Peggy McMartin Buckey, accused of molesting children at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., testifies in 1989. The evidence was weak, and she was acquitted. (Nick Ut/AP)

Maura Casey is a former editorial writer for the New York Times.

We Believe the Children
A Moral Panic in the 1980s

By Richard Beck

PublicAffairs. 323 pp. $26.99

TV news was no friend to those of us who had small children in the 1980s. Allegations of child sexual abuse in day-care centers swept the nation, with high-profile cases in California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota and other states, leading to empty playgrounds, hyper-vigilant parents and the implication that behind every tree lurked a pedophile waiting to snatch our children. Sexual abuse is an awful crime, but the perpetrators are usually relatives or family friends, and fewer than 1 percent of cases take place in day-care centers. Nonetheless, 30 years ago America was described as experiencing an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in day care.

Richard Beck, an editor at N+1, does a herculean job of investigating why this happened in his absorbing book “We Believe the Children.” Beck makes the case that the sexual abuse trials of the 1980s yoked numerous undercurrents in American society: fear of crime; the decline of respect for traditional authority; homophobia (being gay helped send some day-care workers to prison); the conservative backlash against feminism, which had encouraged women to work outside the home (with its resultant need for day care); and the reality that the patriarchal nuclear family had not just changed, it had become “incoherent.” Conservative evangelicals had just helped elect President Ronald Reagan, and many of them believed that “porn, gays, and women had run amok.”

‘We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s’ by Richard Beck (PublicAffairs)

This is quite a laundry list, but Beck does a good job of marshaling the evidence. Throw in, for good measure, journalists who were slow to question allegations that emerged not only of sexual abuse, but also of Satanic rituals and even human sacrifice, particularly in the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, Calif., which dragged on for more than six excruciating years. The allegations persisted despite the fact that there were no missing people, no bodies and, oh yeah, virtually no evidence to bolster the claims. Geraldo Rivera added to the hysteria by airing, just before Halloween in 1988, a two-hour special, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.”

“We believe the children” became both the unofficial motto of advocates for the prosecution and a catch-all response to those few who asked whether the accusers had completely lost their minds. The approach was based largely on the work of psychiatrist Roland Summit, who claimed that, of every 1,000 children who say they were sexually abused, only two or three are guilty of inventing or exaggerating. He also said it was normal for children who had been sexually abused to retract their claims and say they made it all up. The upshot: No matter what children said, they were sexually abused, and if you didn’t believe them, something was wrong with you.

Yet “believing the children” glossed over the fact that, often, adults believed only what they wanted to hear. In the McMartin case, the social workers who interviewed children not only considered Summit’s theory as gospel but interrogated (not too strong a word) the children repeatedly, becoming more bullying with each session. When one child denied seeing a game called “Naked Movie Star” played at his preschool, the therapist replied: “Well, what good are you? You must be dumb.”

Police were often no better. In one instance, when a child said “I don’t know” to a question about sexual games, the policeman said: “Did he take your underpants off? Can you say yes? Say yes.” As a Minneapolis Star Tribune story later reported, “Therapists acted like cops and cops acted like therapists . . . social workers went along on a search warrant party.”

Predictably, many children subjected to repeat interviews “confessed” that the abuse happened. The McMartin case wasn’t the only example of such trauma inflicted on children. In Scott County, Minn., where 22 people were arrested on sexual abuse allegations, an 11-year-old boy was removed from his home after his parents became the target of allegations. He was interrogated on an almost daily basis for two months. Finally, he gave in and said that his parents had participated in orgies. “I was sick of being badgered,” he later explained. Another boy, after being interviewed 74 times, had a breakdown.

Journalists began to question this by around 1990. It helped that a jury found the McMartin defendants not guilty on 52 counts and deadlocked on 13 others. But from time to time, the panic would resurface. In the mid-’90s in Wenatchee, Wash., a police lieutenant became convinced of the existence of a child sex ring in his small city of 22,000 and eventually filed more than 29,000 counts of child sex abuse against 43 people, resulting in 18 convictions. Nearly all the convictions were set aside by the end of the decade.

The aftereffects continue. The cases added to the “get tough on crime” movement, which sapped power from judges as neutral arbiters of the law and gave police and prosecutors a vested interest in putting those accused in prison. And for all the day-care hysteria, the United States neither mandates paid family leave to help parents care for their babies at home nor subsidizes affordable child care. Motherhood may be sacred, but mothers are on their own.

Some have drawn parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the false accusations of sexual abuse that swept America in the 1980s. The difference is this: Those falsely accused in Salem got public apologies from their accusers and reparations. No such luck for the dozens of day-care workers and others who were falsely accused and imprisoned in modern-day America. We should be ashamed.