How could anyone believe that a popular gathering place for children actually was a front for a child sex abuse ring, with secret tunnels used to hide the nefarious goings on?
How could anyone believe that innocent signs and logos actually were secret codes for child sexual abuse and Satanic rituals?
Enough people believed such claims about Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizza place in Washington D.C., to rain down misery on the owners and employees. First, it was threats and harassment online. Then a man who said he wanted to “self-investigate” claims that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were running a pedophilia ring from the store, walked in and allegedly fired shots.
The 2016 election campaign and its aftermath have been awash in fake news stories created by everyone from right-wing extremists to clickbait entrepreneurs. But we seem especially vulnerable when purveyors of fake news add two magic words: child abuse.
Before there was even an internet, in the 1980s, stories like Pizzagate spread across the country – and did even more damage. They weren’t spread by fringe groups. They were spread by people in the mainstream of American child welfare, and by the same mainstream media that now demands we all look more skeptically at fake news.
Mainstream Professionals …
A pedophilia ring hiding in secret tunnels? That was the claim at the heart of the notorious McMartin Preschool case. As The New York Times put it in a story looking back on the hysteria of that era:
[S]ome of the early allegations were so fantastic as to make many people wonder later how anyone could have believed them in the first place. Really now, teachers chopped up animals, clubbed a horse to death with a baseball bat, sacrificed a baby in a church and made children drink the blood, dressed up as witches and flew in the air — and all this had been going on unnoticed for a good long while until a disturbed mother spoke up?
Oh, but they believed; how they believed. As the Times explained, it didn’t stop with McMartin:
McMartin unleashed nationwide hysteria about child abuse and Satanism in schools. One report after another told of horrific practices, with the Devil often literally in the details.
There were hundreds of arrests across the country, more than 70 people were convicted – and later exonerated.
As for secret signs and symbols, consider what happened to a San Diego couple whose grandchildren were taken because a mentally unstable relative, after much “therapy,” had come to believe much of her family was part of a Satanic cult. The relative reported the grandparents to child protective services, which assigned the case to a worker who was a prominent member of the San Diego County Ritual Abuse Task Force.
As the San Diego Union Tribune reported in 1991, when the grandparents wanted to send one of the children a birthday card, their child protective services caseworker said the card could not have animals on it – because, she claimed, devil worshipers use such images to send subliminal signals to the children in their thrall. No clowns either, for the same reason. The caseworker already had confiscated all the letters the grandparents had written to their grandchildren, claiming they contained subliminal Satanic messages.
This was no rogue caseworker. The Ritual Abuse Task Force actually trained caseworkers and mental health professionals. The task force produced a widely circulated booklet informing fellow professionals, the press and the public that:
Numerous cults exist which have sophisticated suppliers of sacrificial persons, from kidnappers through ‘breeders’ (women who bear children intended for sexual abuse and sacrifice)…
… and Mainstream Media
Instead of Alex Jones spreading bizarre conspiracy theories on the radio in the middle of the night, there was one mainstream news organization after another accepting preposterous claims uncritically. There was even a made-for- television movie on CBS featuring a thinly disguised version of McMartin. But in this version, the hero bursts in on the villainous day care center operators just as a satanic ritual is getting underway.
Reporters at the Union Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and author Debbie Nathan were among a few notable exceptions. By and large, media performance was so bad that when the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize in connection with McMartin the prize went to its media critic for a multi-part series decrying the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in the coverage, at the Times and elsewhere.
“Believe the Children”
The media believed in large part because a whole lot of medical professionals and therapists told them to believe. “Believe the children,” they said. “Children don’t lie,” they said. And if you don’t believe the children, then you’re little better than a child abuser yourself.
But the children were coached. Sometimes bribed, sometimes cajoled, sometimes bullied until they told the “professionals” what they wanted to hear.
In what is probably the best account of all this, Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s book, Satan’s Silence, the authors describe how Dr. Astrid Heger, then of the Children’s Institute International, which fomented the McMartin hysteria, questioned one girl who repeatedly denied being abused. Heger tells the little girl:
I don’t want to hear any more “no’s. No, no! Detective Dog and we are going to figure this out. Every little boy and girl in the whole school got touched like that … I think there’s something to tell me about touching.”
Yet to this day, Heger is taken seriously, and is quoted in publications such as this one, where she continues to make questionable claims, in this case about the supposed value of parking place shelters.
If the professionals who did nothing to stop the 1980s satanic panic have issued a big, public formal apology to the victims of the panic they did so much to foment, I have not seen it. And the organization that grew, in part, out of the panic, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), has bestowed awards on some of the worst offenders. Kee MacFarlane, who led the questioning of children in the McMartin case, served on APSAC’s board – and received the group’s “Outstanding Professional” award – a decade after McMartin.
And in 1997, three years after writing an article promoting the idea that there really were secret tunnels under the McMartin Preschool, Roland Summit, another former board member (and “technical consultant” for the made-for-TV movie discussed earlier), received the group’s “Lifetime Achievement” award.
We’re still living with the failure to learn the lessons of McMartin. Prof. Roger Lancaster of George Mason University argues that hype and hysteria from decades ago
…have left deep cultural residues, and these include the acceptance of exaggerated claims about the number of child trafficking victims, and the incidence and forms of organized child sexual abuse. Pizzagate relies [in part] on these inflated fears to seem plausible …
And, as always, the harm isn’t limited to the children needlessly taken from their homes. Once people realized they’d been “had,” there were complaints that the ritual abuse hysteria made it harder for victims of actual abuse to be believed. That, too, is dangerous, because sometimes pillars of the community really are child abusers. Case in point: football coach, and foster parent, Jerry Sandusky.
But after Sandusky was caught, child welfare “professionals” were back in full-hype mode, promoting wildly exaggerated numbers, just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. The media fell back into old patterns too, spreading paranoia through entire communities.
The seeds of Pizzagate were planted at the McMartin preschool, then grown and nurtured by a lot of “professionals” who should know better. At a minimum, the rest of us should consign these professionals to well-deserved obscurity, instead of continuing to take their pronouncements about child welfare seriously.