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Some very unusual cases of suspected child sexual abuse were first reported in the US in the early 1980s.[[1]] Young children, often after intensive questioning by parents, caregivers, social workers and law enforcement officials, accused multiple alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also of carrying out other bizarre activities. A subset of these cases arose in a childcare, pre-school or similar setting, with multiple people employed by or linked to the childcare being accused, many of whom were women. There was no physical evidence of abuse, so determining the innocence or guilt of the alleged offenders relied completely upon the testimony of the children. The cases often had a high media profile and resulted in long and complex court proceedings.

One case with these features occurred in New Zealand. In 1991, Peter Ellis, a pre-school teacher at the Christchurch Civic Crèche, was accused, and subsequently convicted, of abusing children under his care. Opinions on whether abuse occurred remain divided.[[2,3]]

This study describes the pattern of these cases over the last 40 years, where they occurred, the trial verdict, and any changes to that verdict from subsequent appeals.

Methods

Child sexual abuse cases from the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand were included in the analysis if they fulfilled the following specific criteria:

1. Abuse occurring in a childcare, pre-school, crèche, kindergarten or Sunday school setting

2. Multiple children describing abuse

3. All children <6 years old at the time of the alleged abuse

4. Multiple people accused of abuse (including those instances in which only one person was eventually charged)

5. No physical evidence of child abuse

6. Description of associated bizarre or implausible events by the children

7. No physical evidence supporting the bizarre or implausible events

Cases were identified from books, journal articles, and online searches, including newspaper archives, using combinations of the search terms “sex abuse,” “pre-school,” “day care,” “child care,” “multiple victim,” multiple offender” and “children’s testimony”

Cases were included if one or more people were arrested and charged with a sex abuse offence. The court case outcome was determined, along with whether those convicted successfully appealed their conviction. Case inclusion was not determined by the symptoms that the children described. Cases were also included where a supposed physical sign of sexual abuse, such as reflex anal dilatation, was subsequently discredited because the sign was shown to lack sensitivity and specificity for diagnosing abuse.

Additional cases from European countries, fulfilling the same criteria, that emerged during the search were added. These were not included in the primary analysis because a comprehensive search of all European countries and of non-English language sources was not undertaken, making capture of all eligible cases uncertain.

Results

The 30 cases identified from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that fulfilled the study criteria are listed in Table 1.

Of the 30 cases, 26 were from the USA. All these cases occurred during the nine years from 1983 to 1991. Four cases in the main analysis were from outside the USA; the first was from Australia in 1989, and the last from the UK in 1994. Forty-three of 81 people accused (53%) were female.

One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). Charges were dropped in six, and the defendants were acquitted in the other five cases. Of all those accused, 36 of 81 (44%) were convicted; of those 36, 21 (68%) were male. The most recent conviction was from a 1991 case.

With regard to longer-term outcomes, the verdict was overturned (although some remained on parole) in 13 of 19 convictions (68%). Another three were paroled without their convictions being overturned, and two completed their prison sentences. Only one of those convicted remains in prison. In those whose verdicts were overturned, the time taken ranged from four to 30 years (median eight years). The two cases from Texas were both overturned, after 26 and 28 years, respectively.

Of the three additional European cases, the earliest was in 1992, and the most recent, in 2006, is the only one from this century. None resulted in a conviction

Discussion

Child sexual abuse is, unfortunately, common in New Zealand. The Christchurch Health and Development Study found that 6% of participants had suffered severe abuse before the age of 16.[[4]] Multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, with no physical evidence of abuse and bizarre testimony from the children, is a very narrow subset of child sex abuse. Cases were first reported from Kern County, California, in 1982.[[1]] The first case in a pre-school setting, an even narrower subset, was from Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, a year later.[[5,6]] Hundreds of children were thought to have been abused. The court proceedings took seven years and cost US$15 million (at the time the most expensive case in US legal history), and ultimately led to acquittal of the defendants. Over the next eight years, there were 25 further similar USA cases from 16 different states, with at least one person convicted in 19 of them.

The first case outside of the US was not until 1988 in Australia, followed by more in New Zealand in 1991, Canada in 1992 and the UK in 1994. The European cases were also among the most recent, occurring in Germany in 1992, Norway in 1994 and Italy in 2006. The only non-US case resulting in a conviction is that from Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch case was also the most recent one with a conviction.

