June 10, 2014
The Witch-Hunt Narrative is featured today on the front of the Science section of the New York Times. Emily Bazelon of Slate wrote the review. We appreciate Ms. Bazelon’s recognition that The Witch-Hunt Narrative is an important book and we are delighted to be placed in the middle of the discussion of many timely issues about our social and legal responses to the sexual abuse of children.
May 17, 2014
The disinclination of some people to believe that children have been sexually abused is a serious and under-recognized problem. It is a social problem that is clearest in individual cases, since even the most biased people always say “of course, sexual abuse is a problem.” A criminal case that is unfolding in Tennessee has unmasked the remarkable bias of Dr. William Bernet, whose custody evaluation in 2007 concluded that a young boy had not been sexually abused by his father. The father was awarded custody after Dr. Bernet told the court that the mother had a groundless “obsession” that her son had been sexually abused.
Four years later, according to this story in The Tennessean, an FBI investigation found “pornography and other items that the prosecutor said corroborated the boy’s story.” Criminal charges were then filed against the father. In a pretrial hearing, the prosecutor revealed that Dr. Bernet had omitted findings in his 2007 evaluation that the father had two risk factors correlated with pedophiles. Dr. Bernet also ignored the fact that the mother had taken the boy to a doctor after finding pubic hairs in his rectum and that the pediatrician had seen “fingertip bruising” on the boy’s buttocks. Faced with questions about this evidence, Dr. Bernet said the boy was “highly suggestible” and may share “delusional symptoms” with the mother.
The custody award has since been reversed and one hopes that justice will be done. The larger lesson is that a bias against thinking that children have been sexually abused, a bias that came out of the high-profile daycare sexual abuse cases of the 1980s, still exists and causes real harm to children. Being too prone to believe abuse allegations is problematic; so is being too prone to disbelieve them. But, as demonstrated in The Witch-Hunt Narrative, the former problem has been exaggerated, while the latter problem has barely been recognized.
May 9, 2014
The word “exoneration” has been given new meaning, and it includes people who were never actually proven to be innocent. This strange development is hidden in the small print of the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the Michigan and Northwestern Law Schools. The project has the worthy goal of documenting cases in which “someone convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.” That is the common sense meaning of the word and it’s the definition prominently displayed on the home page of the project.
But buried in the glossary is a “more precise definition” that amounts to doublespeak. (You have to click “learn more” on the home page and then scroll down and click “glossary” to find this important qualifying language.) An exact quote from the “more precise definition” tells the story: “The evidence of innocence need not be an explicit basis for the official action that exonerated the person.”
What does that mean? It means that cases in which the defendant has not been “cleared based on new evidence of innocence” can count as exonerations. And the “evidence of innocence” is a judgment call made by those who run the project. Through this rhetorical sleight of hand, the Registry now includes cases labeled as “child sex abuse hysteria.” In short, the Registry has adopted the witch-hunt narrative. What it has not done is confront the evidence of abuse in those cases. If the “evidence of innocence” does not need to be subject to adversarial proceedings or be the explicit basis for the official action, then “exoneration” means nothing of the sort. It may reveal a lot about the politics behind the Registry, but it tells us little or nothing about the underlying evidence.
May 5, 2014
Proponents of the witch-hunt narrative argue that child sexual abuse cases in the 1980s were filled with claims of satanic ritual abuse. There is no question that there were parents and therapists who believed in this discredited idea. But such claims did not involve anywhere near as many criminal cases as many people assert.
The Witch-Hunt Narrative documents how many cases tagged as “satanic” did not actually involve such claims, and many cases that did also included significant evidence of abuse. Exaggerated claims about the nationwide prevalence of satanic abuse cases persist to this day. One mythical number that has taken hold is, “By 1991, 25 percent of prosecutors in the United States had handled at least one case involving satanic ritual abuse.” Here is what the original report said:
“Our question on ritualistic sexual abuse (i.e., cases with satanic or cult overtones) evoked a striking response. In our sample, fully 74% responded they had not prosecuted any cases involving these traits. Unprompted, prosecutors said they were unaware of such activity in their jurisdictions. This contradicts some of the media attention on the extent of ritualistic abuse” (Smith & Goretsky Elstein 1993, p. 29). Read the rest of this entry »
April 28, 2014
Proponents of the witch-hunt narrative claim that there were hundreds or even thousands of wrongful convictions in child sexual-abuse cases in the 1980s and early 1990s. A prime example of this claim comes from Richard Beck, who is working on a book that will add to the witch-hunt canon next year.
In November 2011, Mr. Beck wrote that “hundreds of people were sent to jail on these imaginary charges.” That claim, as documented in ch. 3 of The Witch-Hunt Narrative, does not stand up to scrutiny. At a recent event at Columbia University, we had the opportunity to ask Mr. Beck about the basis for his claim. He responded that he “wrote that before doing the research” for his book. He added that his statement was just “an internet thing.” This raises a few questions.
Does n+1, where his statement was published, have lower standards for its internet content than for its other publications? Is “truthiness” acceptable at n+1 so long as it’s just online? If not, will there be a correction forthcoming now that Mr. Beck apparently realizes that his claim is not true?
