In new book, Brown University professor aims to discredit ‘witch-hunt narrative’ of child sexual-abuse cases
March 23, 2014 01:00 AM
BY KATE BRAMSON
Journal Staff Writerkbramson@providencejournal.com
PROVIDENCE — For decades, a view has persisted that a series of child sexual-abuse cases connected with child-care centers during the 1980s were witch hunts, fueled by social hysteria, that ended in wrongful convictions of many innocent people.
A new book by Brown University professor Ross E. Cheit, “The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children,” explores the cases at the heart of that belief.
After 15 years of research into the history of child sexual-abuse cases, the political science and public policy professor seeks to discredit the “witch-hunt narrative.”
In an interview with The Providence Journal, Cheit said that those who believe this theory ignore even credible charges of child abuse and dismiss medical evidence that children were abused.
“I want to provoke discussion,” he said.
Much of the reason the witch-hunt narrative has prevailed, according to Cheit, is that it’s easier for people to believe that child sexual abuse doesn’t happen because the topic itself is taboo. Cheit cites the work of Dr. Suzanne M. Sgroi, who wrote in 1978 that “the sexual abuse of children is a crime that our society abhors in the abstract but tolerates in reality.”
Communities have been known to rally around people convicted of this crime, Cheit writes.
“We often minimize and deny so as to allow us to avoid seeing things we would rather not see. Turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children has a long history in this country.”
According to Cheit, the witch-hunt narrative often includes a “hero,” a journalist perhaps, who helps an innocent person escape a false conviction.
“We love this story,” he said. “My concern is we love it so much even when it isn’t true.”
Cheit began his research inclined to doubt the witch-hunt narrative in part because he was abused as a child by an administrator of the San Francisco Boys Chorus’ summer camp.
Repressed memories of that abuse, which took place when Cheit was 13, surfaced in 1992, after he had become a professor at Brown. He shared that experience in a Providence Journal series written by former reporter Mike Stanton in 1995.
Cheit eventually won a civil judgment in California against the man who abused him and reached a civil settlement against the San Francisco Boys Chorus, which agreed to promote awareness of sexual abuse.
“My own experience with an institution that displayed for me the depths of denial in the face of very strong evidence makes me naturally skeptical of an argument that says we’ve overreacted to child abuse, because that’s not what I saw,” Cheit said.
In his research, Cheit adhered to a practice of Charles Darwin: posting notes for himself with evidence contrary to his own theories or expectations, forcing himself to examine the cases and arguments used to build the witch-hunt narrative.
“I’m saying, ‘I’m going to force myself to look at the cases that you say prove the witch hunt was true,’” Cheit said. “I’m looking at the cases where it absolutely ought to be crystal clear that this was a false conviction because that’s what other people said.”
Labeling these cases witch hunts ignores credible evidence that children were abused, Cheit argues.
Take the famous 1983 McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in which seven of the school’s staff members were charged with child sexual abuse. Cheit reviewed 32 boxes of court documents including transcripts of hearings and two criminal trials, 17 boxes of documents and reports before charges were filed, medical records of children and copies of videotaped interviews with 15 children.
Cheit writes that five or six of the defendants were charged with “heinous crimes they did not commit,” but the witch-hunt narrative ignores the smaller story, the one that includes “evidence of abuse and the travails of the children.” No one was ever convicted in the case.
“It was tragic for the defendants who should not have been charged, and it was tragic for the children who were mistreated and those who were never appropriately vindicated,” Cheit writes. “But only one of those tragedies has been remembered over time.”
Over the years, 81 Brown University undergraduates have assisted Cheit in conducting what he calls the “extreme research” that helped him analyze dozens of decades-old cases including the McMartin Preschool case.
“This book is based on the first systematic examination of court records in these cases,” Cheit writes. “The book argues that even though many cases have been held up as classic examples of modern American ‘witch hunts,’ none of them truly fits that description … In short, there was not, by any reasonable measure, an epidemic of ‘witch hunts’ in the 1980s.”
Cheit is not alone with this belief.
Joan Tabachnick, who has worked for the past 20 years in the field of sexual-abuse prevention, avoids the witch-hunt term, she told The Providence Journal. Her work focuses on preventing child sexual abuse.
“I learned from very early on not to call it the witch-hunt narrative, only because the witches [in America’s Puritan past] were innocent, and I would say that in many cases, there is that same sort of feeding-frenzy fury, but it doesn’t mean the sex offender is innocent, the person accused is innocent,” said Tabachnick, of Holyoke, Mass., who is co-chair of the prevention committee for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
For the past 16 years, Cheit has taught an ethics class at the state prison to those convicted of sexual assault and child molestation crimes.
After The Journal series on Cheit’s childhood abuse ran in 1995, the director of the sex offender treatment program at the Adult Correctional Institutions, Peter Loss, invited Cheit to visit offenders in the program.
Years later, Cheit still meets weekly with those offenders, mostly men. Sometimes the class focuses on a different virtue and dilemma each week, such as the meaning of courage and how donations raised for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should be allocated.
“I call it the gray class because sex offenders are such black-and-white thinkers,” Loss told The Journal.
The offenders, Loss explains, have trouble seeing the complications inherent in relationships or the fact that an opposing side may present merits, something that complicates one’s thinking.
The witch-hunt narrative, says Loss, who has read several drafts of Cheit’s book, is also black and white.
But “in the end, this whole debate really isn’t about witch hunts and cases … ,” Loss said. “It’s about children. And I think [what’s] been lost in this whole witch-hunt mentality is that children are involved.”
Cheit expects to discuss his findings with a panel of professors at Brown on April 1, with a reception and book signing to follow. His book will be released this month by Oxford University Press and is expected in stores by April.