Thirty years ago, Judy Johnson, a mother in Manhattan Beach, Calif., took her 2 1/2-year-old son, Matthew, to the pediatrician, fearing he had been sexually abused by his preschool teacher.
By today’s standards, the medical evidence in Matthew’s case was inconclusive: He had a rash on his bottom and rectal bleeding. But at the time, his symptoms were viewed as serious cause for concern. And so Matthew’s trip to the doctor began one of the longest, most expensive and notorious criminal investigations in American history. As other parents at the McMartin Preschool heard about Ms. Johnson’s suspicions, the investigation expanded to dozens of families. A Los Angeles grand jury charged Raymond Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the preschool, and six others with 321 counts of sexual abuse involving 48 children.
The accusations mounted, and went wild. Children said they’d watched McMartin teachers dig up corpses, that they’d been forced to drink rabbit’s blood. At a hearing before the trial, a prosecutor observed, “The kids are falling apart”.
In the end, after seven years and $15 million, the case fell of its own weight, ending without a single conviction.
McMartin was the first of a series of prosecutions in the 1980s that have come to be seen as a collective witch hunt, in which panicked parents and incompetent investigators led children to make up stories of abuse by adults at day care centers and preschools.
But what if the skeptics went too far? What if some of the children were really abused? And what if the legacy of these cases is a disturbing tendency to disbelieve children who say they are being molested? Those are the questions that frame this new book by Ross E. Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who spent nearly 15 years on research, poring over old trial transcripts and interview tapes.
His conclusion about the McMartin case is that the outcome was “doubly unjust.” While he acknowledges that some defendants were falsely accused, he argues that Mr. Buckey was probably guilty, meaning that some of the children were not only sexually abused but “have been demeaned by the witch-hunt narrative’s assertion that the entire case was a ‘hoax.’ ”
It’s a provocative notion, that the debunkers deserve a debunking. Professor Cheit, who himself suffered sexual abuse as a child, criticizes the skepticism that helped bring down the prosecutions of McMartin and other day-care providers, calling it a “crusade to promote the witch-hunt narrative.”
The parents of actually abused children lost their chance to justice because of getting into the court with others who did not share the same cause.
It reminds me of a brilliant motto by Schiller: The strong man is strongest when alone.
Seek your right on your own.
Seek justice by your self.
You may think that sometimes this is the only way. But you will be wrong. It is ALWAYS the only way.