I react to the allegations of child abuse and obstruction of justice at Penn State with a certain reserve. This is not because I regard pedophilia as a victimless crime, or worship at the shrine of Joe Paterno. It is because, as a staffer at the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, I witnessed the beginnings of the McMartin preschool case, and so was present at the creation of a strange and disturbing interlude in American history.

For the uninitiated, the McMartin preschool case involved a nursery school in Manhattan Beach, California run for several years by four generations of the McMartin family. In 1983, one mother of one student reported to the police that her son had been molested by an employee—although it was reported at the time that the child, in later interviews, disputed the allegation. But in due course the police sent a letter of inquiry to other parents, and testimony began rolling in. Students, assisted by psychologists and counselors, reported that they had been repeatedly raped, forced to watch animal mutilation, were sexually abused while flying in balloons, witnessed satanic rituals, played a game with teachers called "Naked Cowboy," and were driven through extensive underground tunnels.

With maximum publicity, all four generations of McMartins were arrested and indicted for child sexual abuse, and stories began circulating (repeated in the press) about other nursery schools in California and the West Coast, where children were subjected en masse to satanic sexual practices and ritual mutilation.

At this point I make one brief entrance in the story. I recall discussing with the op-ed editor of the Times my concerns about the story's validity. Having met her one evening in the Times newsroom, the mother of the initial McMartin accuser appeared (to me) to be seriously disturbed—she died of alcoholism in the midst of the subsequent trial—and I was equally dubious about the judgment of the reporter leading the coverage. I remember saying to the editor that it was entirely possible, perhaps even plausible, that abuse had occurred at the McMartin school, but that many of the allegations (balloons, tunnels, disemboweled rabbits, Naked Cowboy etc.) defied credulity. My suggestion that the Times invite someone with psychiatric credentials to speculate about the element of hysteria in the case—and the possibility that the stories might be fantasies—was greeted with horror by the op-ed editor, and summarily rejected.

As we now know, the McMartin preschool case was a complete invention. But in the course of the next decade it led to dozens of comparable cases across the United States involving similar allegations of years of ritual abuse and misconduct in nursery schools, featuring bizarre sexual practices and satanic rituals. Worst of all, it inspired police agencies, psychologists, social workers, journalists, and prosecutors to embark on literal witch-hunts, resulting in the conviction and imprisonment of dozens of innocent people. It took yet another decade for the imaginary epidemic of pre-school sexual abuse to subside, and years to free those who had been falsely imprisoned.

It has always intrigued me that, in a culture that is relentlessly self-critical, there has never been a scholarly account of the pre-school hysteria and witch-hunts of the 1980s and '90s in America. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal did heroic work on the subject—largely involving a case in Massachusetts—for which she was belatedly awarded a Pulitzer prize. But to my knowledge this curious and disconcerting episode has attracted little, if any, notice among historians and social analysts.

Which is odd: We moderns like to think that we are exempt from some of the baser instincts of human nature, but hysteria, mob rule, and spectral fears are still very much with us. Moreover, in this instance, the American judicial system failed systematically, blighting hundreds of lives: Many more genuinely innocent people went to prison, and for longer terms, than any Communist during the McCarthy era. And the parallels with the Salem witch trials are nearly complete—except, perhaps, for the fact that the judges in Salem (notably Samuel Sewall) were considerably more learned and deliberate than contemporary jurists.

As for Penn State, let us allow the machinery of the law to proceed, and see what happens.

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