“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878

depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family

How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors

destroyed the lives of seven innocent North Carolinians – and

have yet to admit they were wrong

Sweden examines its mistakes – why doesn’t N.C.?

Sept. 29, 2015

“Thomas Quick was the name adopted by Swedish petty criminal and drug addict Sture Bergwall, who under ‘recovered memory’ therapy, confessed to raping, killing and even eating more than 30 victims [during the 1970s and ’80s].

“These were supposedly reenactments of ‘recovered memories of sexual abuse’ he had experienced as a child.

“Extraordinarily compelling in the dock as a witness to his own ‘crimes’ (which he had never committed), he was convicted of eight murders. He had trawled newspapers for unsolved killings and convinced the Swedish police that he was responsible – even though he never led them to a single body.

“In 2008, his ‘confessions’ were shown to be untrue and by 2013 the last of his convictions was overturned. The Swedish government has ordered an inquiry into this devastating failure of its justice system. There will be lessons in it for our own [British] authorities.”

– From “Is the therapy that brings out false memories behind VIP abuse claims?” by Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail  (Sept. 20)


How about that – a government that wants to examine “the devastating failure of its justice system”! If the State of North Carolina ever felt such an urge, I think I could come up with a case or two that meet that description....



Innocent defendants are poor candidates for recidivism

Sept. 22, 2015

“Pedophilia, the sexual attraction to children who have not yet reached puberty, remains a vexing challenge for clinicians and public officials.... Researchers have found no effective treatment. Like other sexual orientations, pedophilia is unlikely to change....

“Estimates of recidivism vary.... One long-term study of previously convicted pedophiles (with an average follow-up of 25 years) found that one-fourth of heterosexual pedophiles and one-half of homosexual or bisexual pedophiles went on to commit another sexual offense against children....”

– From “Pessimism about pedophilia” in the Harvard Mental Health Letter (July 1, 2010)


As far as I’ve been able to tell, not a single one of the defendants in the Little Rascals, McMartin, Fells Acres, Wee Care, etc., cases has been accused of later sexual offenses – or had been accused of earlier offenses. How could the serial perpetrators of such outrageous crimes have avoided recidivism?

Footnote: The Harvard researchers also noted that “Nearly all people with pedophilic tendencies are male. Studies of child molesters have reported that only 1 percent to 6 percent of perpetrators are female”.... Wonder how the Little Rascals prosecutors explained to themselves how no fewer than five of their seven defendants happened to be women?



‘Ritual abuse’ claims exempt from retraction?

Sept. 14, 2015

“Rising retraction rates reflect [in part] the fact that scientists, journalists and amateur watchdogs have begun scrutinizing research more closely....

“This heightened scrutiny – the very scrutiny that likely contributed to the retractions surge in the first place – could help reverse the tide, by providing a powerful disincentive to bad behavior. As more scientific misconduct is exposed and shamed,
researchers who were previously tempted to play fast and loose with their data may now think twice.”

– From “A Scientific Look at Bad Science” by Bourree Lam
in The Atlantic (September 2015)


“The increase in overall retractions is mostly because a higher percentage of journals have begun issuing retractions.... One reason it’s taken a while... could be that they had to develop the necessary guidelines for defining, detecting and dealing with ‘misconduct’....

“[One] study found that editors are retracting articles significantly faster now than in the past. We might be working our way towards a future in which fraudsters like [Diederik] Stapel won’t build up such massive bodies of literature before being unmasked. Their first or second will be caught, before they’ve done too much damage.”

 – From “Scientific Retractions are on the Rise, and That May Be a Good Thing” by Rosie Cima at Priceonomics (June 24


“Before they’ve done too much damage” – ah, if only that applied to the errant (and still unrepentant) authors and journal editors whose efforts lent credence to the prosecution during the “satanic ritual abuse” moral panic.


Another child-witness, now grown, spills the beans

Sept. 8, 2015

“Jennifer (a pseudonym) reached out to me after seeing an interview I gave about the McMartin Preschool trial.... She said she had been involved in a similar case as a child and that her experiences with the police, the judicial system, and a series of therapists mirrored those of the McMartin children. Now an adult with a career and family of her own, she agreed to speak with me about her experiences during the trial and in the decades since....

“Jennifer’s experiences illustrate the consequences of the misguided ‘belief’ in children that so many therapists, parents, and cops professed during the 1980s....”

– From “Moral Panic and the Myth of Recovered Memory” by Richard Beck at Literary Hub (Aug. 18) 


Although Beck presents more as a historian than a journalist, his interview with Jennifer is a significant addition to the sparse roster of recanting (or not) child-witnesses. Not surprisingly, her account offers numerous parallels not only to McMartin but also to Little Rascals:


••• “lots of phone conversations and meetings” among parents

••• an interviewer with “anatomically correct dolls”

••• her initial insistence that “nothing had happened”

••• “a tour of the jail” arranged by the therapist to assure her that the supposed molester was safely behind bars

••• her capitulation in the face of endless therapy sessions, leading her to “finally just start... making stuff up.”

