The subtitle “the longest running and most expensive trial in American history” hints at the merest fraction of what this book covers. It is about the process dubbed the “McMartin affair” – whereby an allegation of child sexual abuse morphs into a massive miscarriage of justice on a wide front. It is perhaps very much of its time – the mid-late 1980s, but there is very little in the process that one suspects could not happen again – as the processes that drove the situation still survive. The authors have produced a rough chronology of what happened about 30 years ago and this is now the publication. It follows what happened (as far as they could ascertain) from testimonies, press reports, court and police documents and, critically, the diaries/calendars of the main allegation maker – Judy Johnson. Be prepared, this is a dense, complicated, multi-layered and uncomfortable read.

Virginia McMartin, in her 70s, had set up and run a reputable preschool for many years. More recently it had passed into the management of her daughter Peggy Buckley and by 1983 her son Ray, previously rather unsettled, had joined the staff. In that year Judy Johnson, recently separated and with two sons, Mark (12, with terminal cancer) and Austin (2), first dumps Austin without permission at the school and then is allowed to enrol him part time for the summer sessions. Very rapidly, having not paid her bill, she makes a claim that Austin has been sexually abused by Ray.

This claim is investigated by Detective Doag the new police “expert in child sexual abuse” and a huge legal juggernaut is set in motion. Judy – suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – makes wilder and wilder claims of what her (largely pre-oral) son has “said”. She will carry out “investigations”. More staff are accused, and reports that he was moved to other schools for abuse, he was “flown” to a possible military base; other children were being attacked; all were controlled by threats to their parents backed up by mutilation of animals in front of them.

Austin is sent to a new child psychotherapy clinic, with a leading “expert” in the field of helping children to report otherwise hidden abuse. This will then lead to physical exams elsewhere which will “prove” serious sexual abuse. Judy is not discrete; other parents hear the allegations and will send their children for assessment. The situation is exacerbated by Det. Doag sending out a “fishing letter” to all parents (current and previous) naming Ray. The community descends into panic and paranoia. More children are police interviewed, more “abusers” are identified and at more places. Allegations of satanic worship start to circulate and a police task force is set up to investigate links between the McMartin School and organised child abuse linked to known pornographic and paedophile groups. The stories spread and spread and become more bizarre.

Even though the clinics are not able to keep up with demands, the situation escalates; critically the police are not able to work through the “evidence” generated properly. There are a series of inadequate and illegal home and premises searches of the increasing number of those accused. Children of the accused are seized and put into child protective custody for months or years. Bizarrely, Judy Johnson’s children are left with her regardless.

Seven people linked to McMartin will initially be charged with offences (including conspiracy) – Virginia, Peggy, Ray and four other staff. Bail will be set at ridiculous levels – not least because the school has been forced to close and they are all now unemployed. Ray will ultimately stay in jail until being cleared after trial and re-trial decisions in January 1990. He will be the last legal victim of this “witch-hunt”. A younger victim along the way will be 16 year old Michael Ruby a summer assistant at another preschool who will be accused, imprisoned and finally found not guilty. Others charged will gradually be cleared/released as questions start to be asked as to whether the extent of what is claimed could possibly be true – particularly in view of no supporting evidence other than the children’s testimonies. Some of which are patently false.

This book highlights failures of police procedures. It also shows the inherent risks of a highly politicised legal system with prosecutors (and sheriffs) elected to office – often on the way to “higher” places. With their resultant sensitivity to public pressure and their inability to later admit mistakes, or back down from previously highly public decisions or statements. It will show, too, the toxic impact that the press can have on a situation. It is a book about its time in so far as it shows the then newly emerging “understanding” of the extent of child sexual abuse. But behind that in this case is the problem with the new theories of identification (and recording) were flawed – and recognised so even before the Ray and Peggy Buckley trial. The “identification” of evidence of sexual abuse was similarly flawed with, in retrospect over 90% of the children examined identified with indicators. But it shows the failure of each group to understand the professional processes of others, to explore more fully what is being claimed and assess the likelihood of this being true.

But it primarily shows what happens when a community of otherwise sane and sensible adults – who have never experienced the slightest worry about their children’s physical or medical health – descends into paranoia and mass hysteria and accepts what should be patently obvious, that they are being peddled a load of exaggerated and nonsense stories. Exacerbated because they have been told “to believe what children say” because to not do so increases their trauma. Increasingly few will stand up and say it is nonsense – not least because of a series of threats, vandalism and further claims of “conspiracy”. Once they are “committed” to this line of belief they will find it difficult to reverse that role – a scenario mirrored with even more deadly effect in the legal system. It takes a very long time to halt this ongoing destructive monstrosity and in the meantime there are serious casualties. Not least the children genuinely abused who will travel under the radar of community identification and safety.

It is impossible in a review to cover the complexities of what is included. But it is a very important read – if you are interested in child safety, policing, legal processes or even the functioning (or not) of communities. The implications of this book are wider than the USA. Not a comfortable read (especially if you recognise elements of people of your own community in it) but work your way through it, it needs to be said and widely read.

Hilary White 5/4

They Must be Monsters by Matthew LeRoy and Deric Haddad
The Manor Publishing House 9781732448902 pbk Jul 2018