The passage of time clearly shows the case pattern, something not able to be appreciated when they were occurring (Figure 1). These cases appeared to arise out of nowhere, rapidly increase in number within one to two years, wane over the next decade and then almost disappear by this century. The distribution of cases has similarities to an infectious disease outbreak—starting in California, spreading around the US, heading to other developed English-speaking countries, and then on to Europe.[[7]]

Figure 1: Number of cases, by year, between 1980 and 2020. The majority of cases were from the US, and US cases largely preceded those from other countries.

One unusual feature of these cases is that over half of those accused were women. This proportion differs markedly from usual child sex abuse, in which over 90% of perpetrators are male.[[8]]

Another unusual feature is the outcome of appeals in those convicted. Two thirds of the convictions were subsequently overturned. Some of the successful appeals took a very long time: in three of the cases, between 26 and 30 years. For comparison, a study from Victoria, Australia, found that in all criminal trials just over half were convicted, that 38% of the convictions were appealed, and that half of those appeals were successful. Of the child sexual abuse cases which were appealed, half of the appeals were also successful, although most of those resulted in a new trial, with only 6% acquitted of all charges.[[9]]

The main study limitation is that it is not possible to be certain regarding the completeness of eligible case capture. Cases before 1983 may have been missed, as some newspaper archives have less easily searched older records. The assessment of European cases was not comprehensive, as it was not undertaken country by country, and some may have been only reported in foreign language publications. On the other hand, these cases tended to attract a high media profile, with many reported in multiple sources. It is extremely unlikely that the almost complete disappearance of these cases over the last 25 years is due to them being missed.

The study findings should only be applied to those cases fulfilling the narrow inclusion criteria. There is ongoing disagreement regarding the likelihood of abuse having occurred, particularly in cases with some but not all features of those included in this analysis.[[10]]

This study does not address reasons for the decline in the number of these cases from the early 1990s onwards. It has been proposed that scientific studies on suggestibility in pre-school aged children published from the late 1980s onwards[[11–16]] led to improved evidential interviewing techniques.[[11–14]] The 1992 US Federal Bureau of Investigation ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of “Ritual” Child Abuse,’ following an investigation finding no evidence of widespread ritual child abuse over the previous decade,[[17]] may have led to improved US law enforcement investigation of initial complaints.

In summary, a cluster of apparent multiple-victim, multiple-offender day-care child abuse cases occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. Convictions depended upon the children’s testimony and the reliability of the techniques used to elicit that testimony. The very unusual epidemiologic pattern of these cases, almost disappearing by this century, along with the high proportion of convictions which were subsequently overturned, support doubts about whether abuse occurred in these children.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

To assess the pattern of some unusual cases of child abuse, including their trial and subsequent appeal outcomes, over the last 40 years.

Method

Cases of multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, occurring in a pre-school or similar setting, without physical evidence of abuse, from developed, English-speaking countries were collected.

Results

Thirty cases fulfilled the study criteria: 26 from the US and one each from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. The first was in 1983 and the most recent in 1994. Of 81 people accused, 43 (53%) were female. One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). The verdict was subsequently overturned in 13 of 19 (69%) convictions, up to 30 years later. Three additional cases occurred in Europe between 1992 and 2006.

Conclusion

These cases, relying upon children’s testimony and evidential interviewing techniques overseen by law enforcement officers, occurred in a cluster from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s, with almost none since. This highly unusual pattern, combined with two thirds of convictions being overturned, supports doubts regarding whether abuse occurred in these children.

Author Information

Mark WI Webster: Cardiologist, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland, NZ.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Mark WI Webster, Green Lane Cardiovascular Service, Auckland City Hospital, Park Rd, Grafton, Auckland 1030 New Zealand, +6421520997.

Correspondence Email

mwebster@adhb.govt.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1) Jones M. Who was abused? New York Times. 2004 Sep 19.

2) Bander J. A mother’s story: the Civic Crèche child sex trial. Howling at the Moon Publishing; 1997.

3) Hood L. A city possessed. The Christchurch Civic Crèche case. Longacre Press; 2001.

