Reality v Fantasy in the world of child abuse

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, August 8 1988

Early in the last century, slaves who escaped from plantations in the South were smuggled to the relative freedom of the northern states along an ‘underground railroad’ of supporters who risked the wrath of slave-owners and bounty-hunters to protect the fugitives.

Now, according to reports here, a new underground railroad has been constructed. This one is designed to provide an escape route for children who are the victims of sexual abuse by their fathers. As many as 200 young fugitives are said to have been passed to safety along this human chain, often fleeing with their mothers beside them.

Their protectors, who belong to organisations such as MARC, Mothers Against Raping Children, help them to lie low – changing their appearance, converting their belongings into cash so that they need not use tell-tale credit cards, providing doctors and lawyers who are loyal to the cause and who will help them without betraying their whereabouts, sometimes illegally obtaining identity papers in false names to establish them in a new life.

It is a chilling image – children running scared from lives of brutality and exploitation – but it is an image that keeps recurring. In Seattle, the Catholic Archbishop removes the Rev James McGreal from his parish for molesting children. He is the third priest to be disciplined in the archdiocese for this offence in the last two months and one of 140 priests across 18 states who have admitted the same behaviour. In New York, a film manager who used to work for Walt Disney is charged with 55 counts of paedophilia.

In a study published last month, the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that more than a million American children are the victims of abuse or neglect – an increase of two thirds since 1980. And in an extraordinary trial in California, the images of child abuse take on an air of Gothic horror, reaching into extremes that beggar the imagination.

The trial involves two defendants, a 30-year-old man, Ray Buckey, and his mother, Peggy, who together ran the McMartin Nursery School in Manhattan Beach, a well-heeled seaside suburb of Los Angeles, until five years ago this week when a woman named Judy Johnson went to the police with a disturbing complaint.

Ray Buckey, she said, had sodomised her two and a half-year-old son, a pupil at the school. Two doctors confirmed that the child had been assaulted, and Buckey was arrested. Manhattan Beach police then sent a letter to the families of children who were then, or had previously been, pupils at the school, inviting them to ask their children if they had ever been molested in any way and outlining the kinds of activities which they believed had taken place. Things began to move quickly.

Following up the replies to their letter, the police decided to send no less than 400 children to a therapy centre where they were videotaped while they answered questions for a child therapist. Many of them spoke of being sexually abused, of being photographed without their clothes and playing games like Naked Movie Star. More doctors confirmed more physical evidence of abuse.

After a seven month inquiry, police charged not just Buckey but also his mother, his sister, his grandmother who was then 76, and three women teachers with 115 counts of child molestation. And this was still only the beginning.

Parents held mass meetings. Volunteers set up hot lines for information and advice. Children from seven more nursery schools in Manhattan Beach reported that they, too, had been molested; local authorities ordered all seven schools closed. More children made more allegations and of an increasingly bizarre character.

They spoke of strange rituals where cats and rabbits were tortured and killed, where sometimes babies were killed too, of trips to cemeteries where bodies were dug out of the ground and mutilated, of trips to churches where people chanted, of men and women who were allowed to rape them, of Ray Buckey and their teachers and other adults repeatedly abusing them.

The parents of Manhattan Beach, who tend to be intelligent and well educated, shook their heads in disbelief and yet found themselves believing.

There was the four-year-old girl who said her teachers took her clothes off and photographed her and took her to a terrible place where they put spiders on her and where there was a black machine that threw rocks which she described in unerring detail. Her father saw this as a fantasy and challenged her to show him the place where all this occurred.

In their car, the girl directed him around a maze of streets through the city to a strange part of town which he had never visited, where she pointed at a house; the father called the police, who searched the building and found an old tailor’s dummy with a pulley-like rigging under one arm. It was an exact replica of the ‘rock-throwing machine’ which the girl had kept describing. The father could no longer dismiss the story as fantasy.

There was the 13-year-old boy who had been at McMartin School ten years earlier, who sat crying, with sweat running down his face describing how he had been molested there, repeating “it’s sick, it’s disgusting” as he told his story.

There was the detailed understanding exhibited by children of three and four years old of perverse sexual behaviour, and their knowledge of what the inside of dead animals looked like. There were the games they played – threatening their dolls with plastic knives, and pretending to wash blood and feces from their faces.

Strangest of all, there were the reports collated by the FBI of other children in other parts of the country who were saying the same things – children from Washington and Michigan who spoke of rituals in cemeteries, from Minnesota and Memphis where children insisted a one-armed man was involved in the rituals, from numerous different towns where they spoke of babies being stabbed and murdered, of coffins and churches and chanting. Cars In Manhattan Beach started to carry a bumper sticker which said:”I Believe the Children.”

Yet so much of it remained unbelievable. A young boy who says he was raped by Ray Buckey also described how Buckey killed a horse by hitting it with a bat. How many times did he hit the horse, he was asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. Did the horse jump around when it was being hit? “I don’t know,” he said. As if his imagination had dried up.

A ten-year-old boy who was asked to point to photographs of those who had molested him picked out the actor Chuck Norris and a group of nuns photographed in 1940. Children described injuries for which there were no scars and murders for which no victim could be traced.

Judy Johnson, whose complaint in August 1983 had triggered the entire inquiry, made increasingly wild claims – that she was being followed by an AWOL marine, that her estranged husband had molested her son, that her dog had been sodomised. She died in December 1986, aged only 42, of liver damage normally associated with alcohol abuse.

An assistant district attorney who had been prosecuting the case resigned in a storm of publicity in January 1986, declaring that the case was worthless and that the child therapist who had interviewed the McMartin children on video had fed the children with the answers she wanted and ‘could make a six-month old baby confess to being molested’. He then damaged his own credibility by signing a book and film deal for the story, whose value was increased by the controversy he was causing.

In the meantime charges against five of the McMartin School women have been dropped. Ray Buckey and his mother, however, are still being tried in a marathon courtroom battle which is now the longest running child abuse case in American history. Last month, the trial entered its second year with no sign of reaching a conclusion. Buckey is still in custody.

The McMartin case has made a national curiosity out of Manhattan Beach, which has now become a playground for sensation-seekers. There are those who insist that the entire case is an example of collective hysteria in which the children have succumbed to an infectious fantasy which has no roots in reality. There are others – including many of the parents and FBI agents – who believe they have stumbled into a satanic ring of child pornographers which has spread unnoticed across the country.

One of the few issues on which the different parties agree is that the criminal justice system is hopelessly ill-shaped to cope with such a puzzle. How should the police have reacted five years ago when they heard the first complaint? Their letter appealing for other cases now seems absurdly inflammatory, yet they could not then have justified or afforded a door-to-door inquiry through all the households whose children might have been involved.

The interviews by the child therapist have been torn to shreds in court because she praised the children whenever they ‘disclosed’ claims of abuse and harried them when they did not. But she is not a detective; her job is to encourage children to talk, which is what she did. Now all the subtle psycological threads of the children’s stories are being hacked apart by angry advocates according to arcane rules of evidence that often defy common sense.

There was a smaller but parallel case in Atlanta where a couple had got divorced and there was a dispute about who should have custody of the marriage’s young daughter. The woman, Mrs Faye Yager, said her ex-husband would molest the child. A court overruled her and sent the little girl to live with her father. He was subsquently convicted of molestation. Mrs Yager said: “The courts just don’t work.” She managed to regain custody of her daughter and then went one step further – she helped to found the ‘underground railroad’ for children.