Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | witchhunts

Jan/18

12

Oprah and McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

Cross-posted on the Corner.

In a post yesterday, I mentioned the contribution made by Oprah Winfrey to the ritual satanic abuse witch hunts of the 1980s. One of the most notorious cases of that era was the McMartin preschool trial, and I quoted this from an article last year by Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard (my emphasis added):

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.

Eventually that case collapsed, but I was unaware of this particular  postscript. Here’s Howard Rosenberg, writing in the LA Times in January 1990 (my emphasis added):

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquitting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream. At least that’s the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants…

Even in trying to address child molestation trials as a generic issue, the [Geraldo]  show was overwhelmingly concerned with the ordeal of the children caught up in the McMartin case. No one would reject that as a legitimate concern. But what about the ordeal of the seven original defendants, especially Buckey and his mother, who each spent years in jail?

That question was not addressed on “Geraldo.” Nor was it addressed on two earlier TV retrials of the case, on “Oprah” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” Compared to them, “Geraldo” was as judicious as the Supreme Court.

A smaller number of former McMartin students and their parents were on stage in Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago studio along with Greg Mooney, the attorney who represents many of the McMartin families, and Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, which treated some of the McMartin children.

Speaking by satellite from Los Angeles–and as electronically disadvantaged as the satellite guests on “Geraldo”–were McMartin Judge William Pounders and Brenda Williams, the most articulate of the McMartin jurors who have gone public after the verdict. The level of fairness here was typified by Winfrey’s admission that she would have made a poor McMartin juror because “I would say, ‘The children said it; all right, you’re right.’ ” The studio audience applauded.

Their truth, presumably.

Rosenberg:

Winfrey’s show is a perfect vehicle for emotions, which she brings out with great sincerity. That’s her strength. Yet her show has difficulty reaching the stories beneath the surface tears, and, like much of TV, it strips away nuances and tailors complexities to its own time constraints.

Winfrey to a former McMartin student: “What did you tell the jury?” That’s right, capsulize 16 days of testimony in a few sentences.

Again to the same student: “How old were you when all of these things allegedly happened?” And now to the student’s mother: “How did you at first find out that something was allegedly going on at the school?”

Using allegedly here was like trying to mend decapitation with a Band-Aid.

Of all of TV’s talk show hosts, Winfrey is perhaps the least inclined to play devil’s advocate. She could have asked Pounders about the propriety of his multiple talk show appearances, but didn’t. She could have demanded evidence when one of her guests accused McMartin defendants of “terrorist tactics,” but didn’t.

It was clear that she, her studio audience and the McMartin kids and their parents were on the same side…

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Jan/18

11

Oprah, Subjective Truth and Salem 2.0

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Over on the homepage Philip Devoe rightly laments Oprah Winfrey’s fondness for pseudoscience and New Age ‘thinking’. It would only be fair to also mention the role she played in the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Writing in the Houston Press in 2015, Chris Lane recalls the contribution made to this disgrace by the book Michelle Remembers (my emphasis added):

 

Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, “remembered” through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It’s one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle’s recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book’s influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.

Indeed it was.

Writing in the Weekly Standard last year, Philip Terzian turned his attention to one of the most notorious cases of that era, the McMartin preschool trial (again, my emphasis added):

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.

A quick glance at some old YouTube footage of Winfrey on that topic (some of it, appallingly, seemingly still being used by conspiracy theorists) will show that her interest in ‘your truth’ rather than the truth is nothing new

It’s worth remembering how that worked out for those imprisoned on what would, in saner times, have been literally incredible grounds.

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Dec/13

9

21 Years

Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageWitch trials. Still with us.

The Guardian reports:

Dan Keller has left an Austin jail, a week after his wife was released – and 21 years after the pair were given a 48-year sentence for sexual assault during America’s “Satanic panic” era. Fran Keller, 63, was released on bond last week after the Travis County district attorney agreed that the trial jury was probably swayed by the faulty testimony of an expert witness.

