In my last piece I tried to set out something of the origins and psychology of the original “witch hunt” in early modern Europe, and tried to identify the aspects of the psychology. May I thank the readers for the many insightful comments.
Let us then jump forward and look at a modern-day “witch hunt”. I could pick many, but I am particularly interested in the current frenzy which surrounds allegations of so-called “historic” sexual abuse.
I think it is important to be aware that from the 1970’s certain new theories began to gain currency in academia and social science worlds, to do with the amount of “hidden” but endemic child abuse and incest as part of a patriarchal society. Very broadly one could analyse these as growing out of a radical “feminist” agenda. I do not have time to set out the whole story here, and I am not sure I am qualified to do justice to it at the moment, but I think it is significant that such theories were, in the ghastly modern parlance, “gaining traction”.
With that in mind, two immediately spring to mind concerning alleged sexual abuse on a grand scale.
Between February and July of 1987 121 children on Teesside were taken from their families and placed in care. Dr Marietta Higgs and her colleague Dr Geoffrey Wyatt believed a controversial diagnostic practice called RAD – reflex anal dilatation – indicated abuse had taken place. Briefly, this involves gently parting the buttocks and observing the anus for half a minute. Usually, the sphincter on the outside of the anus will contract and then dilate, as pressure is maintained. Sometimes the inside sphincter will then also relax giving a view right into the rectum. It is this response that has been named RAD. Pausing there, I have to say that if someone started messing about with me like that not only would I probably exhibit the symptoms of “abuse”, but very shortly afterwards I would deploy my fists and any nearby object such as a chair which could be used as a weapon with extreme ferocity.
Drs Hobbs and Wynne reported that RAD was present in 42% of anally abused children they examined, and claimed that it was an important indicator of abuse. They stated that they had not witnessed RAD in non-abused children. They also claimed that splits or fissures around the anus are very rare in the non-abused child.
In just five months Dr Higgs had diagnosed 78 children as having been the victims of sexual abuse. Many had come to hospital for complaints such as asthma and there was no other evidence of abuse.
On July 9, 1987 the Secretary of State for Social Services ordered that a public inquiry be held into the scandal. It was 12 months later when Elizabeth Butler-Sloss – the chair of the inquiry – published her report.
In her final conclusions Baroness Butler-Sloss stated that the problems of child sexual abuse had become more recognised in the early 1980s which caused “particularly difficult problems for the agencies concerned in child protection”.
Baroness Butler-Sloss went on to state: “In Cleveland an honest attempt was made to address these problems by the agencies. In Spring 1987 it went wrong.”
I should add, by the way, that whilst I might perhaps rather disagree with the content of “The Hammer of the Witches”, or even the sanity of its author, I have no grounds to impugn the honesty of his attempts to address a perceived problem. No doubt he made an honest attempt to address his concerns too.
The public inquiry found most of the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded and all but 27 children were returned to their families. The two doctors were criticised for “over-confidence” in their methods. I should imagine Rebbeka Kemp’s husband would have said the same about the town council in Nördlingen.
Whilst researching this piece I found a fabulous article in the Institute for Psychological Studies Journal by (now) Professor Felicity Goodyear-Smith, whom I understand to be a doctor, author and academic hailing from New Zealand. It is interesting that my brief research has revealed that both she has written criticising techniques such as RAD and on the topic of false memory syndrome, and also that she appears to have received a great deal of nasty allegations on the web. The full piece can be found here.
Since it is on the web anyway I hope the good Professor won’t mind too much if I set out a little bit of it as an example. Here she was dealing with allegations based on a theory to do with hymenal damage rather than “RAD”:
“Unfortunately, the belief that hymenal diameters greater than 4mm indicate sexual abuse has permeated the field. I have examined a number of medical reports of vaginal examinations where hymenal sizes less than 10mm have been reported by the examining physician as indicating probable abuse.
In one particular case, a woman doctor in Christchurch, New Zealand, examined three sisters and gave the opinion that they had all probably been molested. She claimed that her examination of the 5-year-old revealed “a transverse vaginal diameter of 5mm, and no evidence of a hymen” which she found “highly suggestive of penetration.”
The 9-year-old had a transverse vaginal opening of 3.5mm, with hymenal remnants, which she concluded was “suggestive of some interference to the vagina,” and the 10-year-old had a transverse opening of 6mm, with no definite hymen, which she believed was “strongly indicative of vaginal penetration.”
The three girls were then subjected to a number of sexual abuse assessments. In her first interview session, the eldest girl was told that the doctor’s examination showed that she had been the victim of “bad touching” and had a “hurt between her legs.” Despite being repeatedly questioned about who had caused the “hurt,” she continued to deny any molestation. Even after two counsellors performed a role play with her about a “father who hurts kids between their legs” she was adamant that nothing like that had happened to her. Sadly she was not believed and all three children were placed in a foster home. Their father was charged with sexual violation of all his daughters, especially the eldest. It was a year and a half before his case was heard in court, where he was acquitted on all charges.
