Sunday, January 19, 2014

Edenton Seven: hysteria, false accusations, ruined lives

I'm glad to see Lew Powell take up the cause of the Edenton Seven, who were persecuted (that's not a malapropism for prosecuted) during the strange hysteria over imagined satanic rituals and child sexual abuse. That hysteria swept the country in the 1980s.

At first the allegations were simply shocking: Day care employees were accused by preschool children of fondling or raping them. But the allegations grew and grew, eventually entangling everyone who worked at the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, even the business' cook, who had little contact with the children. And the accusations became more and more bizarre. According to the children's testimony, some children were murdered or mutilated in cruel and incredible ways, even involving a magical spaceship travel. Of course, there were no dead children and no physical evidence of abuse. Few people had the courage to point out that preschool children can tell fantastic tales that have no basis in fact and can swear it's all true.

Despite all the obviously incredible — that is, not believable, not trustworthy — claims, the prosecutors and ill-trained therapists marched on. The accused were locked in jail under million-dollar bonds. The prosecution dragged on, but none of the accused cracked and testified against the others. Prosecutors and some townspeople claimed this was evidence of a massive conspiracy, instead of the more rational explanation of a hysteria-driven persecution on a par with the Salem witch trials. The prosecutors got their convictions, but a state appeals court threw them out.

Reputations were destroyed. Lives were ruined. Years were stolen. All because some people were eager to believe that pedophilia-driven satan worshipers were lurking everywhere. This hysteria sprouted across the country, in Southern California, in Massachusetts, in rural Washington. None of the convictions stood up on appeal. I told someone at the time that you'd have to be crazy to open a day care because you would be helpless against an unfounded accusation of physical or sexual abuse. One writer at the time explained the hysteria as a result of parents' feelings of guilt over leaving their precious children in the hands of strangers all day every day of the week.

Powell is right. The state should exonerate those wrongly convicted members of the Edenton Seven and the wrongly accused who were never convicted but had their lives ruined. The Innocence Project has freed men wrongly accused of murder or rape, but there seems to be little interest in making amends for those wrongly accused of abusing children, no matter how fantastical the accusations.

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