3. “California’s nightmare nursery”

The history of childhood is as brutal as the history of civilization. For centuries the children of the poor toiled or starved along with their parents, while the children of the rich were married off for political or financial gain. In times of scarcity, infanticide was a first, not a last, resort.

Across time and across cultures, killing malformed or sickly infants was common practice. Some societies even destroyed the weaker of two twins as a matter of course. Children in ancient Greece were considered the property of their fathers, and therefore subject to whatever fate the fathers chose, including death. As Aristotle explained, “a son or a slave is property, and there can be no injustice to one’s own property.”[1]

The angel stays Abraham’s knife

The Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac remains a standard in both Jewish and Christian curricula: Abraham’s faith in his god was so strong he was willing to sacrifice his only son, who was old enough to wonder out loud on the walk to the mountain why his father hadn’t brought the usual lamb. The startling angle from today’s perspective is that Abraham’s neighbors would not have considered the altar scene with the ropes and the knife any of their business, with or without the last-minute divine intervention.

As civilization moved forward, children past their infancy, then newborns, and finally even imperfect neonates earned the right to live. In the mid 1800s British toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor, a pioneer of western forensic pathology, cataloged the known catastrophic birth defects, stressing that “individuals are not allowed to destroy these monstrous births . . . it is the more necessary to make this statement, as there is an idea among the vulgar that it is not illegal to destroy a monstrous birth.”[2]

In Taylor’s era abortion was prosecuted as murder, although public understanding apparently lagged behind the law on this restriction as well. After his discussion of the herbs and tinctures known to induce abortion, Taylor noted:

There is every reason to believe that the crime is frequent; but its perpetration is secret. Applications are continually made to druggists by the lower class of people for drugs for this purpose: the applicants appear to have no idea of the criminality of the act.[3]

Poor women also tended to give birth without benefit of a reliable medical witness, so Taylor and his colleagues were trying to distinguish cases of infanticide from the many stillbirths of the day and the infants who had died during a difficult, unattended labor. In his 1861 treatment, Taylor cited the most recent evidence to refute the “hydrostatic test,” once considered a reliable way to know whether or not a newborn had drawn breath: Put the lungs in water. If they float, the child was presumed to have taken the first breath of life; if the lungs sink, the child was stillborn. Taylor conceded that the test can give accurate results, but he pointed out that decomposition can cause the lungs to float if a child has died in the womb before the birth, and attempted resuscitation of a stillborn can fill the lungs so that they float. To illustrate the error in the other direction, the false negative, he cited an 1847 case in which a neonate was known to have lived for 10 minutes before being drowned, after which the lungs sank. He cautioned:

It cannot be denied that the sinking of the lungs is a presumption in favor of still-birth, but it is nothing more;—it is not, as it is often set down, a direct or positive proof of the child having been born dead.[4]

Laws against child abuse short of death are a surprisingly recent development. Dr. Ambroise Tardieu published the first western paper on “cruelty and brutal treatment” of children in a French medical journal in 1860.[5] Tardieu’s writings about the diseases suffered by children working in factories and mines triggered workplace reform for children and adults both, but his work around child abuse in the home had little impact.[6]

Mary Ellen. Photo by Jacob Riis

Tardieu worked in an era of rising social consciousness in both Europe and North America, with new, progressive organizations forming around urban problems. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals emerged in New York City in 1865, partly because people were horrified at the sight of horses’ being whipped in the streets. No laws yet addressed the whipping of children behind closed doors, so Etta Wheeler approached the ASPCA in 1874 with the troubling case of Mary Ellen. Later estimated to be about 10 years old, Mary Ellen lived in a rooming house in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York, where other residents never saw her but heard her screams as she was whipped cruelly and often by her stepmother, sometimes with rawhide.[7] Implored by a neighboring tenant to help the child, Wheeler took the case to the police, various benevolent societies, and a number of well-known charitable citizens, as reported at the time by pioneer photojournalist Jacob Riis. Riis wrote that the police told Wheeler she had no proof, only hearsay; the benevolent societies explained that they handled only the children who were brought to them, not those who had homes; and the private citizens warned her, “It is a dangerous thing to interfere between parents and child, and you might get yourself into trouble if you did so, as parents are proverbially the best guardians of their own children.”[8]