••• the eventual overturning of her day-care teacher’s conviction


Might Jennifer’s coming forward, however tentatively, lead the way to more recantations by child-witnesses?


It wasn’t just Edenton where lips were zipped

Sept. 5, 2015

“An 1895 reporter found [Salem] town residents reluctant to talk about the past.

“When they did, it was to impress upon him that they had not burned a single witch. Years later Arthur Miller met with the same silence while researching The Crucible. ‘You couldn’t get anyone to say anything about it,’ he complained of 1692....

“When [an archivist] began an excavation of the parsonage site in 1970, two elderly sisters waved fists at him from across the way.... ‘What are you bringing this up for?’ they demanded....”

– From “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff (due Oct. 27)


Schiff has a lengthy related piece in the current New Yorker.







Steinem made case for believing the unbelievable

Sept. 1, 2015

 “[As witnesses] children are even less likely to be believed when their stories involve extremes of sadism, collusion among families and communities (sometimes extending over several generations) and so-called ritual or cult abuse – including the torture and killing of animals to frighten children into silence – that are so terrible that authorities decide these things just can’t be true.

“Yet many instances of such ‘incredible’ crimes are documented, sometimes by adults after years of suppressed memory, sometimes by authorities who are now beginning to believe children enough to investigate their stories.....”...

– From “Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem” by Gloria Steinem (1993)


Steinem’s semi-autobiography was a best-seller, both profiting from and contributing to the nation’s heightened concern with self-esteem.

In addition to using Ms. magazine to tout the existence of “ritual abuse,” she also helped finance the search for the imaginary McMartin tunnels.




Dog bites man: ‘Paper will not be retracted’

Aug. 26, 2015

In November 2012 the journal Nursing Research declined my request to retract Susan J. Kelley’s 1990 article based on the existence of “satanic ritual abuse” in day cares. The editor contended that “Conditions that would lead to a retraction are not present.”

Nursing Research having since installed a new editor, I recently tried again. This time I was able to include two important academic developments: Richard Noll’s expose of the “satanic ritual abuse” movement in Psychiatric Times and Dr. Allen Frances’ personal apology for failing to do more to challenge that movement.

This is an excerpt from the response I received from editor Susan J. Henly, professor emerita, University of Minnesota School of Nursing:


“As I understood it, your argument for retraction [of ‘Parental Stress Response to Sexual Abuse and Ritualistic Abuse of Children in Day-care Centers’] was based on the rationale that: the title embraced and promoted the existence of ritual sexual abuse in day cares that did not exist, and that not a single respected academic or professional would be willing to give credence to claims about ritualistic sexual abuse from the times during which the research was conducted.

“In response, I re-read Kelley et al. (1990) many times, reviewed background information, contacted the author, and communicated with the editor of another journal that has published papers on child sexual abuse by Dr. Kelley. Documents related to the original peer review of the Nursing Research paper are not available, and the Editor (Dr. Florence Downs) who accepted the paper is deceased.

“I searched for other papers on this topic from the 1980s to the present and did not locate any, including other original research by Dr. Kelley, that had been retracted. I discussed the methods of the research with Dr. Kelley; she verified what was stated in the paper, which I found to be in accord with expectations for scientific standards and ethical conduct of research. The editor I contacted about a related paper said the journal stood by the integrity of their review process and quality of the scholarship that had been published.

“With regards to issues related to credence of claims about ritualistic sexual abuse, Finkelhor, Williams, Burns, & Kalinowski (1988) included this sort of abuse in their national study of sexual abuse in day care. More recently, Salter (2013) provided a critical overview of debates arising from allegations of organized sexual abuse and addressed issues related to terminology. (Dr. Michael Salter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Western Sydney). Also, a book by [Ross] Cheit (2014) summarized scholarly work that uses empirical data to challenge the view that cases from the 1980s were based on moral panic of the type described in your message. (Dr. Cheit is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University.)

“Findings from the many papers (thousands) in the peer-reviewed literature focused on the forensic, sociological, political, family and health aspects of child sexual abuse will no doubt, with time, contribute to better understanding that can be used to keep children from harm as well as protect the rights of those wrongly accused – both issues that are of critical importance to all citizens.

“Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to publications that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon (Committee on Publication Ethics, n.d.). Criteria for retraction of a paper include: clear evidence that findings were unreliable, the paper was redundant or plagiarized, or the research was conducted unethically.

“Using the process described above, I did not find evidence of any of these concerns in Kelley (1990). For this reason, the paper will not be retracted.”