We also look forward to finding out, when his book comes out, whether Mr. Beck adjusted his viewpoint after realizing that what he wrote in 2011 was overblown. Will his book examine why this kind of exaggerated claim has been so widely accepted or will the book ignore that issue and cite, without criticism, the very writers and academics who have propagated these mythical numbers?
April 27, 2014
Tomorrow is the official publication date for The Witch-Hunt Narrative. Today’s Providence Journal has the first book review. Here it is.
April 25, 2014
The Witch-Hunt Narrative is featured today on two blogs devoted to reading: The Page 99 Test and the Campaign for the American Reader. Page 99 might not be the page we would have chosen to highlight; then again, it perfectly captures the complexity of the book. And the campaign for the American Reader; that’s a campaign that we strongly support!
April 21, 2014
The new issue of the Roger Williams University Law Review is a symposium from the 2013 conference on child witnesses. (Here is the foreword by Prof. Carl Bogus.) The issue includes an article on the Jordan, Minnesota cases by Ross Cheit and Andrea Matthews. Based on extensive original research, the article argues that the Jordan, Minnesota cases were far more complicated than the witch-hunt narrative has ever acknowledged.
Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker wrote the Jordan cases off with the assertion that “the Jordan youngsters accused their parents of murdering babies.” In fact, the police interviewed seventy children, thirty-two of whom were named in at least one criminal indictment. Five children eventually made fantastic statements about killing babies; sixty-five never did.
The article also reveals how history professor Philip Jenkins, who apparently did not conduct original research, conflated two children in the case, attributing statements made by a boy (J.B.) who made murder allegations to a boy (J.O.) with the same first initial, but who was earliest in the case and never made any such claims. Jenkins dismissed J.O. and virtually all of the other children in the case for little apparent reason. The article documents significant and overlooked evidence of abuse in the case.
The Jordan cases were a dual tragedy: people were charged who should not have been, and children were not vindicated who should have been. But the witch-hunt narrative remembers only one of those stories.
April 9, 2014
Proponents of the witch-hunt narrative have a particular kind of blindness to real abuse. That is, they don’t see sexual abuse in places where it is obvious to others. The book (The Witch-Hunt Narrative) is full of examples where real abuse is described as a false accusation or false conviction by proponents of the narrative. This post describes an example that could not fit into the book: Judith Levine’s portrayal (in chapter 4 of her book, Harmful to Minors) of Kier Fiore’s conviction for felonious sexual assault in New Hampshire as “young love,” not as a crime.
The case involved a 22-year-old man who met a 13-year-old girl on the Internet and fled town with her after his arrest for statutory rape. Levine claims that the case was “narrated” by the police to fit a social text in which Fiore was the bad guy and the girl she calls Heather was painted as the “victim.”Levine mocked the idea that Fiore was considered “armed and dangerous” while on the run with Heather and she dismissed reports from two ex-wives that Fiore was abusive as “shady and disputed” facts.
But an examination of original court documents reveals a host of errors and omissions in Levine’s version of this case. Read the rest of this entry »
March 31, 2014
It was the longest criminal trial in American history and it ended without a single conviction. Five people were charged with child sexual abuse based on extremely flimsy evidence. Some parents came to believe outlandish stories about ritual abuse and tunnels underneath the preschool. It is no wonder that the McMartin case, once labeled the largest “mass molestation” case in history, has come to be called a witch-hunt. In a commentary to a Retro Report earlier this month, Clyde Haberman, former Times reporter, repeated the view that the case was a witch-hunt that spawned a wave of other cases of “dubious provenance.” But does that description do justice to the facts?
A careful examination of court records reveals that the witch-hunt narrative about the McMartin case is a powerful but not entirely accurate story. For starters, critics have obscured the facts surrounding the origins of the case. Richard Beck, quoted as an expert in the Retro Report story, recently asserted that the McMartin case began when Judy Johnson “went to the police” to allege that her child had been molested. Debbie Nathan, the other writer quoted by Retro Report, went even further, asserting that “everyone overlooked the fact that Judy Johnson was psychotic.”
March 27, 2014
Retro Report recently did a story about the McMartin Preschool case in California, the subject of a detailed and complicated chapter in my forthcoming book. Sadly, the organization devoted to “re-examining” media stories told the same extreme, black-and-white version of the case that has persisted for almost 25 years. I have a post in today’s Oxford University Press blog taking Retro Report to task for repeating the media myth that the case was “all a witch-hunt.” Important evidence in the case proves that Retro Report got it wrong. [Update: that post was moved to this site; see above.]
March 23, 2014
There was a front-page story in the Providence Journal today about The Witch-Hunt Narrative. Amazon says that the book will start shipping this Thursday. If you are in the Providence area, there will be a book launch event at Brown on Tuesday April 1 at 4:00.
March 21, 2014
The Witch-Hunt Narrative is scheduled to be released soon! Information about the book can be found on the “About the Book” tab, while direct links for purchasing can be found on the “Purchase the Book” tab. Please check back for updates about the book and content related to the book.