That’s when Henry Burgh, founder of the ASPCA, invoked the animal cruelty laws to win custody of Mary Ellen. Riis recounted the scene at the courthouse when Burgh brought in the bruised and bloody girl, to convince the authorities that children needed protection: [9]

I was in a courtroom full of men with pale, stern faces. I saw a child brought in, carried in a horse-blanket, at the sight of which men wept aloud. I saw it laid at the feet of the judge, who turned his face away, and in the stillness of the court-room I heard a voice raised claiming for the human child the protection men had denied it, in the name of the homeless cur of the street.

This story has two happy endings:  The publicity surrounding Mary Ellen’s wretched life triggered the first child-protection legislation in U.S. history; and Mary Ellen was not only adopted by Etta Wheeler but grew up to marry and have two children of her own. She lived until the age of 92 or thereabouts, depending on her true age when rescued.[10]

Making child abuse illegal was a big step, but cultural change lagged. Well into the twentieth century doctors seldom questioned the explanations offered for the breaks, contusions, scalds, and other traumas their young patients suffered—and most of these injuries were more-or-less legitimate accidents: Children routinely worked with wood-burning stoves, farm equipment, textile machinery, and other dangerous tools of production.

Many of them did so, in fact, instead of going to school, and some of them without reaching adulthood: An 8-year-old who breathes coal or cotton dust for 10 hours a day 6 days a week is guaranteed a short lifetime of serious lung problems. The especially dangerous conditions in coal mines triggered the first U.S. regulation of child labor in 1912, but working children simply shifted to marginally less lethal jobs. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s reduced the demand for child labor, as adults were available in great numbers and at very low wages. In the government regulations following that financial crisis, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 finally outlawed the hiring of children for full-time work, while more famously setting a minimum wage for adults (25 cents an hour) and establishing the 40-hour work week. [11]

In the prosperity that followed World War II, as childhood really did become less about earning your keep and more about preparing for adulthood, Dr. Henry Kempe and his colleagues in their “Battered Child” paper[12] asked society to take another step forward. The U.S. Congress responded in 1974 with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which not only funded child-abuse awareness and prevention programs but also mandated that doctors, teachers, and other professionals who work with children must report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect, an imperative known colloquially as “mandated reporting.” The wording of the law is clear:  Doctors are obliged to report not only abuse they’re sure of but also abuse they only suspect. Social services and law enforcement are then responsible for investigating the reports.

Kempe’s work, like Tardieu’s, came early in an era of rapid social change. The birth control pill, the Kinsey reports, love-ins—human sexuality went public, and by the 1970s formerly taboo subjects like rape and incest were discussed nightly on television. Adults felt freer, politically and personally, to come forward with memories of childhood sexual abuse that they’d kept to themselves out of shame or fear, or maybe because they hadn’t expected to be believed. Our nation vowed to protect children not only from physical abusers but from sexual predators as well.

The press was also following the behaviorist psychology research of the day, which featured rats and pigeons, food rewards and electroshock punishments—all of it lending apparent credibility to rumors of communist brainwashing techniques used on U.S. POWs in North Korea. Then Vietnam veterans had a tough time reintegrating with a society untouched by war, and post traumatic stress disorder became a reputable diagnosis, sometimes featuring memory disturbances. Psychologists revisited earlier theories of disassociation as a human strategy for dealing with life-shattering experiences—like combat or sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted parent. More than one therapist reported adult women apparently remembering forgotten incidents of childhood abuse, which the patients had presumably thrust into their unconscious minds while too young to process the trauma.

