his hand.

The other troubling detail is that while the vast majority of the dozens of day-care sexual-abuse cases across the country collapsed in the ensuing years, and innocent teachers and helpers were liberated after years of imprisonment, I was astonished to discover that Fran and Dan Keller, the onetime proprietors of a nursery school in Austin, Texas, who had been tried and imprisoned on similarly fantastic grounds—mass orgies with small children, Kool-Aid laced with blood, animal dismemberment, flights across the border for rape by Mexican soldiers—had only recently been released from prison after 21 years, thanks to a press campaign, and exonerated last month by the Austin district attorney.

It’s unpleasant to contemplate the daily existence of an accused child rapist in a Texas (or in any) prison—Mr. Keller is 75 years old, and Mrs. Keller is 67—but no state financial settlement (reportedly $1.7 million each) can compensate their suffering from charges for which the DA concedes there is “no credible evidence.”

The blunt fact is that the “satanic” day-care ritual-abuse cases of the 1980s and early ’90s were our contemporary version of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s; and since human nature tends to be immutable, they featured many of the same symptoms across the centuries: mass hysteria, impressionable and unreliable child-witnesses, prosecutorial zeal and abuse, a mob tendency to prey on the hapless and defenseless. The devil in Massachusetts took the form of religious belief in malevolent spirits; in California—and in Texas, Illinois, Florida, and elsewhere—the frenzy was sanctioned by public credulity, police and judicial misconduct, sensational journalism, and a ritual conviction, among certain therapists, social workers, and polemicists, that children never lie. And as happens when such episodes explode and blight the landscape, they are quickly and efficiently tossed down the memory hole.

In the McMartin case, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in California history ended without any convictions, but not until the family had been disgraced and imprisoned for years. In North Carolina, consecutive life sentences were handed down to the blameless staff of a nursery school in Edenton. In New Jersey, an idealistic 23-year-old day-care teacher named Kelly Michaels spent five years in prison before exoneration. In Wenatchee, Washington, a renegade police detective named Robert Perez arrested 43 innocent people on 29,726 spurious charges of “satanic abuse”—the last of whom were not released from confinement until 2000.

In Wenatchee, however, one footnote is significant: When a local clergyman and his wife publicly questioned the case’s validity, Lieutenant Perez promptly arrested them both and charged them with multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Which is to say that while skeptical voices were occasionally raised in those years, such stands on principle involved genuine risk. And in that sense, there were honorable exceptions to the tenor of the times: Some lawyers and journalists and psychiatrists and plain citizens eventually spoke out, and efforts were made to counteract the natural tendency of prosecutors and courts to defend their official behavior. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal took up the cause of the Amirault family of the Fells Acres Day Care Center of Malden, Massachusetts—most of whom were exonerated, the last of whom was released from custody in 2004—and was belatedly awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Fran and Dan Keller of Austin now have the melancholy satisfaction of closing one of the later chapters of this saga. But it’s not clear that the relevant lessons have been learned. There is very little public discussion, or even disputation, about this alarming episode in recent American life, and most of the comparative handful of books and essays on the subject tend to draw erroneous, and highly politicized, conclusions: It was all a Reagan-era reaction to the entry of women into the workforce and unconscious guilt about placing children in day care. I don’t think so. It was, by contrast, a reminder that for all our modern pretensions, human beings have evolved rather less than we like to think. And the wheels of justice can turn very slowly, and feature infinite suffering.

Philip Terzian is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Source : http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-great-day-care-sexual-abuse-panic/article/2008742

The Great Day-Care Sexual-Abuse Panic
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Last Chance Before Reruns
Searching for “Sarah”
Jodi Picoult and the Anxious Parent
The Return of Moral Panic
The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse
After killings by police, a debate over grand jury secrecy
Woman freed after spending 20 years in prison for satanic ritual child abuse as evidence ruled to be faulty