4) Friesen MD, Woodward LJ, Horwood LJ, Fergussom DM. Childhood exposure to sexual abuse and partnership outcomes at age 30. Psychol Med 2010;40:679-88.

5) Gorney C. The terrible puzzle of McMartin pre-school. Washington Post. 1988 May 17.

6) Linder D. The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2007 10.2139/ssrn.1030559.

7) De Young M. The day care ritual abuse moral panic. McFarland; 2004.

8) Finkelhor D. Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children, Vol. 4, No.2, Sexual Abuse of Children; 1994. p. 31-53

9) Mills S, Sharman SJ. Characteristics of successful and unsuccessful appeals against conviction for child sexual abuse. Pschiat Psychol Law. 2017;24:655-99.

10) Cheit RE. The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children. Oxford University Press; 2014.

11) Wood JM, Nathan D, Nezworski MT, Uhl E. Child sexual abuse investigations: Lessons learned from the McMartin and other daycare cases. In Bottoms BL, Najdowski CJ, Goodman GS. Children as victims, witnesses, and offenders: Psychological science and the law. Guilford Press. 2009; p. 81-101.

12) Ceci SJ, Huffman ML. How suggestible are preschool children? Cognitive and social factors. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997;36(7):948-58.

13) Bruck, M, Ceci SJ. The suggestibility of children's memory. Ann Rev Psychol. 1999;50:419-39.

14) Goodman GS, Melinder A. Child witness research and forensic interviews of young children: A review. Legal and Criminological Psychology. 2007;12:1-19.

15) O'Neill S., Zajac R. The role of repeated interviewing in children's responses to cross-examination-style questioning. Br J Psychol. 2013;104(1):14-38.

16) Jack F, Zajac R. The effect of age and reminders on witnesses’ responses to cross-examination-style questioning. J Appl Res Memory Cognition. 2014;3(1):1-6.

17) Lanning KV. A law-enforcement perspective on allegations of ritual abuse. In: Sakheim DK, Devine SE, editors. Out of darkness: Exploring Satanism and ritual abuse. Lexington Books/Macmillan; 1992. p. 109-46.

For the PDF of this article,
contact nzmj@nzma.org.nz

View Article PDF

Some very unusual cases of suspected child sexual abuse were first reported in the US in the early 1980s.[[1]] Young children, often after intensive questioning by parents, caregivers, social workers and law enforcement officials, accused multiple alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also of carrying out other bizarre activities. A subset of these cases arose in a childcare, pre-school or similar setting, with multiple people employed by or linked to the childcare being accused, many of whom were women. There was no physical evidence of abuse, so determining the innocence or guilt of the alleged offenders relied completely upon the testimony of the children. The cases often had a high media profile and resulted in long and complex court proceedings.

One case with these features occurred in New Zealand. In 1991, Peter Ellis, a pre-school teacher at the Christchurch Civic Crèche, was accused, and subsequently convicted, of abusing children under his care. Opinions on whether abuse occurred remain divided.[[2,3]]

This study describes the pattern of these cases over the last 40 years, where they occurred, the trial verdict, and any changes to that verdict from subsequent appeals.

Methods

Child sexual abuse cases from the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand were included in the analysis if they fulfilled the following specific criteria:

1. Abuse occurring in a childcare, pre-school, crèche, kindergarten or Sunday school setting

2. Multiple children describing abuse

3. All children <6 years old at the time of the alleged abuse

4. Multiple people accused of abuse (including those instances in which only one person was eventually charged)

5. No physical evidence of child abuse

6. Description of associated bizarre or implausible events by the children

7. No physical evidence supporting the bizarre or implausible events

Cases were identified from books, journal articles, and online searches, including newspaper archives, using combinations of the search terms “sex abuse,” “pre-school,” “day care,” “child care,” “multiple victim,” multiple offender” and “children’s testimony”

Cases were included if one or more people were arrested and charged with a sex abuse offence. The court case outcome was determined, along with whether those convicted successfully appealed their conviction. Case inclusion was not determined by the symptoms that the children described. Cases were also included where a supposed physical sign of sexual abuse, such as reflex anal dilatation, was subsequently discredited because the sign was shown to lack sensitivity and specificity for diagnosing abuse.

Additional cases from European countries, fulfilling the same criteria, that emerged during the search were added. These were not included in the primary analysis because a comprehensive search of all European countries and of non-English language sources was not undertaken, making capture of all eligible cases uncertain.

