Book Review: The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross E. Cheit

Order the The Witch-Hunt Narrative from AmazonProblems are never truly solved until they are understood. Trusted organizations like the Boy Scouts, churches, or schools will never be safe for children until we understand how pedophiles targeted these institutions, using the institutions’ own cultures and policies to prey on children and hide from detection.

Among the forces preventing a full understanding of the problem of child abuse in trusted organizations is the prevailing myth that systemic child abuse is the product of mass hysteria that results in a “witch-hunt” blown out of proportion by eager prosecutors and sensation-seeking reporters. This witch-hunt idea stems from an innate reluctance to believe adults would abuse children for their own sexual pleasure. Professor Ross Cheit examines the development and power of the witch-hunt myth in his new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children.

Cheit is a professor at Brown University who examined high-profile day-care abuse cases from the 1980s and undertook empirical studies of criminal sentencing in sex abuse cases. Much of his focus is on the McMartin Pre-school cases that went to trial in 1990 and ended in no convictions. The McMartin cases were widely reported; involved multiple alleged victims, accused defendants, and stories of satanic abuse; and lead to the wide-spread acceptance of the witch-hunt theory.

Cheit argues in The Witch-Hunt Narrative – convincingly, based on his research – that, even though the McMartin and other cases have been held up as “classic” examples of modern American witch-hunts, none of them actually fits that description. Many cases that have been painted as witch-hunts, including the McMartin case, turn out to involve significant, even overwhelming, evidence of guilt.

Cheit also argues in The Witch-Hunt Narrativethat, because of the pervasiveness of the witch-hunt idea, researchers have been uninterested in or reluctant to do the kind of social science investigation needed to fully understand child sexual abuse. This means that, as a society, we are behind in trying to understand the problem of child sexual abuse so we can solve it. Hopefully Cheit’s book will get us moving in the right direction.

For more about The Witch-Hunt Narrative and Professor Cheit’s arguments, see:

• Cheit’s own piece on the Huffington Post, Mythical Numbers and Satanic Ritual Abuse
How the ‘Witch Hunt’ Myth Undermined American Justice in The Daily Beast
Abuse Cases, and a Legacy of Skepticism:‘The Witch-Hunt Narrative’: Are We Dismissing Real Victims? in the New York Times
Professor Aims to Discredit ‘Witch-Hunt Narrative’ of Child Sexual-Abuse Cases in the Providence Journal

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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