Kudos to Debbie Nathan for breaking the story.
Kevin Drum has an excellent post about this, but he doesn't quite cover all the bases when he names "hysteria, local newscasters, and bad child psychology" as the culprits. First of all, it wasn't just local newscasters (will Geraldo Rivera apologize for his substantial role in taking the hysteria to the national level?). Second, let's not forget the ideology the 1980s wave of day-care sex abuse witch-hunts: feminist panic about child sexual abuse. See this article by Alexander "even a broken clock is right twice a day" Cockburn on the feminist role in these events.
It is often forgotten that radical feminists played a key part in bringing the issue of child sexual abuse out into the open, as part of their critique of the patriarchal family. (A good recap by Rael Jean Isaac can be found here.) Obviously, raising popular consciousness about child abuse -- particularly by family members and trusted authority figures, rather than the stereotypical predatory stranger lurking around the playground -- was a good thing, and the feminists deserve credit for it, even if their interest was often driven by some pretty demented ideas (such as Florence Rush's claim that our society condones sexual abuse because it's the process by which girls are trained to acquiesce in their subordinate role). But this achievement had a very dark side: a wave of false accusations of sexual abuse, including the "recovered memory" craze and grotesque stories of ritual sexual abuse in Satanic cults. The Los Angeles County Commission on Women even formed a Task Force on Ritual Abuse.
When some voices of sanity -- including feminists such as Debbie Nathan, Carol Tavris and Wendy Kaminer -- began to speak up against the hysteria, some of their "sisters" did their best to silence dissent by labeling it as collusion with patriarchy. Here's Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Judith Herman chastising the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones for having the temerity to publish a piece about false memories:
Violence against women and children is deeply imbedded in our society. It is a privilege that men do not relinquish easily. So it's not surprising that we would see serious resistance to change. Historically, every time a subordinate group begins to make serious progress, a backlash occurs. This is what happened one hundred years ago when Freud created the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse. It makes perfect sense that we would now see another backlash in the pages of Playboy or even the New York Times. But I have to admit that I'm surprised at Mother Jones.Gloria Steinem was also in the forefront of pushing the "recovered memory" agenda. Among other things, she narrated the 1995 HBO documentary The Search for Deadly Memories, and as far as I know she has continued to insist that the McMartin defendants were guilty.
Some point out that the other ideological foundation of the day care sex abuse craze was right-wing hostility to day care. There probably was some of that: the alleged abuse seemed to confirm the worst fears about the children of working women being "dumped with strangers." But I don't recall any conservatives of Steinem's prominence lending his or her voice to the witch-hunts, or any conservative magazine running a lurid cover story titled, "Satanic Ritual Abuse Exists -- Believe It!" (That particular honor goes to Ms. magazine.)
The radical feminists who pushed the "sexual abuse is everywhere" meme were interested in vilifying conventional masculinity and depicting "patriarchal culture" as a cesspool of misogynist atrocities; but the bitter irony is that so many of the victims of the resulting hysteria were women. That includes several of the McMartin defendants, as well as Margaret Kelly Michaels, the New Jersey preschool teacher who spent five years in prison after begin convicted on lurid charges of sexual molestation.
The reversal of Michaels's conviction in 1993 marked the beginning of the end of the 1980s sex-abuse witch-hunts. The McMartin recantation may well be the final nail in the coffin.
Someone tell Gloria and Geraldo.
Note: The excellent HBO docudrama about the McMartin trial, Indictment, first aired in 1995. The script by Abby Mann was pitched to the networks but rejected because it took the unequivocal position that the defendants were innocent, and that was just too controversial at the time. Highly recommended, with great performances by James Woods as the lead defense attorney, Henry Thomas as defendant Ray Buckey, and Lolita Davidovich as therapist Kee McFarlane.