Dr. Henly’s rejection letter is thoughtful and earnest, and I appreciate the time and effort it required. Some editors would’ve simply ignored me. But it is far too narrow, blindered to the big picture. This is from my response to her:


 “The ‘satanic ritual abuse’ day-care moral panic is prominently in the news media these days with publication of ‘We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s” by Richard Beck. Unlike Ross Cheit’s revisionist “The Witch-Hunt Narrative,’ Beck’s book already has been positively reviewed in such periodicals as the New York Times (twice), the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. It is the long-awaited standard history of this era, and it establishes clearly that “satanic ritual abuse” was no more than a toxic myth.

“Your citations in defense of Dr. Susan J. Kelley’s article do nothing to disqualify your first criterion for retraction: ‘clear evidence that findings were unreliable.’

“The ‘ritualistic abuse of children in day-care centers’ motivating the article simply never happened – what evidence of unreliability could be clearer?

“Would Dr. Kelley today argue otherwise?”




‘Antifeminism’ to blame? Not so fast, Mr. Beck

Aug. 24, 2015

“[Richard] Beck is generally restrained in his narrative, letting the details pile up to a well-deserved indictment of the many players in the ‘moral panic.’ But in explaining how these fever dreams managed to seize the national imagination, he does a little witch-hunting of his own. The frenzy, he tells us, was a backlash by family-values conservatives to the social changes around them. It was a period of ‘an intense reactionary antifeminism.’

“This is an inexcusably partial interpretation. From Beck’s own evidence, feminists themselves were vital players in the hysteria. Gloria Steinem donated money to the McMartin investigation, and Ms. Magazine ran a 1993 cover article ‘BELIEVE IT! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists,’ even though, by that time, the general public had grown increasingly skeptical of the idea.

“In part because of her aggressive pursuit of child abusers – and conviction of a number of people later exonerated – a relatively unknown Dade County state attorney named Janet Reno was picked by President Clinton to become the nation’s first female attorney general. According to Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, the authors of ‘Satan’s Silence,’ [Kee] MacFarlane had been a lobbyist for NOW before she set about terrifying the children of Manhattan Beach.

“With his partisan recounting of the child abuse panic of the 1980s, Beck turns what could have been a careful history about one facet of the nation’s exhausting culture wars into one more illustration of them.”

– From “ ‘We Believe the Children,’ by Richard Beck” by Kay Hymowitz
in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (Aug. 21, 2015)


I’m posting this criticism of Beck’s book – from an otherwise laudatory review – mostly for archival purposes. My own interest lies less in the tangled roots of the day-care panic than in its results: defendants wrongfully incarcerated, children profoundly misguided and therapists and prosecutors unjustly unscathed.



When imaginary crime leads to real punishment

Aug. 20, 2015

“In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine testified on behalf of an elementary-school teacher who had been accused of being a pedophile.

“A child had told his mother that the teacher had taught them about ‘boobies and dicks’ and had drawn a picture on the blackboard that sounded suspiciously to the mother like an image of an ejaculating penis.

“The police had raced to the classroom and confiscated the damning evidence: several copies of ‘Moby-Dick.’ What the teacher had drawn was a whale and its spout.

“Looking back, we can see that the only boobies involved in this case were the adults. But whenever we are in the midst of a moral panic, as we were in the 1980s, we feel that our alarm is reasonable and that punitive solutions are appropriate.

“Dicks? That child knew the word ‘dicks’? Cancel sex ed! Run that teacher out of town!...”

– From “A Very Model Moral Panic” by Carol Tavris in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 7)




Prosecutors misused bail to squeeze defendants

Aug. 16, 2015

“In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it....

“Across the criminal-justice system, bail acts as a tool of compulsion, forcing people who would not otherwise plead guilty to do so....”

– From “The Bail Trap” by Nick Pinto in the New York Times (Aug. 13)


Could there be a more bare-faced example of “excessive bail” than that set for the Edenton Seven?

Bob Kelly, $1.5 million (later reduced to $200,000 after his conviction was overturned then $50,000 )

Betsy Kelly, $1.8 million (reduced to $400,000)

Scott Privott, $1 million (reduced to $50,000)

Shelley Stone, $375,000

Dawn Wilson, $880,000 (reduced to $200,000)

Robin Byrum, $500,000 (reduced to $200,000)

Darlene Harris, $350,000

Did prosecutors fear that the defendants would flee to Argentina? That they would prowl the town’s playgrounds in search of new victims? No, these absurd amounts surely had no purpose but to coerce confessions. How shocked and disappointed they must have been that not one of the defendants, though crushed financially, succumbed.





The Little Rascals case in brief

In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent's complaint about punishment given her child.

Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth "Betsy" Kelly, Robert "Bob" Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.

Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.

By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina's longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did.

Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.

Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series "Frontline." Although "Innocence Lost" did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.

With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.

This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.