Now I can’t verify the details of the case, but assuming that this account is correct then it displays all the classic elements of the witch hunt – especially a fixed belief in pseudo science and questioning designed to reach the pre-ordained result – bar, fortunately, the penalty of the accused. On a personal note, I used to date a woman who worked for a particular medical centre for vulnerable people. She told me that she would never let her children go there; it was regular practice to separate children from their mothers and apply probing inquisitorial techniques, often observed in secret via a two-way mirror, seeking out “signs” of abuse.
But I digress. Another scandal followed. In the late 80s there were stories of abuse which broke first in Rochdale and the Orkneys and in a TV documentary claiming to have evidence of “satanic” abuse. This resulted in children being seized in dawn raids and taken forcibly into care. It was, of course, utter nonsense.
Four years later an official inquiry by Jean La Fontaine, emeritus professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, concluded there was no corroborating evidence that satanic ritual sexual abuse existed. And anyone who knows anything about real satanic ritual would have known that anyway.
And then on a slightly different but related tack there was the work of Professor Roy Meadow. He rose to initial fame for his 1977 academic paper on the now controversial Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. He was knighted for this work. He endorsed the dictum that “one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proved otherwise” in his book ABC of Child Abuse and this became known as “Meadow’s Law” and at one time was widely adopted by social workers and child protection agencies (such as the NSPCC) in Britain. He came up with a mathematical theory to add weight to this evidence, namely that the chances of three children dying of unidentified natural causes were 1 in 73 million.
He appeared as an expert witness for the prosecution in several trials, in at least one of which his testimony played a crucial part in a wrongful conviction for murder. The British General Medical Council (GMC) struck off Meadow from the British Medical Register after he was found to have offered “erroneous” and “misleading” evidence in the Sally Clark case, although later re-instated. Clark was a lawyer wrongly convicted in 1999 of the murder of her two baby sons, largely on the basis of Meadow’s evidence; her conviction was quashed in 2003 after she had spent three years in jail. Sally Clark never recovered from the experience, developed a number of serious psychiatric problems including serious alcohol dependency and died in 2007 from alcohol poisoning.
In offering statistical evidence of this type Meadow had stepped well out of his field of expertise. As I understand or recall it, it was finally trashed when the enterprising defence counsel wheeled out an eminent professor of maths and statistics who explained exactly why. They should have just called Dr FJ.
Dr FJ is friend of mine from college days, formerly a research fellow at one of the most eminent Cambridge Colleges, and is now Head of Science for one of the world’s leading science and technology companies, based in the USA. I told him about “Meadow’s Law” and his statistic, and he just rolled his eyes in instant disdain. As for the statistics, he had a lot to say about random theory, and the actual probability of the results of the toss of a coin or roll of a dice. He put it this way:
If you roll, a dice the probability that you will get a “6” is 1 in 6.
If you roll the dice a second time, the probability that you will get a “6” is…the same. 1 in 6.
But if you roll the dice several times and keep getting a 6, the reasonable indications are that the there is some anomalous force which is excluding the other numbers. But you can’t say how it has been fixed; it could be a magnet, a weight or sleight of hand, the decree of the Sky Pixie or an alien ray, or anything else.
Now in terms of Meadow’s law, it was just rank wrong maths and bad science, he said. The best that you could say was that there could be some external extra feature operating, but without more it would be impossible to say what it was; it could be anything from genetics, to environment or smoking, or yes, even murder. In fact on the basis of two or even three events it could even be a random aberration but not statistically conclusive of anything. But of itself, Meadow’s calculation and conclusions were simply, in scientific terms, balderdash. He used another word, actually.
Well, that was that sorted then. But there were a number of convictions that had to be quashed and lives wrecked.
I do not think I can identify the psychological factor of concerns about taboo sexuality in Meadow’s work, but one can see moral panic and the demonisation of a vulnerable group: bereaved mothers alleged to have committed a social taboo, namely infanticide. Again we see a strongly motivated “expert” or power figure, one might also say with an agenda, and advancing a seemingly iron cast theory as fact. That theory was then accepted as sound without question by a legal profession which, away from the TCC and Patents Court, often flounders with scientific method.
Meanwhile, in 1991 stories began to be published saying that Bryn Estyn, a home for adolescent boys on the outskirts of Wrexham, was the hub of a network of a paedophile ring. Many allegations were levelled, including that senior members of the Police were involved and covering up the abuse….
Gildas the Monk