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Righting Wrongs and Setting the Record Straight

A case of American injustice

In a previous blog, I expressed my remorse for not speaking out 20 years ago against the mass hysteria that led to the imprisonment of numerous innocent day center workers. They were charged with, and often imprisoned for, riculoulous crimes involving alleged sexual and satanic abuse with the children under their care…

My mea culpa was stimulated by an excellent review of this shameful travesty of American justice by historian Richard Noll. He was one of the first to oppose this witch-hunt that so violated simple common sense and reality testing.

It is not enough to remember the paste or apologize for it. The damage is done and cannot be undone. But the least we can do is get the record straight and set free those innocent bystanders who have spent years in prison paying a cruel price for the misdeeds of the accusing parents, the gullible police, the ambitious prosecutors, and the manipulative and bullying therapists.

Now we have a new contribution sent to me by Lew Powell who was also another early and persistent critic of the madness. Here is his plea for belated justice, which however unsatisfying is better than no justice at all.

"Richard Noll’s history of how a handful of rogue practitioners hijacked psychiatry in the name of “satanic ritual abuse,” coupled with Allen Frances's apology for his own passivity on the issue, could constitute a landmark moment."

Will it? Is the profession ready not only to acknowledge its failure, but also to take responsibility for mitigating the enormous harm it caused? For the past two years I have blogged about the Little Rascals Day Care case and other episodes from the moral panic (

Although the Edenton Seven have long since been freed, no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents. Without question the Seven deserve a statement of innocence from the State of North Carolina similar to the one given the defendants in the Duke lacrosse case.

In a different North Carolina case, day-care bus driver Andrew Junior Chandler is serving his 26th (!) year, perhaps the last still imprisoned casualty of multiple-victim, multiple-offender SRA charges. His only hope is clemency from the governor. I have yet to find a single respected psychiatrist, psychologist or social scientist who will grant any legitimacy to the once-rampant "Believe the Children" theory. Neither, however, have I found a single professional actually involved in perpetrating that fraud who will admit he or she erred.

Because Little Rascals happened to involve more psychologists, pediatricians and “therapists” of unknown pedigree than psychiatrists, my efforts have focused on petitioning social science journals to retract those articles that so enthusiastically validated the mania. Not one editor has expressed any interest in setting the record straight.

These rejections typically read like satire from the Onion. I asked Child Abuse & Neglect to retract a 1993 article claiming that 'Cases of sexual abuse in day care typically involve multiple victims and multiple perpetrators, and use of extreme threats to prevent disclosure.'

The editor responded that: 'The journal only retracts papers if there are significant errors or other problems, such as plagiarism, health risks etc. Otherwise, it is up to the scientific community to decide when new knowledge or findings would usurp those previously published. This is the case in many areas of research, whereby older (sometimes well-accepted) findings are no longer given credence due to newer findings. It is not feasible or appropriate to remove the previous findings, as that is how science progresses. Unless you are aware of specific errors in the 1993 data, rather than drawing different conclusions, the journal would not take any further action. I trust this resolves your concerns.' Actually, no, it does not.

But perhaps the regrets expressed by Dr. Noll and Dr. Frances signal the beginning of a dramatic departure from such stonewalling by the mental health professions. If so, here is one way amends could be made:

In 1994 an amicus brief signed by more than 40 memory researchers played an illuminating role in overturning the SRA conviction of Kelly Michaels. Why not petition the governor and the attorney general of North Carolina to recognize and respond to the overwhelming scientific evidence debunking SRA prosecutions? Why not call for clemency for Andrew Junior Chandler and a statement of innocence for the Edenton Seven?

Surely the psychiatric community can come up with better ideas than mine. I'd be eager to hear them, and I'm sure the wrongfully prosecuted victims of the SRA mania would be too."

I couldn't agree more and applaud Mr. Powell for his efforts. It is shocking that our justice system can countenance such injustice. It is unfortunate that our journals sometimes publish such trash, but really disheartening that they are so intransigent in correcting past mistakes. To err is perhaps human; but to retract is divine.

I am not a political or legal expert and don’t know what the next steps should be. But at the very least, I think the professional societies in mental health and also the National Institute Of Mental Health should step forward and do the right thing. It is long past due.