Danger Ahead:Sex Abuse Cases  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1991

Danger Ahead:Sex Abuse Cases   

The author of a book on the "sex abuse war" identifies four pitfalls for unwary reporters.

By David Hechler
David Hechler is a freelance journalist and author of The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War (Lexington Books, 1988).      


Covering a child sexual abuse case is one of the toughest assignments a journalist can encounter. Emotions run high. One group often rallies around the accused and another around the child, polarizing a community and making it difficult for anyone – reporters included – to remain objective. And quickly mastering the legal issues is like trying to speed-read Finnegans Wake .

The bungled handling of the first McMartin Pre-School trial, for example, was exhaustively documented in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw. "Most reporters who covered the case for any length of time," Shaw wrote in January of last year, "now lament their lack of skepticism and enterprise; even the prosecutors and many parents concede that their side got a free ride early on."

The attention the Southern California case attracted made these reporters particularly visible, but their shortcomings were not aberrations. Even today, few reporters seem prepared for the complexity of the subject, fewer still for the criticism that may await them.

Part of the problem is that extensive coverage of child sexual abuse only began in 1984 with McMartin. We were, and still are, navigating largely uncharted waters. And the tide has been rising. By all estimates, child abuse complaints increased dramatically during the '80s and show no sign of abating in the '90s.

The growing caseload isn't the only reason journalists will have their hands full in coming years. Reporters have finally demonstrated an interest in covering juvenile and family courts, where judges often grant access so long as we respect the confidentiality of participants. As a result, we now find ourselves covering custody battles complicated by abuse allegations (as in the case of Washington physician Elizabeth Morgan, who went to jail for two years rather than disclose the whereabouts of her daughter, Hilary); criminal trials like McMartin; lawsuits in which a child seeks compensation for damages resulting from abuse; and an endless succession of incest allegations heard every day by family courts.

How should reporters handle these stories? Here are a few suggestions.

3 Beware of spoon-feeding.

It's no coincidence that the most complex and controversial child abuse cases almost always involve allegations of sexual, not physical, abuse. Why? The evidence is usually equivocal. In sexual abuse cases there are no X-rays or autopsies, no spiral fractures or pattern burns. Even when the crimes charged are physically detectable (and many, such as oral sex or fondling, are not), allegations often surface weeks or months after such evidence has disappeared. And since the crimes usually occur behind closed doors, there are rarely witnesses other than the accusers and the accused.

Trials usually come down to the credibility of children, a battle of "experts" and the character of the defendants – who, as in the McMartin case, may be respected members of the community. This leaves plenty of room for contention, and all sources are likely to be advocates for one side or the other.

Journalists should treat all such stories as investigative assignments. It's not enough to report accusation and denial, charge and countercharge. Many reporters, for example, emphasize the lack of evidence. They quote the defense lawyer's predictable declaration that "there's not a scintilla of physical evidence in this case." But they neglect to include a prosecutor's or an expert's statement explaining that physical evidence and eyewitnesses are rare.

Conversely, when a prosecutor or therapist pronounces a child's nightmares and loss of appetite "behavioral indicators consistent with child sexual abuse," the reporter should elicit from the source (or an outside authority) the caveat that the same behavior is also "consistent" with a variety of other childhood traumas – pressure at school, the parents' impending divorce or even fear of testifying in court.

Sometimes, however, one side refuses to comment. And as the Times ' Shaw pointed out, the often cozy relationship between prosecutors and the press may render reporters less than aggressive in questioning the evidence.

Such were the circumstances at the outset of McMartin. A key defense lawyer wasn't talking. Prosecutors "vastly overstated" the case, one prosecutor admitted to Shaw, adding that the media printed allegations without asking any "real probing questions." It was reported, for example, that the defendants had sought "to procure children for pornographic purposes" and that "millions of child pornography photographs and films" had been taken. No pictures, in fact, have ever been found and, what's more, reporters never asked for corroboration, the lead prosecutor told Shaw.

Instead of tracking down sources and clamoring for access to documents and videotaped interviews with children, they relied on information spoon-fed by prosecutors. In the end, the long spoon of the law was filled with castor oil – and crow.

3 Lay down your broad brush.

The most biased stories often suffer from two defects. Reporters adopt the spin of their sources, which they present as fact. Then they extrapolate with a broad brush, arguing that the case they're covering epitomizes all child abuse cases.

Many stories on the Margaret Kelly Michaels case were guilty on both counts. Michaels, a former teacher at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey, was convicted in 1988 of sexually abusing 19 of her charges. In the July/August issue of WJR , Lisa Manshel criticized the coverage on these and other grounds. She was particularly critical of a scathing indictment of the prosecution published in Harper's this past May. Though her analysis was generally cogent, her own reporting on the case is not above reproach. Let's examine a few passages from the Harper's piece, and then excerpts from Manshel's book on the same subject.

