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Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.

In Wenatchee, Washington, almost two dozen people are in prison, serving decades-long sentences for allegedly participating in a sex ring that practiced bizarre devil-worshipping rituals with as many as fifty children. Most of them are poor or mentally disabled. Three middle-class defendants who hired private lawyers and pleaded not guilty were acquitted. But all the accused, whether convicted or not, lost savings, reputations and family. Many of their children are in foster care. Says one acquitted man, "It's ruined my life."

The events in the small, apple-growing town were just unfolding as this book went to press, but they followed a terrifyingly familiar pattern rehearsed in the hundreds of "satanic ritual abuse" cases that have erupted from Bakersfield, California, to the Bronx in the last fifteen years. The charges begin with one child or parent, and mushroom: in Wenatchee, a nine-year-old girl accused ninety people, seven other children eventually made accusations, and townspeople who criticized the proceedings found themselves on the list of the accused. The prosecutions are spearheaded by an ambitious local official: in this case, Police Chief Robert Perez was that nine-year-old's foster-father. Most of the children deny abuse until they are subjected to repeated, suggestive and threatening interrogations: some Wenatchee kids were put in a mental institution and administered "memory recovery treatment." Many, even most, of those charged are women (overwhelmingly, child molesters are men). Relaxed evidentiary rules ease the prosecution: in Wenatchee, witness interviews and defendants' confessions were not taped and notes were destroyed, and no physical evidence corroborated the children's charges. And many of the accusers later recanted or "forgot" the abuse. Said one juror: "I feel there's a witch hunt. There's just no evidence."

In spite of growing public scepticism and journalistic discrediting of satanic abuse, coupled with a spate of recently overturned convictions and a five-year nationwide FBI investigation concluding that rumors of such cults are unfounded, high-level officials have looked the other way. Washington State criminal lawyer Kathryn Lyon asked the Justice Department to review her 250-page "Wenatchee Report," charging multiple civil-rights violations in those cases. But Justice, under Janet Reno - who presided over several satanic abuse cases in Florida and had Waco bombed, with children inside, because she believed they were being sexually abused - declined to investigate.

Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, will leave few but the truest believers doubting the authors' conviction: that satanic ritual abuse is an imagined peril representing a social hysteria as terrible as the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism.

Nathan and Snedeker are not unbiased observers. Nathan has been writing critical stories on satanic abuse for a decade; she won the H.L. Mencken Award for Investigative Journalism for those she did for the Village Voice. Criminal lawyer Snedeker has defended many accused of ritual abuse in California and continues to get convictions overtuned. But their prose is without cant and their research - most of it gleaned from the public record, since "the other side" wouldn't talk to them - is meticulous, extensive and elaborately documented.

From police and trial transcripts, funding records, lab reports, government manuals, conference proceedings, books and newspaper articles, as well as interviews with children, defendants, jurors, therapists, lawyers and doctors, they draw a detailed picture of dozens of ritual abuse cases, embedded in a social history of the past two decades. Using anthropology to deconstruct the folklore of peril, deftly summarizing legal and psychiatric history, and bringing impressive skill to their critique of medical and psychological data, Nathan and Snedeker trace the growth of an alliance among "pro-family" conservatives, tough-on-crime prosecutors who would "cure" complicated social problems with incarceration, and anti-sexual-violence feminist therapists, social workers and lawyers.

As happened when right-wing censors joined forces with anti-pornography feminists, this partnership increasingly saw sexual harm where it was not. Most depressing, the majority of the accused in satanic abuse cases were day care teachers - the very people who underpin a protofeminist society in which women can move into the workplace secure that someone is caring for their children. Most disturbing, in their zeal to protect, the accusers came to disregard not only the rights of the accused, but the well-being of the child "victims" themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the social workers' and therapists' interrogations of alleged child victims, whose transcripts are quoted liberally throughout Satan's Silence. The interviewing techniques - like so many of the details of ritual abuse cases to come - were born in the first major cases, in Manhattan Beach, California, against Virginia McMartin, the septuagenarian owner of the McMartin Pre-school, her son, teacher Ray Buckey, and five other teachers. The interviews were conducted by Kee MacFarlane and two other social workers at Children's Institute International in Los Angeles, who used puppets and dolls to play the parts of victim and perpetrator in hideous stories of anal rape with syringes and pencils, fetus-mutilation, pornographic photography and kidnappings.

Most striking: the children barely speak. Instead, they wander, get confused about whether the doll is a doll or a real person, or vehemently deny that anything happened. The interviewers insult, scold, threaten, or cajole the kids to admit the stories, and hug and praise them when the "right" answer comes. When the answer is vague, often it is interpreted as a "yes." Kids who said nothing were sent home to be coached by their parents or sequestered with others making ritual abuse claims until they fessed up.

All these tactics are consonant with the central, Orwellian tenet of child-abuse prosecutions: that "denial" means the abuse happened. The child denies out of fear or trauma, the adult out of guilt. After being locked in a juvenile home, one eight-year-old Kern County, California, boy reported that his teachers had beheaded and burned animals before molesting children. Five years later, he disclosed: "I was saying that stuff because everyone else was. I thought that's what you were supposed to do there, so I just listened and then made something up."

So damning were the records of such interviews, in fact, that they ended up supporting acquittals and hung juries in the McMartin trial - it lasted seven years, and Ray Buckey languished in jail for five of them - and many others. To preempt that outcome, by the early 1980s interview records were being destroyed, and the standard government text on prosecuting child-abuse cases, published in 1990, recommended not taping them at all.