In 1980, Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Pazder published a starling book, Michelle Remembers.[13], Pazder had recorded the 600 hours of hynotherapy that had allowed Smith to remember the year of satanic ritual abuse she’d suffered around the age of five. She remembered being tortured and raped ceremonially, and witnessing multiple ritual murders. She was once smeared with the bloody body parts of dismembered babies. Michelle reported one 80-day ceremony where hundreds of practitioners came together for their grisly sacraments. Although the co-author’s sisters, father, and former neighbors denied the truth of the tale, Michelle Remembers was a commercial success. Smith and Pazder divorced their spouses and married each other. Other therapists began hearing tales of ritual abuse from their own patients.[14]

Faith in the validity of recovered memories became common enough that a number of men went to prison or paid large civil settlements based on the testimony of their adult daughters, who believed they’d remembered previously suppressed incidents of childhood abuse. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the daughter of George Franklin remembered that she’d seen her father rape and kill her best friend 20 years earlier. The 8-year-old victim had disappeared from her home in Foster City in 1969, her beaten and decomposing body found months later. Police had questioned Franklin at the time, along with other men who knew the girl, but the physical evidence had provided no link to any of the suspects.[15]. When Franklin’s daughter came forward, prosecutors moved immediately to close an old and well-publicized case. The story stayed in my local headlines for the full swing of the pendulum, from Franklin’s arrest in 1989 to the overturning of his conviction and life sentence in 1995,[16] by which time the surge of recovered memory cases had inspired controlled research by Elizabeth Loftus and other psychologists who demonstrated that false memories can be implanted.[17] Recovered memories are no longer recognized in the courtroom, although people continue to search their earliest memories for the keys to overcoming their perceived dysfunctions, sometimes finding comfort. [18] Psychological and feminist organizations both have faced painful internal struggles over recovered memories, as no one wants to further an injustice by disbelieving a victim of rape.[19]

Baffling as it is to the rest of us, then, the human race does seem to produce a small number of people who have a sexual desire for children and are willing to act on it. Offspring of the poor and desperate are sometimes available, and disabled children are especially vulnerable to assault by amoral acquaintances or caretakers. Sometimes a child is kidnapped for sex, and the attacker kills the victim afterward to protect his or her secret. Sometimes the violence is part of the thrill.

Less horrific but still unconscionable, pedophiles sometimes use charm or fear, or a combination of the two, to lure children into ongoing sexual relationships. Coaches, relatives, family friends, religious figures… most communities have seen more than one such scandal over the decades. Many more surely go unreported.

Before the child-protection movement, though, no one had considered the possibilities, including medical schools. When the reality of child sexual abuse burst into the public consciousness in the mid-1980s, the numbers of reported cases soared.[20] With parents demanding answers and no medical references available, physicians were learning on the job.

Pediatric intensivist Stephen Guertin, now the medical director of Sparrow Regional Children’s Center in Lansing, Michigan, was a decade into his career when the number of sex-abuse cases surged. He had already taken on the physically abused children, Guertin explains, so the hospital asked him to handle these new patients as well. In the first wave of assessments, he now recounts,  normal variations in physiology and unrelated health conditions were misinterpreted as signs of sexual abuse. “People like me were running these sex-abuse clinics. People were bringing children to us because they suspected sexual abuse. These were the things we found, and these things became the signs of sexual abuse.”

Physicians needed grounding in reality, Guertin says, they needed to collect data on what constitutes normal. “The first person to do that, and thank God he did, was John McCann.” McCann’s work illustrated that non-abused children exhibit discolorations and abrasions of the anus[21] for example, and that, like other human body parts, hymens and clitorides come in a very wide range of shapes and sizes.[22]  “There was a myth that a clitoris wider than four millimeters in a prepubescent girl meant abuse,” Guertin recalls, allowing himself an ironic joke. “You can make a muscle bigger by exercise, but the clitoris is not a muscle. If it worked that way with penises, just think about it.”

McCann’s work was published at the end of the 1980s—for more than a decade before that, though, physicians working with more sincerity than knowledge were interpreting almost any anal abrasion, swelling, or redness as a sign of abuse, certainly “consistent with abuse.” Before doctors explicitly examined children selected for non-abuse, no one had imagined the wide range of shapes an intact hymen can take, which include “cribriform” (perforated) and “fimbriated” (with fringes). For a time the “Wood’s lamp” was used to look for traces of semen, which fluoresces under ultraviolet light—but it turned out that urine emits the same color glow, and urine is not an uncommon finding around a child’s genitals. A number of valid medical conditions, especially perianal infections, were incorrectly attributed to abuse. The number of sex-abuse reports continued to grow, and the number of apparent medical confirmations was shocking.

