1. Both the Daycare Abuse Trials (McMartin, Michaels, and others) and the Salem Witchcraft Trials placed heavy reliance on the testimony of children. In both sets of trials, people urged others to “believe the children.” In practice, that generally meant, “believe the children when they are making remotely plausible accusations, but ignore the inconsistencies in their stories.”
2. In both sets of trials, accusations multiplied over time. At first just a few persons faced accusations, but as the hysteria spread, so did the accusations. Often, the new targets of accusations were those who expressed skepticism about charges or who came to the defense of an accused person.
3. Both sets of trials had their origins in behaviors or statements of children–behaviors or statements that could have been given an innocent interpretation, but instead were interpreted in the most omenous or threatening way possible.
4. In both sets of trials, “experts” found meaning in unlikely places. In Salem, for example, the presence of a mole on the body of an accused person was seem as evidence that the “familiar” had an entry (or sucking) point on the accused. In the daycare cases, for example, the drawing of hands on stick figures was seen as evidence that the child who drew the figure had been molested. In another example, a child’s dislike of tuna fish was seen as evidence that the child had been exposed to vaginal smells.
5. In both sets of trials, the investigation itself was the source of many of the problems. Investigators in both instances employed leading questions, and effectively put the burden of proving innocence on the accused. In Salem, accused persons were asked to explain how their presence could trigger such bizarre reactions in the allegedly afflicted. In the daycare cases, the accused were confronted by the suggestion that the children would not be talking about penises and the like if they hadn’t been molested–when in fact their frequent use of such anatomic terms resulted from the investigation of the alleged crime.
6. In both sets of trials, the extent of the injustices was increased by the unwillingness–or fear–of enough persons to step forward and say, “This is crazy!” People in both instances feared that by doing so they might either face accusations themselves or hurt their standing in their communities–be it the church community in Salem or the journalism community in the daycare cases.
We are a society that, every fifty years or so, is afflicted by some paroxysm of virtue–an orgy of self-cleansing through which evil of one kind or another is cast out. From the witch-hunts of Salem to the communist hunts of the McCarthy era to the current shrill fixation on child abuse, there runs a common thread of moral hysteria. After the McCarthy era, people would ask: But how could it have happened? How could the presumption of innocence have been abandoned wholesale? How did large and powerful institutions acquiesce as congressional investigators ran roughshod over civil liberties–all in the name of a war on communists? How was it possible to believe that subversives lurked behind every library door, in every radio station, that every two-bit actor who had belonged to the wrong political organization posed a threat to the nation’s security?
Years from now people doubtless will ask the same questions about our present era–a time when the most improbable charges of abuse find believers; when it is enough only to be accused by anonymous sources to be hauled off by investigators; a time when the hunt for child abusers has become a national pathology.
–Dorothy Rabinowitz, From the Mouths of Babes to a Jail Cell,
HARPER’S MAGAZINE (May 1990).