A little over 30 years ago, three generations of the McMartin family, who had run a nursery school in Los Angeles for decades, were arrested, jailed, and put on trial, charged with hundreds of sensational counts of child sexual abuse. Six years later, when no convictions had been obtained, all charges were dropped against them—including against one family member who had languished in jail for five years without being convicted of anything.
Yet the exoneration of the McMartins was only the end of one chapter in a dire story. The case sparked a kind of moral panic across America in the 1980s and ’90s, with dozens of day-care workers and teachers being arrested and convicted on lurid molestation and assault charges, local prosecutors earning national reputations for draconian prison sentences, and police departments warning frightened parents about the signs of satanic ritual abuse. The fact that all those convicted and imprisoned in that period were ultimately vindicated, and set free, is proof not so much that a system of justice “works” but that, right or wrong, it can work with fearsome efficiency—even in the service, from Salem to L.A., of hysteria and mob rule. Put another way: Times change, but human nature does not.
Great Britain, for example, seems to be in the grip of a pedophile scare. Of course, pedophilia, like any sort of sexual abuse, does exist and is a terrible thing; but as with the “rape culture” alleged on American campuses (see Charlotte Allen’s “Of Frats and Men,” page 22), singular events and isolated instances can trigger an irrational response in civil society. In this instance, the catalyst seems to have been the revelation that Jimmy Savile, a popular BBC television and radio personality who died at 84 in 2011, had been a predatory sex offender for decades. At the moment, the 85-year-old, Australian-born singer Rolf Harris—best known here for his 1963 novelty hit, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”—is serving a five-year, nine-month prison sentence on 40-year-old “indecent assault” charges; and 75-year-old ex-rock ’n’ roller Cliff Richard has been the subject of near-constant police attention over sexual allegations (thus far unstated, much less proven) of similar vintage.
England being England, what ties these cases together are complaints that social prominence and political connections might have protected wrongdoers from the law: The BBC, various police agencies, successive governments, the press, and crown prosecutors have all been accused of conspiring to destroy evidence, suppress stories, and discredit victims. Whether any of this is true has yet to be demonstrated; but in a class-conscious culture, it’s a powerful narrative. Moreover, precisely because such allegations are widely believed, certain segments of the press, innumerable police agencies, and prosecutors are now soliciting stories and pursuing leads with McMartin-like zeal and recklessness. And inevitably, the downward path has led to politics.
Just as French political scandals tend to be about money, British political scandals are usually about sex. And since the 18th century, at least, London gossip has had a long history of identifying houses and streets and buildings as secret meeting places for misbehaving members of Parliament or errant members of the royal family. Some locales, no doubt, have existed in fact. But while current tales, ranging from homosexual trysts to child murders, at the former Elm Guest House in south London and elsewhere, have invoked the names of MPs of all parties (mostly dead but some still alive), as well as barristers, pop stars, Soviet spies, diplomats, famous athletes, and the occasional Sinn Fein representative, no evidence has yet been produced to suggest that any of these tales are anything but tales.
In fact, the revelation last week that no less than the late Sir Edward Heath, Tory prime minister during 1970-74, is now the subject of vigorous sex-abuse inquiries in no less than seven police jurisdictions might lead either to a wholesale collapse of anything resembling justice—all sorts of incredible stories are now being bruited about in the downscale media and treated with due diligence by police—or, with luck, to a measure of national soul-searching. Just as the McMartin case featured allegations of ritual slaughter, sex with animals, and human levitation, details in the Westminster pedophile scandals are now being updated regularly in such venues as ex-MP George Galloway’s television program on Russia Today.