Nathan and Snedeker object to these techniques on more than jurisprudential grounds. Rather, they argue, they constitute child abuse in themselves. "Virtually no youngsters who ultimately talked about ritual violation showed behaviors that would be considered evidence of trauma until after revealing the abuse," they write. "At that point, they often became crippled with profound anxiety, night terrors, rage, sexual acting out, and other psychological problems."

One of the most damaging and lasting effects of the wave of ritual abuse trials, Nathan and Snedeker say, is the 1980s rewriting of centuries-old courtroom procedures to ease prosecution in cases with child victims. Perhaps the biggest change was using the testimony of toddlers at all. Whereas children under a certain age were considered legally incompetent for most of the twentieth century, that assumption was abandoned in ritual abuse cases and replaced with the orthodoxy that "children never lie about abuse," a myth that has been disproved clinically by memory researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Ofshe, and in real life by the recantations of children like the Kern County boy.

Defendants lost their Sixth Amendment guarantee of face-to-face confrontation with their accusers, and hearsay evidence was routinely allowed. The practice of letting kids testify outside the courtroom sends "the clear message to the jury...that the defendant [presents] a menace so great that centuries-old customs have to be broken to protect the young witness from harm," Nathan and Snedeker argue. "This drastic restructuring destroys the presumption of innocence and propels the defendant toward conviction."

It could be said that these extraordinary measures were needed because no ritual abuse prosecutor has ever uncovered a single piece of corroborative evidence - no bone, semen, blood, hair, fur, fabric, or photo. Across the country, houses, businesses and cars have been searched, fields and cellars excavated, rewards offered, psychics consulted, the FBI and Interpol called in - all to no avail. Still, the authors point out, once the Hood of hysteria started rising - aided by Oprah and Geraldo and the self-help armies - "this failure did little to stem the increasing conviction that ritual abuse cases were real and widespread." Hundreds would be accused; Satan's Silence is dedicated to the 57 "whose names we know," in prison as the book went to press.

Feminists," Nathan and Snedeker write, "were particularly susceptible to sex-abuse conspiracy theories." Kee MacFarlane was a feminist. Lucy Berliner was a Seattle rape crisis worker who pioneered the practice of offering probation and treatment in return for guilty pleas, which, she claimed, raised confession rates in incest cases to 75 percent in her city. Catharine MacKinnon has publicly announced her belief in satanic abuse. Robin Morgan published a pseudonymously authored account of ritual abuse as a cover story in Ms. in 1993. Gloria Steinem supported funding of a report on a dig to locate the secret tunnels under the McMartin school that extensive police searches had failed to uncover. According to Nathan and Shedeker, the report left out the geologist's conclusion that there probably were no tunnels.

What distinguishes Satan's Silence from much other ritual abuse debunking is that while the authors indict some feminists for their role in the injustices they describe, they blame the satanic scare not on feminism, but on the complex social anxiety that arose as a response to feminist-wrought changes in sexuality and the family. As has historically happened when women joined with conservatives in protectionist moral campaigns, the satanic abuse accusers' efforts ended up conflicting with many feminist aims and hurting the victims they were out to save.

Unfortunately, a nuanced discussion of the issues has not occurred in the feminist community. This past April, when members of the Seattle branch of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) posted appeals on the FemLaw Website to support Kathryn Lyon, who'd been subpoenaed by the Wenatchee police chief to turn over her documentation, they were mercilessly flamed; the FACT members report that FemLaw won't put up their postings any more. Carol Tavris, a respected feminist psychology writer, was pilloried for a sceptical article on the sex-abuse industry in the New York Times Book Review; needless to say, much the same has happened to Debbie Nathan.

Some feminist psychologists, like Judith Lewis Herman, whose Father-Daughter Incest pioneered what Nathan and Snedeker call the "bold structural analysis" that sexual abuse is the consequence of masculine patriarchal privilege, have quietly condemned the ritual abuse hysteria, but publicly argue that focusing on false claims will result in real victims feeling ashamed and afraid they won't be believed when they reveal abuse - just like the old days before the incest survivors' movement.

Herman may be right that those who want to deny all sexual violence will use anything they can to shut us up. But Satan's Silence makes a compelling case that false reports of abuse - and not their exposure - are what cast suspicion on all reports of sexual exploitation. Exaggerating the incidence of abuse, moreover, effaces the less sensational and far more common traumas of neglect and physical battery. When child-protection funding flows to sex abuse, the more intransigent contributors to child abuse, like economic stress and parental undereducation and depression, go unaddressed. And when helping professionals are deployed as cops prospecting for clues to abuse, parents who need help to avoid mistreating their children will rightly be afraid to seek it.

What will protect children? Not an appeal to a mythical sexually ignorant childhood "innocence," say Nathan and Snedeker. Stigmatizing the sexual, demonizing physical affection between adults and children, and trying to stop sexual abuse through law enforcement and "prevention" exercises like good touch/bad touch, "which are little more than laundry lists of taboo body parts and warnings about accepting candy bars from sex killers," do nothing to help kids develop a strong sense of bodily and emotional integrity or build a world that respects them. Instead, this impressively reasonable, ardently moral book argues, children need "the chance to live in egalitarian families, to study in schools that value their intellectual, moral, and creative capabilities, and to live in a society where they are encouraged to engage in meaningful decision making, with peers and with adults."
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Author:Levine, Judith
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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