Response to Ross Cheit
(read our full rebuttal here)
National Center for Reason & Justice rebuts The Witch Hunt Narrative, by Ross Cheit (read
A conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory
In April 2014, Ross Cheit, a political science professor at Brown University, published a 500-page book called The Witch Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children. In it, Cheit argues that there never was a national panic about satanic ritual abuse or sexual abuse in daycare centers in the 1980s, 1990s or afterwards.
Cheit admits that some people were falsely convicted on charges like sacrificing babies, forcing children to eat feces, or dressing as clowns and sodomizing preschoolers—in busy daycare centers in broad daylight, while no one noticed and no evidence ever turned up. However, he argues, these were a few disparate cases; most of the people accused were guilty of abusing children in some way. Yet a conspiracy of journalists, defense attorneys, and social scientists wove these anomalous cases together to create the illusion of a mass hysteria—promulgating a “witch hunt narrative” that eventually took hold in psychology and the judiciary. The resulting skepticism about allegations of sexual abuse, he says, has gravely impeded efforts to protect children. Cheit doesn’t speculate about the motives of these cruel conspirators.
In seeking to prove that the witch hunt never happened, Cheit uses the classic tactics of a witch hunt:
o He denies major documented historical trends and perpetrates countless factual errors, distortions, and omissions, and traffics in unproven innuendo to re-prosecute the innocent and those who defend them.
o He turns agreement among eminent scientists and legal scholars on an issue—for example, that children’s testimony (like adults’) can be confabulated and that memories can be distorted—into conspiracy.
o While accusing the alleged conspirators of having a bias toward innocence—a bias shared, one must note, by the U.S. Constitution—Cheit uncritically advances a bias toward guilt. He adopts the prosecution’s narrative in virtually every case, pooh-poohing or excluding exculpatory evidence.
Why this book matters
We hope The Witch Hunt Narrative will founder on its own false logic and selective presentation. But we believe the historical record must be corrected. In fact, contrary to Cheit’s claims, child sexual abuse is, thankfully, taken far more seriously than it was before the 1980s. Yet the sex panic has left a terrible legacy:
o Teachers and childcare workers are wary of, even forbidden from, touching children in affection or comfort, lest they court allegations of sexual misconduct. Sadly, men avoid careers in early childhood education—exactly where they should be if children are to grow into nurturing, egalitarian adults.
o In scouting, religious institutions, and divorce courts false accusations of child abuse are used to exact revenge or win custody. Jobs and reputations are lost and familial relationships wrecked.
o Fear of pedophiles, fomented by the child abuse panics, has led to ever more draconian penalties for sex offenders, including long prison sentences, sex offender registries, and extrajudicial civil commitment—none of which improves public safety. The system’s unjust treatment of sex offenders has contributed to the harsher treatment of all offenders, including youth.
Progress toward Justice
NCRJ is not surprised that this book is being published now. It’s been a heartening year for innocence—a culmination of a long, slow realization of the sins of the past and a public desire to redress them.
o Texas passed a groundbreaking law granting appeals to people falsely convicted on discredited forensic science, and other states are following suit.
o New York City is reopening the cases of about 50 prisoners possibly framed by a rogue detective. Similar efforts are taking place in other cities and states.
o The National Registry of Exonerations lists 87 people found innocent on newly discovered evidence in 2013. Of these false convictions, three involve sex crimes against children that never happened.
o Major news outlets such as the New York Times are looking back at the ritual abuse panic with the rigor that escaped them during those years.
o NCRJ has also had great successes recently—such as the release from prison of four Texas Chicana lesbians whose convictions constituted what board member Debbie Nathan called “the last gasp of the satanic abuse panic.” Austin, TX daycare owners Fran and Dan Keller, convicted of fantastic satanic abuses, were freed after 21 years of their 48-year sentences.
Such success invites desperate defense from the promoters and beneficiaries—psychotherapists, prosecutors, authors—of the terror that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people. The Witch Hunt Narrative is part of that defense.
NCRJ cannot, nor do we not want to waste our resources trying to, rebut every one of Cheit’s errors. We offer some examples and documented rebuttals here.