Results

The 30 cases identified from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that fulfilled the study criteria are listed in Table 1.

Of the 30 cases, 26 were from the USA. All these cases occurred during the nine years from 1983 to 1991. Four cases in the main analysis were from outside the USA; the first was from Australia in 1989, and the last from the UK in 1994. Forty-three of 81 people accused (53%) were female.

One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). Charges were dropped in six, and the defendants were acquitted in the other five cases. Of all those accused, 36 of 81 (44%) were convicted; of those 36, 21 (68%) were male. The most recent conviction was from a 1991 case.

With regard to longer-term outcomes, the verdict was overturned (although some remained on parole) in 13 of 19 convictions (68%). Another three were paroled without their convictions being overturned, and two completed their prison sentences. Only one of those convicted remains in prison. In those whose verdicts were overturned, the time taken ranged from four to 30 years (median eight years). The two cases from Texas were both overturned, after 26 and 28 years, respectively.

Of the three additional European cases, the earliest was in 1992, and the most recent, in 2006, is the only one from this century. None resulted in a conviction

Discussion

Child sexual abuse is, unfortunately, common in New Zealand. The Christchurch Health and Development Study found that 6% of participants had suffered severe abuse before the age of 16.[[4]] Multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, with no physical evidence of abuse and bizarre testimony from the children, is a very narrow subset of child sex abuse. Cases were first reported from Kern County, California, in 1982.[[1]] The first case in a pre-school setting, an even narrower subset, was from Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, a year later.[[5,6]] Hundreds of children were thought to have been abused. The court proceedings took seven years and cost US$15 million (at the time the most expensive case in US legal history), and ultimately led to acquittal of the defendants. Over the next eight years, there were 25 further similar USA cases from 16 different states, with at least one person convicted in 19 of them.

The first case outside of the US was not until 1988 in Australia, followed by more in New Zealand in 1991, Canada in 1992 and the UK in 1994. The European cases were also among the most recent, occurring in Germany in 1992, Norway in 1994 and Italy in 2006. The only non-US case resulting in a conviction is that from Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch case was also the most recent one with a conviction.

The passage of time clearly shows the case pattern, something not able to be appreciated when they were occurring (Figure 1). These cases appeared to arise out of nowhere, rapidly increase in number within one to two years, wane over the next decade and then almost disappear by this century. The distribution of cases has similarities to an infectious disease outbreak—starting in California, spreading around the US, heading to other developed English-speaking countries, and then on to Europe.[[7]]

Figure 1: Number of cases, by year, between 1980 and 2020. The majority of cases were from the US, and US cases largely preceded those from other countries.

One unusual feature of these cases is that over half of those accused were women. This proportion differs markedly from usual child sex abuse, in which over 90% of perpetrators are male.[[8]]

Another unusual feature is the outcome of appeals in those convicted. Two thirds of the convictions were subsequently overturned. Some of the successful appeals took a very long time: in three of the cases, between 26 and 30 years. For comparison, a study from Victoria, Australia, found that in all criminal trials just over half were convicted, that 38% of the convictions were appealed, and that half of those appeals were successful. Of the child sexual abuse cases which were appealed, half of the appeals were also successful, although most of those resulted in a new trial, with only 6% acquitted of all charges.[[9]]

The main study limitation is that it is not possible to be certain regarding the completeness of eligible case capture. Cases before 1983 may have been missed, as some newspaper archives have less easily searched older records. The assessment of European cases was not comprehensive, as it was not undertaken country by country, and some may have been only reported in foreign language publications. On the other hand, these cases tended to attract a high media profile, with many reported in multiple sources. It is extremely unlikely that the almost complete disappearance of these cases over the last 25 years is due to them being missed.

The study findings should only be applied to those cases fulfilling the narrow inclusion criteria. There is ongoing disagreement regarding the likelihood of abuse having occurred, particularly in cases with some but not all features of those included in this analysis.[[10]]

This study does not address reasons for the decline in the number of these cases from the early 1990s onwards. It has been proposed that scientific studies on suggestibility in pre-school aged children published from the late 1980s onwards[[11–16]] led to improved evidential interviewing techniques.[[11–14]] The 1992 US Federal Bureau of Investigation ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of “Ritual” Child Abuse,’ following an investigation finding no evidence of widespread ritual child abuse over the previous decade,[[17]] may have led to improved US law enforcement investigation of initial complaints.