To supporters of Dan, 72, and Fran Keller, 63, their 1992 trial was a modern-day Texas witch-hunt that recalled the hysterical delusions of seventeenth-century Salem. The fuse was lit in August 1991, when a three-year-old girl on the way to a behavioural therapy session told her mother that Dan Keller had spanked her at the preschool he ran with his wife in Austin.

The girl told the therapist that Keller had sexually assaulted her using a pen and “pooped and peed on my head”.
In subsequent months, two other children made similar claims about the Kellers. By the time the couple went on trial in November 1992, the allegations were significantly more lurid and involved allegations of ritual abuse, murder, dismemberment and animal sacrifice.

The Kellers were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child, even though the three-year-old girl at the centre of the case recanted her claims in court.

The only physical evidence against the Kellers was the testimony of Dr Michael Mouw, who examined the girl in the emergency room of a local hospital after the therapy session and said he found tears in her hymen that potentially indicated that she was molested.

Mouw signed an affidavit last January in which he affirms that he now realises his inexperience led him to a conclusion that “is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken.”

In an appeal filed on behalf of Fran Keller earlier this year, her lawyer, Keith Hampton, also argued that the state presented misleading evidence about the cemetery, relied on a false witness confession and the testimony of a “quack” satanic abuse “expert”, and that suggestive interview techniques had encouraged the children to make “fantastical false statements”.

According to police reports and trial records, the children said that Dan Keller killed his dog and made children cut it up and eat it, “baptised” kids with blood and disembowelled pets, forcing children to drink the blood.The Kellers were also said to have decapitated and chopped up a baby, put the remains in a swimming pool and made the children jump in. In one account, the Kellers were said to have stolen a baby gorilla from a park and Frances cut off one of its fingers.

The pair, who apparently liked to wear robes, were said to have dug graves in a cemetery to hide dead animals and a passer-by who was shot and carved up with a chain saw…

21 years.

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Aug/12

27

Ghana, 2012

Via The Independent:

Around 700 women and 800 children live in Gambaga camp, and in five other witch camps across northern Ghana, where they are virtually cut off from the outside world. Housed in flimsy mud huts, without enough food, they have few basic health or education facilities. Their children and, often, grandchildren grow up inside the camps’ boundaries…

“I know nothing about witchcraft,” said Ms Gigire, when she was first brought to Ghana’s largest camp. “The girl’s father and three of the men from her family came to my house and told my husband that if I didn’t release the soul of the girl they will beat me to death. They said that if I wanted to stay alive I should leave for Gambaga straight away. My husband was not strong enough to fight all of them.”

Three months ago, Ms Gigire’s husband managed to get his wife out of the camp − paying £70 to the chief and buying animals for a ritual. She is now trying to rehabilitate herself to life outside, but the stigma of being accused is hard to shake off. Around 40 per cent of the women who leave the camps return within a year, according to an ActionAid report, Condemned Without Trial, to be published this week.

Women and children are also targeted in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and the Central African Republic. Earlier this year, a mother of two was burned alive in central Nepal after being branded a witch, and just weeks ago, four children were killed by a “witch doctor” in Haiti…

Suuk Lari, 51, was accused of being a witch when her teenage daughter died. She has lived in Gambaga camp in northern Ghana for more than three years. She returned home once, but, when another woman’s child died, she was again accused of witchcraft, and returned to the camp.

“At my daughter’s funeral, a mob attacked me. They hammered a nail into my ankle. People were saying ‘look at this woman, she is a witch’. More men came and beat me; one pushed me down a well. They said they would kill me.
“I prefer living here. I am with other women. When I wake up I hear laughter, and we can go where we want to go. I can’t ever return home.”

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Mar/12

3

London in the 21st Century

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, here’s Damian Thompson with a terrible story about superstition and murder in contemporary London:

A 15-year-old boy is tortured to death for witchcraft. In London. In 2010. And the private reaction of police and social workers? Quiet despair. It’s happened before and will happen again…The Metropolitan Police waited until after the end of the court case to warn us that children are being abused and murdered in increasing numbers in Britain because their African relatives think they are “spirit children” – that is, witches.

Also, children’s charities and campaigners “urged communities to report abuse and said social workers must be firmer in confronting abuse in immigrant groups”.