Other human elements entered the equation as well: Allegations of sexual abuse started showing up in custody battles, and step fathers, already a known source of much actual abuse, were suddenly vulnerable to almost any accusation from a discontented dependent. The pendulum has now swung the other way, I think: The newspaper I read this morning featured a local foster parent who had apparently been sexually abusing his wards for years while their serial complaints were logged as “lies” by his supervisor.[23]

Dr. Guertin’s history helped me understand where the medical community was in the 1980s, when our nation’s twin fixations on cults and child sexual abuse fused to produce widespread belief in what turned out to be a social hysteria: Neighborhood preschools acting as fronts for child prostitution and pornography rings, and for satanic cults that were subjecting children to horrific rituals.

The McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was a flash point, reported around the world.

Before its buildings were demolished in a failed search for secret underground tunnels, the four-room McMartin Preschool sat right on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, a heavy commute corridor that runs west from the San Diego Freeway, past Polliwog Park and out to the pier. Veteran preschool teacher Virginia McMartin had founded the school in 1956 in partnership with her adult daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey. Through the years, Peggy’s husband had crafted some of the children’s favorite playthings: a wooden car with a steering wheel and gas tank, and a nearby gas pump with nozzle; the de rigueur gingerbread playhouse, with large cutouts for windows and door; and a set of U- and L-shaped tunnels assembled from boxes and painted primary colors.

As Peggy’s own children grew up, her daughter Peggy Ann and then her son Ray started working at the school. Even after Peggy Ann earned her degree and became a high school teacher, she enjoyed keeping a hand in the family business. Ray had dropped out of college but was taking classes sporadically and teaching at the preschool, where his long hair and casual dress were tolerated if not embraced. He bonded easily with the children, his family said, and was popular at the school.

Judging from my evening with him in 2008, the police reports, and conversations with people who knew him, I’m comfortable saying Ray Buckey is a gentle soul, although a high school class mate conceded he was “an odd duck.” Neighbors in Manhattan Beach told investigators that Ray was quiet. He was fond of his cat, they said, and he ate organic food. In fact he grew bean sprouts on the porch. He was known to play a lot of beach volleyball.

Ray was 25 years old when the drama started in the summer of 1983. One morning teachers noticed an unknown two-year-old standing alone on the sidewalk in front of the school. They brought the boy inside and kept an eye on him until his mother returned a few hours later. When Peggy explained that the school was for enrolled students only, and parents must check their children in and out, the woman became distraught, saying that she was recently divorced, her older son was sick, and she needed child care. Touched by the story, Peggy enrolled the boy into her only available slots, two half-days a week.

Just a few weeks later, the mother called the Manhattan Beach police to report that Ray Buckey had sexually abused her son, who had returned from school one day with a red anus. Detective Jane Hoag interviewed the mother and called the 12 other parents whose names the woman gave her. None of those parents reported any reason to suspect Ray, but word of the calls spread quickly.

Peggy’s friend Doris was the first to phone her. “What’s going on?” she asked. Peggy had no idea. She called the police station and was told the detective handling the case wasn’t in. [24]

The next day police arrived early and in force. They searched Peggy’s home, Virginia’s home, and finally the school. Over Virginia’s adamant objections, officers seized her diary and the box of file cards containing the names and contact information for past and present students. They arrested Ray when he arrived for work. Neither the searches nor the questioning revealed anything incriminating, so Ray was released the next day. The child’s mother had more to report, though: Ray Buckey had tied up her son and taken pictures of the boy naked. The mother also brought in a doctor’s report that convinced Detective Hoag the boy had been molested, but the district attorney told Hoag she needed more evidence.

Using Virginia’s file cards, Police Chief Harry Kuhlmeyer then sent a form letter to approximately 200 families who’d had children at McMartin Preschool through the years. The letter asked the recipients to keep the investigation “strictly confidential,” but instructed them, “Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttocks or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of taking the child’s temperature. Also, photos may have been taken of the children without clothing. Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.