In summary, a cluster of apparent multiple-victim, multiple-offender day-care child abuse cases occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. Convictions depended upon the children’s testimony and the reliability of the techniques used to elicit that testimony. The very unusual epidemiologic pattern of these cases, almost disappearing by this century, along with the high proportion of convictions which were subsequently overturned, support doubts about whether abuse occurred in these children.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

To assess the pattern of some unusual cases of child abuse, including their trial and subsequent appeal outcomes, over the last 40 years.

Method

Cases of multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, occurring in a pre-school or similar setting, without physical evidence of abuse, from developed, English-speaking countries were collected.

Results

Thirty cases fulfilled the study criteria: 26 from the US and one each from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. The first was in 1983 and the most recent in 1994. Of 81 people accused, 43 (53%) were female. One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). The verdict was subsequently overturned in 13 of 19 (69%) convictions, up to 30 years later. Three additional cases occurred in Europe between 1992 and 2006.

Conclusion

These cases, relying upon children’s testimony and evidential interviewing techniques overseen by law enforcement officers, occurred in a cluster from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s, with almost none since. This highly unusual pattern, combined with two thirds of convictions being overturned, supports doubts regarding whether abuse occurred in these children.

Author Information

Mark WI Webster: Cardiologist, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland, NZ.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Mark WI Webster, Green Lane Cardiovascular Service, Auckland City Hospital, Park Rd, Grafton, Auckland 1030 New Zealand, +6421520997.

Correspondence Email

mwebster@adhb.govt.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1) Jones M. Who was abused? New York Times. 2004 Sep 19.

2) Bander J. A mother’s story: the Civic Crèche child sex trial. Howling at the Moon Publishing; 1997.

3) Hood L. A city possessed. The Christchurch Civic Crèche case. Longacre Press; 2001.

4) Friesen MD, Woodward LJ, Horwood LJ, Fergussom DM. Childhood exposure to sexual abuse and partnership outcomes at age 30. Psychol Med 2010;40:679-88.

5) Gorney C. The terrible puzzle of McMartin pre-school. Washington Post. 1988 May 17.

6) Linder D. The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2007 10.2139/ssrn.1030559.

7) De Young M. The day care ritual abuse moral panic. McFarland; 2004.

8) Finkelhor D. Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children, Vol. 4, No.2, Sexual Abuse of Children; 1994. p. 31-53

9) Mills S, Sharman SJ. Characteristics of successful and unsuccessful appeals against conviction for child sexual abuse. Pschiat Psychol Law. 2017;24:655-99.

10) Cheit RE. The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children. Oxford University Press; 2014.

11) Wood JM, Nathan D, Nezworski MT, Uhl E. Child sexual abuse investigations: Lessons learned from the McMartin and other daycare cases. In Bottoms BL, Najdowski CJ, Goodman GS. Children as victims, witnesses, and offenders: Psychological science and the law. Guilford Press. 2009; p. 81-101.

12) Ceci SJ, Huffman ML. How suggestible are preschool children? Cognitive and social factors. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997;36(7):948-58.

13) Bruck, M, Ceci SJ. The suggestibility of children's memory. Ann Rev Psychol. 1999;50:419-39.

14) Goodman GS, Melinder A. Child witness research and forensic interviews of young children: A review. Legal and Criminological Psychology. 2007;12:1-19.

15) O'Neill S., Zajac R. The role of repeated interviewing in children's responses to cross-examination-style questioning. Br J Psychol. 2013;104(1):14-38.

16) Jack F, Zajac R. The effect of age and reminders on witnesses’ responses to cross-examination-style questioning. J Appl Res Memory Cognition. 2014;3(1):1-6.

17) Lanning KV. A law-enforcement perspective on allegations of ritual abuse. In: Sakheim DK, Devine SE, editors. Out of darkness: Exploring Satanism and ritual abuse. Lexington Books/Macmillan; 1992. p. 109-46.

