- The panic gripped the public’s imagination and saw many day-care providers charged with child abuse of a Satanic, ritualistic nature.
- The investigators had plied the children with leading questions, extreme interrogation methods and hypnosis in which false memories were planted in the children to suit the story they wanted to hear. Many innocent people served prison time as their worlds were turned upside down.
Satanic Ritual Day-Care Sex Abuse Hysteria describes a moral panic that struck fear in the hearts of the community throughout the 1980s – 90s. The panic gripped the public’s imagination and saw many day-care providers charged with child abuse of a Satanic, ritualistic nature. The terror spread like wildfire. Lurid, grotesque stories were splashed across the news and reputations were ripped to shreds.
Many innocent people served prison time as their worlds were turned upside down.
The Kern County case was the one that started it all. In 1982 in Kern County, California, day-care provider Debbie McCuan and her husband Alvin were accused of abusing their children by Mary Ann Barbour (the children’s grandmother, who happened to be mentally ill). She alleged that the McCuans had prostituted the girls, exploited them for child porn, tortured them and forced them to view snuff movies. She coached the girls to confirm the story which grew to involve the McCuans’ friends Scott and Brenda Kniffen, as well as Scott’s mother, now joining the supposed paedophile ring. Eventually the Kniffens’ two sons supported the girls’ story.
Six similar cases sprung up in the area. One of them involved five boys accusing four defendants, the supposed leader of whom was 41-year-old John Stoll, of similar crimes. The stories became more bizarre, including allegations of the Satanic ritual murder of 29 babies. In the end, 60 children in all testified to the abuse resulting in 36 people being convicted.
When asked at his sentencing if he had any comment on his 40 year sentence, John said:
If I had done these terrible things that would be a fair sentence. But I didn’t do anything; I’m innocent.
John Stoll was convicted of 17 counts of child molestation and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1984 after 6 children testified he and three other adults sexually molested them over a period of more than a year.
One of the boys was John’s 6-year-old son.• • •
Almost all of the convictions were later overturned on appeal after details of the investigation tactics used emerged years later. The investigators had plied the children with leading questions, extreme interrogation methods and hypnosis in which false memories were planted in the children to suit the story they wanted to hear. As they grew to adulthood, many of them came forward to recant their testimonies, admitting that it never happened and they just went along with what the adults told them to say.
They had been rewarded when confirming the abuse story and punished when they tried to tell the truth. They felt like they would not be allowed to leave the interrogation room until they gave the investigators, whom they were frightened of, stories about the supposed abuse. Even though there was never a shred of evidence in the case, it took 12 years for the McCuans and Kniffens to be freed on appeal. John Stoll had served 20 years by the time his conviction was reversed.
Another key incident in the hysteria was the McMartin Preschool trial. In August 1983, Judy Johnson became convinced that her 2-year-old son had been abused by teachers at McMartin Preschool, Manhattan Beach, California, after her son suffered painful bowel movements. Judy (later diagnosed with acute schizophrenia) alleged that staff, in cahoots with her estranged husband, sodomized her son, had sex with animals, drilled another child under the arms and could fly.
In a questionable move, the police sent letters to 200 students’ parents saying that their children may have been abused and requesting that they question the children. Judy was found dead in her home in 1986 having drank herself to an early grave before pre-trial hearings could conclude, but the mess she had created was just beginning.
The children were interviewed. Again the techniques were extremely suggestive and speculative. False memories were once again planted. The interviews (which were videotaped) were criticised by expert witness Dr Michael Maloney (clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry) as improper, coercive and directed by the interviewers to generate expected statements and elicit unsubstantiated disclosures.
This time it was claimed that 360 children had been abused. The children were supposedly molested and sexually abused, witnessed witches flying and had travelled in a hot-air-balloon. Much of the abuse was said to have taken place in tunnels and secret rooms beneath the school which were accessed by being flushed down the toilet. Actor Chuck Norris was identified as one of the abusers. Details of Satanic orgies and the children being photographed nude emerged.
New York Times has a good short introducing video about the panic.
Of the six accused, only one served prison time (Ray Buckey – 5 years). By the end, the trial had lasted 7 years and cost $15 million – the longest and most expensive criminal case in United States history. Once again, years later, children who had testified came forward as adults to recant their testimonies. They said whenever they gave interviewers answers they ‘didn’t like’ they were repeatedly asked the same questions and pressured to answer as the interviewer wished. Put simply, they were encouraged to lie because people in positions of authority were forcing them to say what they wanted to hear.
These are just two of the earliest / most prominent cases connected to the Satanic Ritual and Day-Care Sex Abuse Hysteria. The panic reached as far as South America and Europe. Below is the timeline of key incidents:
- 1982 – Kern county child abuse case.
- 1983 – McMartin preschool trial in California.
- 1984 – Fells Acres Day Care Centre.
- 1984 – Bernard F. Baran, Jr., convicted January 30, 1985 (The first known conviction of a day care worker).
- 1984 – Praca Day Care case.
- 1985 – Bronx Five case.
- 1985 – Country Walk Babysitting Service case.
- 1985 – Wee Care Nursery School in New Jersey in April.
- 1987 – Cleveland child abuse scandal in England.
- 1987 – Friedman cases begin.
- 1989 – Glendale Montessori sexual abuse case in Stuart, Florida.
- 1989 – Little Rascals Day Care Centre scandal in Edenton, North Carolina.
- 1990 – All charges dropped in McMartin preschool trial.
- 1991 – Christchurch Civic Crèche, New Zealand, involving Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis.
- 1991 – Faith Chapel Church ritual abuse case.
- 1991 – Oak Hill Satanic ritual abuse trial.
- 1992 – Martensville Scandal, Martensville, Saskatchewan, Canada.
- 1994 – Escola Base case.
- 1994 – Start of Wenatchee Sex Rings case.
- 1996 – Convictions in the Kern County child abuse case overturned.
- 2001 – Brescia Schools case in Italy.
- 2004 – Outreau child abuse prosecutions.