The parents were aghast. They held meetings and demanded answers. The police brought in Children’s Institute International (CII), a private therapy center in Los Angeles that had recently revised its focus, in keeping with the changing times, from unwed mothers to the victims of child abuse.[25] Kee McFarlane, a CII grant-writer with a degree in social work, had been experimenting with hand puppets and anatomically correct dolls to help young children describe sexual abuse. She applied her techniques to the McMartin students.

The children were reluctant to tell their stories at first, McFarlane found, [26]  but by pushing past their initial denials and hinting at the kinds of “yucky secrets” other children had allegedly told her, she elicited reports of naked games, which were often filmed or photographed. The children reported inappropriate touching, not only by Ray but by other teachers, too, and sometimes by complete strangers. McFarlane and her colleagues eventually interviewed 400 students and former students of the preschool, concluding that 369 of them had been abused. The allegations included satanic, ritual molestations; rape and sodomy of 2- and 3-year-olds; and bloody animal sacrifices.

When the complaint was filed, someone from the police or DA’s office alerted a television reporter to the arrests of the McMartin family members—76-year-old Virginia, her daughter Peggy, and Peggy’s adult children Ray and Peggy Ann—at their various homes. Peggy fainted. Three of the school’s other teachers were arrested more quietly.

With lurid details and authentic visuals, the story flashed through the media, often reported as if the charges were proven. People Weekly, for example, headlined a feature article early in the preliminary hearing, “The McMartins: the ‘model family’ down the block that ran California’s nightmare nursery.”[27] Years later, an award-winning Los Angeles Times series criticized the paper’s own part in contributing to the popular impression that the defendants were guilty, calling the coverage “a feeding frenzy in the media, both locally and nationally.”[28] Sensation sells, and the story was sensational.

Early statements from prosecutors focused on the pornography and prostitution charges. The Los Angeles Times quoted Deputy District Attorney Eleanor Barrett’s speculation that the school could have produced “millions” of pornographic pictures and videos. “It is abundantly clear,” Barrett told reporters, “that all income from the operation of (this) school was a fraud upon the parents of the enrolled children.”[29]

Investigators never found any negatives, financial records, unexplained income, or customer lists from the alleged pornography business, and a worldwide canvas of child pornography by the FBI and Interpol found no sign of any McMartin students.[30] The preliminary hearing continued for 18 months, though, as the child witnesses produced increasingly bizarre testimony: They had flown in helicopters and airplanes; they’d visited graveyards and churches, sometimes in the middle of the night; they’d been molested in the grocery store, at the car wash, and in a number of houses around town. Ray Buckey had beaten a horse to death with a baseball bat. He and other teachers had dismembered the school’s rabbits in front of the children as a warning not to tell anyone. Ray kept lions in the basement, and he could whisk children through underground passageways to other parts of the city.

The children began identifying local churches where they said they’d attended animal sacrifices. When the names were printed in the local papers, the churches became targets of vandalism and anonymous telephone threats. One pastor finally applied for disability retirement when the harassment of his parish continued six years after the accusations, even though no evidence of spilled blood was ever found either at the churches or at the preschool. [31]  The McMartin and Buckey households were inundated with hate mail. Peggy was assaulted in her back yard, cut with a pair of scissors by a masked attacker while taking out the trash.

When the children started talking about trips to other day cares, the state Department of Social Services ordered the closure of seven other preschools in the county, most of which never reopened. A puzzled official from the state licensing agency found only praise for the McMartin facility in his files (“Enjoyed my too short visit to your school,” one inspector had written, “The children happily enjoyed their indoor and outdoor activities.”) and told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “There was never a complaint on it before (emphasis original). It was squeaky clean”[32]

Meanwhile, the mother who raised the first complaint about Ray Buckey reported that a member of the Los Angeles school board had also molested her son; she had already accused her ex husband and a marine she had befriended. She also said that her son had witnessed the sacrifice of a live baby at McMartin, and he’d seen Ray Buckey fly. She was hospitalized with a mental breakdown before the preliminary hearing was over, and would die of liver disease before the trial started. The prosecution’s failure to reveal the mother’s increasingly bizarre mental state triggered one of the many interim motions that kept the case in court for seven years.