For the PDF of this article,
contact nzmj@nzma.org.nz

View Article PDF

Some very unusual cases of suspected child sexual abuse were first reported in the US in the early 1980s.[[1]] Young children, often after intensive questioning by parents, caregivers, social workers and law enforcement officials, accused multiple alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also of carrying out other bizarre activities. A subset of these cases arose in a childcare, pre-school or similar setting, with multiple people employed by or linked to the childcare being accused, many of whom were women. There was no physical evidence of abuse, so determining the innocence or guilt of the alleged offenders relied completely upon the testimony of the children. The cases often had a high media profile and resulted in long and complex court proceedings.

One case with these features occurred in New Zealand. In 1991, Peter Ellis, a pre-school teacher at the Christchurch Civic Crèche, was accused, and subsequently convicted, of abusing children under his care. Opinions on whether abuse occurred remain divided.[[2,3]]

This study describes the pattern of these cases over the last 40 years, where they occurred, the trial verdict, and any changes to that verdict from subsequent appeals.

Methods

Child sexual abuse cases from the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand were included in the analysis if they fulfilled the following specific criteria:

1. Abuse occurring in a childcare, pre-school, crèche, kindergarten or Sunday school setting

2. Multiple children describing abuse

3. All children <6 years old at the time of the alleged abuse

4. Multiple people accused of abuse (including those instances in which only one person was eventually charged)

5. No physical evidence of child abuse

6. Description of associated bizarre or implausible events by the children

7. No physical evidence supporting the bizarre or implausible events

Cases were identified from books, journal articles, and online searches, including newspaper archives, using combinations of the search terms “sex abuse,” “pre-school,” “day care,” “child care,” “multiple victim,” multiple offender” and “children’s testimony”

Cases were included if one or more people were arrested and charged with a sex abuse offence. The court case outcome was determined, along with whether those convicted successfully appealed their conviction. Case inclusion was not determined by the symptoms that the children described. Cases were also included where a supposed physical sign of sexual abuse, such as reflex anal dilatation, was subsequently discredited because the sign was shown to lack sensitivity and specificity for diagnosing abuse.

Additional cases from European countries, fulfilling the same criteria, that emerged during the search were added. These were not included in the primary analysis because a comprehensive search of all European countries and of non-English language sources was not undertaken, making capture of all eligible cases uncertain.

Results

The 30 cases identified from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that fulfilled the study criteria are listed in Table 1.

Of the 30 cases, 26 were from the USA. All these cases occurred during the nine years from 1983 to 1991. Four cases in the main analysis were from outside the USA; the first was from Australia in 1989, and the last from the UK in 1994. Forty-three of 81 people accused (53%) were female.

One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). Charges were dropped in six, and the defendants were acquitted in the other five cases. Of all those accused, 36 of 81 (44%) were convicted; of those 36, 21 (68%) were male. The most recent conviction was from a 1991 case.

With regard to longer-term outcomes, the verdict was overturned (although some remained on parole) in 13 of 19 convictions (68%). Another three were paroled without their convictions being overturned, and two completed their prison sentences. Only one of those convicted remains in prison. In those whose verdicts were overturned, the time taken ranged from four to 30 years (median eight years). The two cases from Texas were both overturned, after 26 and 28 years, respectively.

Of the three additional European cases, the earliest was in 1992, and the most recent, in 2006, is the only one from this century. None resulted in a conviction

Discussion

Child sexual abuse is, unfortunately, common in New Zealand. The Christchurch Health and Development Study found that 6% of participants had suffered severe abuse before the age of 16.[[4]] Multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, with no physical evidence of abuse and bizarre testimony from the children, is a very narrow subset of child sex abuse. Cases were first reported from Kern County, California, in 1982.[[1]] The first case in a pre-school setting, an even narrower subset, was from Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, a year later.[[5,6]] Hundreds of children were thought to have been abused. The court proceedings took seven years and cost US$15 million (at the time the most expensive case in US legal history), and ultimately led to acquittal of the defendants. Over the next eight years, there were 25 further similar USA cases from 16 different states, with at least one person convicted in 19 of them.

The first case outside of the US was not until 1988 in Australia, followed by more in New Zealand in 1991, Canada in 1992 and the UK in 1994. The European cases were also among the most recent, occurring in Germany in 1992, Norway in 1994 and Italy in 2006. The only non-US case resulting in a conviction is that from Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch case was also the most recent one with a conviction.