" Believe the children is the battle cry of the child-abuse militants, who hold as an article of faith that a pederast lurks behind every door and blackboard," wrote Wall Street Journal media critic Dorothy Rabinowitz. This slogan has indeed been adopted by some parents and prosecutors, whose blind advocacy Rabinowitz was right to criticize. But she undermined her analysis by exaggerating and by presenting the views of defendants and their supporters as self-evident truth.

For example: "In nearly all such cases, the allegations and numbers of suspects begin to mount only after the entry of investigators and of representatives of child-abuse agencies. It is these experts who convince parents and children alike that the number of abuses and abusers is virtually limitless – beyond their imagination."

And later: "In Judge Harth's courtroom, the parent-plaintiffs were treated with unstinting consideration for their every concern, particularly the concern of anonymity. The guarantee of anonymity, of course encourages the multiplication of charges and accusations."

Though Rabinowitz implied otherwise, it's hardly surprising that crimes come to light during an investigation, and in the case of Kelly Michaels the number of abusers did not multiply. The promise of anonymity does encourage rape victims – children and adults – to come forward. Were it removed, undoubtedly there would be fewer accusations, but there's no reason to believe fewer rapes.

The larger problem was that the article was top-heavy with unsupported generalization. This isn't unique to works that attack prosecutors.

In her book Nap Time Manshel was also guilty of bias, though she tilted the other way. Of a caseworker who interviewed children using anatomically detailed dolls, for example, she wrote: "No diagnosis was to be based on the dolls, but the child's reactions to the doll's sexual features were often revealing, and [the caseworker] was on the lookout for any peculiarities." Clearly the dolls did figure in the diagnosis, though Manshel's prosecution sources may have been reluctant to admit a practice frequently attacked by the defense.

Manshel's characterization of the national climate surrounding these cases could not have been at sharper contrast to Rabinowitz's:

"This was no time for a member of law enforcement to be involved in a day-care abuse case...In stretches of the country, allegations of sexual assault on children were being dismissed out of hand because children were considered truthless. Even many professionals felt that young children fantasize about sexual intercourse and that they cannot distinguish between fact and fantasy. And so, when a child alleged he had been abused, he was often seen to be a child who had imagined he had been abused, and then, becoming confused, had come to think that the episode had really happened...

"Multiple-victim day-care cases were relatively new territory for the courts and extremely difficult to prosecute...Many prosecutors were unwilling to unleash their powers with nothing more to go on than the word of a child."

Though presented as "information" the prosecutor in the Michaels case gleaned from a professional conference, the author clearly embraced these perceptions. It's hard to believe Rabinowitz and Manshel were writing about the same case.

More often than not, when journalists indulge in sweeping generalization on this subject, the result is distortion. These authors would have done better confining themselves to the one case. What they lost in flamboyance they would have more than recouped in accuracy.

3 Don't play the statistics game.

Journalists use statistics the way weightlifters use steroids: to bulk up stories. They work well on some subjects, but on this one they give us the appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger when we have the strength of Woody Allen. No one knows, for example, precisely how many children are sexually abused each year because much abuse goes unreported.

No agency even attempts to compile national statistics of criminal cases. The FBI's Uniform Crime Report provides no information on child sexual abuse (a story in itself). The other national measure of crime, the National Crime Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, doesn't question victims under 12. Furthermore, interviews are usually conducted over the phone with adults; when they are done in homes, entire families are usually present, making reports of incest extremely unlikely.

The only national numbers available are estimates based on surveys of abuse reports filed with state child protective agencies and collected by national organizations. Some surveys are marred by incomplete responses (sometimes no more than a few states reply), and all are impaired by inconsistent terminology from state to state. An information specialist at the American Humane Association told me: "You are not likely to get hard answers from our statistics."

Yet we journalists find it all too easy to "prove" whatever we wish using statistics, no matter how unreliable. Examples abound, especially on a hot topic: allegations that arise during custody battles.

Many articles have argued that women frequently accuse their estranged husbands of sexually abusing their own children simply to gain an advantage in a divorce proceeding. After recounting examples, reporters cast about for statistics to confirm the magnitude of the problem. In "Fathers on Trial" ( New York , January 11, 1988), Ellen Hopkins wrote: "Some lawyers estimate that 30 percent of all contested-custody cases today involve sex-abuse charges. In 1986 about 1,600 allegations of sexual abuse were made during custody-dispute cases. Approximately 60 percent of those allegations, say lawyers, were unfounded."