The preliminary hearing produced 115 charges against seven defendants, but a new district attorney took office, reviewed the case—which had inspired two resignations within his own staff—and dropped all charges against five of the defendants: the three teachers, 79-year-old Virginian McMartin, and Virginia’s adult granddaughter Peggy Ann Buckey.[33] Only Ray and his mother would stand trial, but the accused teachers had long since lost their homes and savings to legal costs, never reimbursed.

The first trial of Ray and Peggy Buckey set a new U.S. record by lasting for 30 months.[34] The cost of the investigation and prosecution set a new high of $15 million[35]—all without a single conviction on any of 89 counts. The jury at the joint trial found Peggy innocent of all 20 counts against her. The same jury found Ray innocent of 52 counts, but the panel couldn’t agree on 17 of the counts against him. A second trial in 1991 produced a mistrial, a full deadlock on the same 17 counts. One juror told reporters afterward that when he watched the videotapes of the initial CII interviews, “I had the feeling that the child just wanted to go along with the adults.”[36] A number of professionals in the field would later reach the same conclusion.[37] The prosecution chose not to refile for a third trial. A federal judge later dismissed Peggy’s civil suit for “malicious prosecution,” noting that “being very, very upset does not state a cause of action.”[38]

One of the many puzzling things about the McMartin case is that such bizarre allegations were taken seriously. The prosecution proposed that the family had been conducting highly sexual activities with hundreds of children over the course of 10 years, without a single child’s having said a thing about it to his or her parents—presumably, in fact, the children had found time for the crafts, songs, and play time they’d been reporting instead.

The buildings themselves were built in the classic southern California box tradition, with no unexplained spaces that might harbor a secret room. The concrete-slab foundations, eventually torn apart and later replaced by new construction, provided no evidence of trap doors, secret tunnels, or even a basement.

Before the accusations, Virginia had enjoyed a sterling reputation in the small community where she’d lived and worked for decades. She’d served on the Manhattan Beach Coordinating Council, and had seen the children and grandchildren of other civic leaders through her school. She’d used her index cards to keep in touch with families even after their children were grown, sending notes when she saw birth or death announcements in the paper. In 1977, she’d won the city’s Rose and Scroll award for “outstanding community service.”

None of this did her any good once her school was tainted with abuse accusations. She lost everything, except the love of her family and the faith of a few good friends. A bright note is that both Virginia and Peggy lived long enough to see the charges dropped against Ray, although many people still believe that the accusations were true, or that there must have been a kernel of truth for the case to have gone as far as it did.

Domestic life has changed in many ways since the times when children were property: We’re putting our parenting energy into smaller, planned, and often postponed families. With fertility problems facing the would-be parents who waited, children have become an especially precious commodity. Our deep-in-the-genes urge to protect the young of the species might be even more pressing when the birth rate has gone down, which it has. Even in a culture that stresses efficiency and science, biological imperatives can apparently compel us to illogical thought when we believe innocent children are at risk.

Or maybe Virginia McMartin—an independent single woman and a local political force—represented another kind of threat: The country was still finding its balance in the feminist era. Even mothers who could afford to stay home with their children were opting to remain in the work force, tilting the balance of power in their marriages. Some observers attributed the preschool sex-abuse hysteria to cultural angst—what we were really worried about was women’s changing role in society and its effect on the nuclear family; what we focused on was the fear of sexual exploitation at day care, where we weren’t so sure our children should be to begin with.[39]

In any case, the search during the 1980s for an organized network of satanic cults—or evidence that these cults were using nursery schools to gain access to children—produced no results. Countless preschools across the country were shut down, dozens of day-care providers were charged, and some of those convicted served their full sentences,[40] but the era passed with no physical evidence of organized satanic cults practicing child abuse. The word organized is important, because the occasional delusional parent will starve or beat a child in what he or she thinks is a contest with the devil, and isolated zealot communities sometimes adopt horrific practices.