The passage of time clearly shows the case pattern, something not able to be appreciated when they were occurring (Figure 1). These cases appeared to arise out of nowhere, rapidly increase in number within one to two years, wane over the next decade and then almost disappear by this century. The distribution of cases has similarities to an infectious disease outbreak—starting in California, spreading around the US, heading to other developed English-speaking countries, and then on to Europe.[[7]]

Figure 1: Number of cases, by year, between 1980 and 2020. The majority of cases were from the US, and US cases largely preceded those from other countries.

One unusual feature of these cases is that over half of those accused were women. This proportion differs markedly from usual child sex abuse, in which over 90% of perpetrators are male.[[8]]

Another unusual feature is the outcome of appeals in those convicted. Two thirds of the convictions were subsequently overturned. Some of the successful appeals took a very long time: in three of the cases, between 26 and 30 years. For comparison, a study from Victoria, Australia, found that in all criminal trials just over half were convicted, that 38% of the convictions were appealed, and that half of those appeals were successful. Of the child sexual abuse cases which were appealed, half of the appeals were also successful, although most of those resulted in a new trial, with only 6% acquitted of all charges.[[9]]

The main study limitation is that it is not possible to be certain regarding the completeness of eligible case capture. Cases before 1983 may have been missed, as some newspaper archives have less easily searched older records. The assessment of European cases was not comprehensive, as it was not undertaken country by country, and some may have been only reported in foreign language publications. On the other hand, these cases tended to attract a high media profile, with many reported in multiple sources. It is extremely unlikely that the almost complete disappearance of these cases over the last 25 years is due to them being missed.

The study findings should only be applied to those cases fulfilling the narrow inclusion criteria. There is ongoing disagreement regarding the likelihood of abuse having occurred, particularly in cases with some but not all features of those included in this analysis.[[10]]

This study does not address reasons for the decline in the number of these cases from the early 1990s onwards. It has been proposed that scientific studies on suggestibility in pre-school aged children published from the late 1980s onwards[[11–16]] led to improved evidential interviewing techniques.[[11–14]] The 1992 US Federal Bureau of Investigation ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of “Ritual” Child Abuse,’ following an investigation finding no evidence of widespread ritual child abuse over the previous decade,[[17]] may have led to improved US law enforcement investigation of initial complaints.

In summary, a cluster of apparent multiple-victim, multiple-offender day-care child abuse cases occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. Convictions depended upon the children’s testimony and the reliability of the techniques used to elicit that testimony. The very unusual epidemiologic pattern of these cases, almost disappearing by this century, along with the high proportion of convictions which were subsequently overturned, support doubts about whether abuse occurred in these children.

Summary

Abstract

Aim

To assess the pattern of some unusual cases of child abuse, including their trial and subsequent appeal outcomes, over the last 40 years.

Method

Cases of multiple-victim, multiple-offender child abuse, occurring in a pre-school or similar setting, without physical evidence of abuse, from developed, English-speaking countries were collected.

Results

Thirty cases fulfilled the study criteria: 26 from the US and one each from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. The first was in 1983 and the most recent in 1994. Of 81 people accused, 43 (53%) were female. One or more defendants were convicted in 19 of the 30 cases (63%). The verdict was subsequently overturned in 13 of 19 (69%) convictions, up to 30 years later. Three additional cases occurred in Europe between 1992 and 2006.

Conclusion

These cases, relying upon children’s testimony and evidential interviewing techniques overseen by law enforcement officers, occurred in a cluster from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s, with almost none since. This highly unusual pattern, combined with two thirds of convictions being overturned, supports doubts regarding whether abuse occurred in these children.

Author Information

Mark WI Webster: Cardiologist, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland, NZ.

Acknowledgements

Correspondence

Mark WI Webster, Green Lane Cardiovascular Service, Auckland City Hospital, Park Rd, Grafton, Auckland 1030 New Zealand, +6421520997.

Correspondence Email

mwebster@adhb.govt.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

1) Jones M. Who was abused? New York Times. 2004 Sep 19.

2) Bander J. A mother’s story: the Civic Crèche child sex trial. Howling at the Moon Publishing; 1997.

3) Hood L. A city possessed. The Christchurch Civic Crèche case. Longacre Press; 2001.

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