Let’s deconstruct that. Campaigners are making this appeal because African communities in Britain have been too slow to report this abuse. And social workers have soft-pedalled on the subject, despite the shameful record of their colleagues in the case of Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast who was tortured to death in 2000 by family members who believed she was possessed by the devil.

Victoria’s death could have been avoided if Brent and Haringey social services hadn’t turned a PC blind eye to her abuse. Victoria’s senior social worker, Carole Baptiste, was accused of “spending her time talking about God and her experiences as a black woman, rather than looking after the interests of the vulnerable”. She was found guilty by magistrates of failing to help the public inquiry.

A contact working in this field told me yesterday: “Social workers from African backgrounds are scared. First, because they may have residual beliefs about witches themselves. Second, because they don’t want to confront church pastors who make a fortune out of ‘exorcising’ children – often at the request of their parents.”

The Climbié and Bamu cases were atypical because they involved spectacular violence. But the charity Trust for London is talking nonsense when it says that “no faith or culture promotes cruelty to children”. In 2009, the African journalist Sorious Samura made a World Service programme about the slaughter of “witches” in Ghana. He walked up one hill in which, he reckoned, the bodies of tens of thousands of “spirit children” were buried.

An African organisation, Afrikids – one of The Daily Telegraph’s charity appeal partners – is trying to challenge this mentality. But it’s not easy, when the parents of a disabled or “strange” child believe it will murder the rest of the family. Samura asked the pupils of a Ghanaian primary school about “spirit children”. Most of them thought they should be killed.
Afrikids provides shelter for mothers who have run away with their child rather than allow the local “concoction man” to administer the appropriate poison – a daily occurrence in parts of Africa. Will it soon have to do the same in London?

Prof Jean La Fontaine is the anthropologist who exploded the myth of satanic ritual abuse. She’s based at Inform, Britain’s foremost academic cult-watching body, and certainly doesn’t think the abuse of “spirit children” in Britain is a myth. She is horrified by the rich African pastors who encourage these crimes, and adds: “We do not hear Christian churches raising their voices against the belief in child witches.”

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Jan/10

16

Salem’s Lot

Over at the Corner yesterday, I linked to Dorothy Rabinowitz’s fine WSJ piece on the involvement of Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts senate race, in the persecution of the Amirault family, the true victims of a now notorious sex abuse trial. What Ms. Rabinowitz has to say is, as so often, a must-read. She concludes as follows:

Attorney General Martha Coakley—who had proven so dedicated a representative of the system that had brought the Amirault family to ruin, and who had fought so relentlessly to preserve their case—has recently expressed her view of this episode. Questioned about the Amiraults in the course of her current race for the U.S. Senate, she told reporters of her firm belief that the evidence against the Amiraults was “formidable” and that she was entirely convinced “those children were abused at day care center by the three defendants.”

What does this say about her candidacy? (Ms. Coakley declined to be interviewed.) If the current attorney general of Massachusetts actually believes, as no serious citizen does, the preposterous charges that caused the Amiraults to be thrown into prison—the butcher knife rape with no blood, the public tree-tying episode, the mutilated squirrel and the rest—that is powerful testimony to the mind and capacities of this aspirant to a Senate seat. It is little short of wonderful to hear now of Ms. Coakley’s concern for the rights of terror suspects at Guantanamo—her urgent call for the protection of the right to the presumption of innocence.

If the sound of ghostly laughter is heard in Massachusetts these days as this campaign rolls on, with Martha Coakley self-portrayed as the guardian of justice and civil liberties, there is good reason.

There are a couple of good books on the topic, but I’ve always been surprised about how little historians have had to say about the American abuse panics of the 1980s and early 1990s. They were in many ways a reincarnation of the witch trials of an earlier era, complete with junk science (the conjuring up of ‘repressed memories’ in particular) and religious hysteria (the belief in widespread Satanic cults) and, as such, a terrifying reminder of the persistence of irrationalityand superstition in the most advanced of societies as well, of course, as the willingness of the ambitious to exploit it.

But if the silence of the historians is striking, so was the reluctance of the politicians of that time to take a stand against what was an extraordinarily destructive phenomenon. Cowardice is also, it seems, a permanent value.

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