After eight years investigating satanic cults, FBI special agent Kenneth Lanning reflected on his own frustration:[41]

In 1983 when I first began to hear victims’ stories of bizarre cults and human sacrifice, I tended to believe them. I had been dealing with bizarre, deviant behavior for many years and had long since realized that almost anything is possible. The idea that there are a few cunning, secretive individuals in positions of power somewhere in this country regularly killing a few people as part of some ritual or ceremony and getting away with it is certainly within the realm of possibility. But…we now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are murdering tens of thousands of people and there is little or no corroborative evidence.…

The explanation that the Satanists are too organized and law enforcement is too incompetent only goes so far in explaining the lack of evidence. For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritualistic abuse.… Now it is up to mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to be true.

Lanning closed his treatise with his fear that unless psychologists develop better ways to evaluate allegations of ritualistic child abuse, “the controversy will continue to cast a shadow over and fuel the backlash against the validity and reality of child sexual abuse.” I think Lanning was right.

(c) 2011 Sue Luttner

On to chapter 4   or   Back to table of contents

[1] Quoted in Helfer, Mary Edna, Kempe, Ruth S., Krugan, Richard D., The Battered Child, fifth edition, University of Chicago Press, 1997, p 5

[2] Taylor, Alfred S., Medical Jurisprudence, Fifth American Edition, Blanchard & Lea, Philadelphia, 1861, p 359

[3] Taylor, Alfred S., Medical Jurisprudence, Fifth American Edition, Blanchard & Lea, Philadelphia, 1861, p 439

[4] Taylor, Alfred S., Medical Jurisprudence, Fifth American Edition,  Blanchard & Lea, Philadelphis, 1856, p 339

[5] Tardieu, Ambroise, “Etude medico-légale sur les sévices et mauvais traitements exercés sur des enfants,” Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale. – 1860. – série 2, n° 13

[6] Labbé, J., “Ambroise Tardieu: The man and his work a century before Kempe,” Child Abuse and Neglect, April 2005, 29(4), 307–9.

[8] Riis, Jacob, The Children of the Poor, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1915, 142–143.

[9] Riis, Jacob, Neighbors:  Life stories of the other half, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1919, 110–112.

[11] Grossman, Jonathan, “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage,” on the U.S. Department of Labor web site, at http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/flsa1938.htm, July 2010

[12] Kempe, C.H., Silverman, F.F., Steele, B.F., Droegemueller, W., and Silver, H.K., “The Battered-Child Syndrome,” Journal of the American Medical Association, July 7, 1962, Vol. 181, No. 1, 17–24.

[13] Smith, Michelle, Pazder, Lawrence, Michelle Remembers, Congden & Lattes, 1980

[14] “Reports of satanic ritual abuse began emerging publicly in the early 1980s. Accounts continue to come from the television and news media, law enforcement sources, psychotherapists, clergy simultaneously involved in mental health professions, and both child and adult survivors. While professional literature on the topic of satanic ritual abuse is nearly non-existent, concern about the issue is becoming increasingly widespread among many professional groups and the public.” Van Benschoten, Susan S., “Multiple Personality Disorder and Satanic Ritual Abuse: The Issue of Credibility,” Dissociation, Vol. III, No. 1, March 1990.

[16] Key to overturning the conviction was the fact that Franklin was not allowed to bring old newspaper coverage into the courtroom, to demonstrate that the key witness against him knew only the details of the crime that had been published, sometimes inaccurately, in the daily newspapers.

[17] Loftus, Elizabeth, and Ketcham, Katherine, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Allegaltions and Memory of Sexual Abuse, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1994

[18] e.g.,

Blume, Sue, Secret Survivors:  Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, New York, 1988

Bass, Ellen and Davis, Laura, The Courage to Heal:  A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Harper & Row, New York New York, 1988

[19] ”Dispatch from the memory war,” Psychology Today, May 1996

[20] “With the dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of child sexual abuse, the necessity for medical examiners to have normative data regarding the anatomical finding of the anogenital region has become crucial,” researchers wrote in a paper published in 1989. (McCann, John; Voris, Joan; Simon, Mary; and Wells, Robert, “Perianal Findings in Prepubertal Children Selected for Nonabuse: A Descriptive Study,” Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 13, no. 2, p 173)

[21] McCann, John; Voris, Joan; Simon, Mary; and Wells, Robert, “Perianal Findings in Prepubertal Children Selected for Nonabuse: A Descriptive Study,” Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 13, no. 2, pp 179–193

[22] McCann, John; Wells, Robert; Simon, Mary; Voris, Joan, “Genital Findings in Prepubertal Girls Selected for Nonabuse: A Descriptive Study,” Pediatric, vol. 86, no. 3, Sept. 1990, pp 428–439


[23] Goldston, Linda and Gomex, Mark, “South Bay jury finds for victim of ‘monster,’” San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 6, 2010

[24] This McMartin account was assembled from many sources. The way was paved for me by

Eberle, Paul and Eberle, Shirley, The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial, Prometheus Books, Albany, New York, 1993

[25] http://www.childrensinstitute.org/about/history/   last accessed Oct. 23, 2011
The organization has since changed its name to Children’s Institute Inc.

[26] McFarlane told a reporter that the McMartin students “are among the most frightened children we’ve ever worked with… They were frightened to tell their secret, frightened for their lives, their parents’ lives, their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. They were frightened of me.”

Decker, Cathleen, ”Puppets Help Children Shed Horrors of Abuse,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1984

[27] “The McMartins: the ‘model family’ down the block that ran California’s nightmare nursery,” People Weekly, May 21, 1984

[28] Shaw, David, “Times McMartin Coverage Was Biased, Critics Charge,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 1990, third in a three-part series, “McMartin and the Media”

[29]Rohrlich, Ted, Welkos, Robert, “Pornography Was Main Aim of Preschool, D.A. Charges,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1984

[30] Reinhold, Robert, “The Longest Trial – A Post-Mortem,” The New York Times, Jan. 24, 1990

[31] Hubler, Shawn, “McMartin Case Fallout Takes Its Toll on Minister,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 1990

[32] Timnick, Lois, “Abuse in the Nursery School—A License Is No Safety Guarantee,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1984

[33] Chambers, Marcia. “Prosecution an Issue in Abuse Case,” The New York Times Jan. 19, 1987

[34] Reinhold, Robert, “Long Child Molestation Trial Viewed as System Run Amok,” The New York Times, July 27, 1989

[35] Reinhold, Robert, “The Longest Trial – A Post-Mortem,” The New York Times, Jan. 24, 1990

[36] “Long Child Molestation Trial Viewed as System Run Amok,” The New York Times, July 27 1989.

[37] E.g., Schreiber, Nadja, “Suggestive interviewing in the McMartin Preschool and Kelly Michaels daycare abuse cases:  A case study,” Social Influence (Psychology Press), 1(1), 16–47

Transcripts show the interviewers saying things like “Don’t be a dummy” when children denied abuse, and praising as “smart” statements about sexual activities.

[38] “Defendants’s Suit Dismissed in 7-Year Molestation Case,” The New York Times, Aug. 7, 1990

[39]Talbot, Margaret, “The devil in the nursery: her surreal trial for Satanic abuse revealed America’s anxieties about leaving its children with strangers” (obituary of Peggy McMartin Buckey), The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 7, 2001

[40] In the Wee Care Nursery School case in New Jersey, Kelly Michaels was convicted in 1988 but released in 1993 after a successful appeal.

In the Fells Acres Day School case in Massachusetts, Violet Amirault and her two adult children, Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, were convicted in 1985 and 1986. Tried together, Violet and Cheryl successfully appealed their convictions eight years into their sentences, a few months before Violet’s death from cancer at 72. Despite a number of appeals and years of columns by Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald stayed in prison until released on parole in 2004.

[41] Lanning, Kenneth, “Ritual Abuse: A Law Enforcement View or Perspective,” Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 15, 1991, pp 172, 173

2 responses to “3. “California’s nightmare nursery”

  1. Pingback: Old Theories Die Hard | On SBS

  2. Pingback: Parents, Meet the Experts; Experts, Meet the Parents | On SBS

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