The paragraph raised two questions. What evidence did she have, and which lawyers did she rely on? Most of those quoted in her article represented men accused of the crime – not exactly unbiased sources.

Hopkins told me the source for her first stat (30 percent of custody battles involve abuse cases) was Melvin Guyer, a lawyer and psychologist at the University of Michigan who runs the family and law program (and who has represented Eric Foretich in his battle with his ex-wife, Elizabeth Morgan, over Hilary's custody). But Guyer said in an interview that the statistic was inaccurate. His program did find a 30 percent rate, but not of all contested-custody cases. He evaluated a sample of 100 local child-custody cases referred by courts because they were the most complicated. Nobody knows the percentage for all such cases, he added, but he'd expect it to be considerably lower.

The number of sex abuse allegations Hopkins cited (1,600 in 1986) is at best an estimate (no one has ever tallied them all), but whose? She said her source was an American Enterprise Institute scholar who referred to a study that tracked eight domestic relations courts and found that about 2 percent of contested-custody cases included such charges. Multiplying by the approximate number of divorces with custody or visitation disputes nationwide, the researchers estimated 1,800 involved abuse allegations. Strangely, Hopkins not only understated the study's total but in doing so tacitly accepted its 2 percent figure. Had she used the 30 percent rate she cited one sentence earlier, the number would have ballooned to 27,000.

As for the lawyer's estimate of unfounded allegations, a letter from Chezia Carraway of the New York City Task Force Against Sexual Assault to New York (February 8, 1988) put it at 20 percent, not 60. In her reply, Hopkins didn't dispute the correction. Her estimate covered all child abuse allegations, including those that don't make it to court – even though she had specifically referred to "sexual abuse...during custody-dispute cases." (After providing me with her sources, Hopkins declined further comment.)

Other stories have used statistics to "prove" the opposite: that the injustice occurs not when fathers are accused but when mothers aren't believed. "Mothers on the Run," a generally balanced piece by Liz Galtney ( U.S. News & World Report , June 13, 1988), told of mothers who have taken their children underground to protect them from allegedly abusive husbands. Galtney explained that "judges often have difficulty believing the charges," and the "legal system's response to the phenomenon of child sexual abuse is, at best, inadequate." Then she unveiled her statistic: "According to [a study]...roughly half of all reported sexual-abuse allegations in custody cases are ruled unfounded."

Even if this statistic was accurate, it didn't justify her conclusion. Galtney presented no evidence to prove the judges' decisions were frequently wrong. That's the interpretation she wished to impose, but it's also possible Hopkins was right and false allegations are rampant, or the charge is merely difficult to prove.

There's another problem with the statistic. Galtney's quote implies that the study said judges ruled the sex-abuse allegations unfounded. In fact the study presented the conclusions of child protective workers and custody evaluators; it was they who deemed the allegations unfounded half the time, not judges.

In an interview, Galtney conceded that readers could have inferred the statistic was intended to support her assessment of the legal system. "I don't think we flagrantly misstated anything, though," she added. "It may have been too vague, but unfortunately that's the way space constraints work in news magazines."

It's ironic but not surprising that Hopkins and Galtney used the same study (for the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts), and a similar unfounded rate, to reach very different conclusions. Statistics should provide a foundation on which knowledge may be built; too often they're used as a facade to mask its absence. On this subject, all buildings are perched on the San Andreas Fault.

3 Focus on crime, not gender.

Is a man who molests boys homosexual? Though that may sound like a question more appropriately asked in a college psychology course, it proved to be anything but academic in the case of the Seattle judge who killed himself.

The story was widely publicized as much for the ethical questions it raised as for the sensational circumstances. In 1988 Judge Gary Little shot himself shortly after learning that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer planned to publish a story the next morning detailing rumors that had trailed him for years: That Little had coerced young men – first his students when he was a volunteer teacher, later juvenile offenders when he was a Superior Court judge – to have sex with him.

As Leslie Brown reported in the Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 1989), Little's death shifted the focus to the press coverage: whether the P-I had been right to run the story and why it had taken the media almost a decade to air what reporters had known for years.

Brown said a major reason for the delay was that local media assumed Little was gay and didn't want to participate in gay-bashing. They neglected to consider that men who coerce boys into sex might be pedophiles, something they would have felt more justified in reporting. The first story that hinted at the rumors ran in The Seattle Times in 1985 but made no mention of Little's sexual orientation because, Brown learned, when the reporter asked Little if he were gay, the judge said he wasn't.

The misconception under which these journalists labored seems just as pervasive today. Research suggests most men who molest boys are not homosexual – that is, attracted to male peers. They are pedophiles whose primary sexual orientation is toward children. Some are also gay men, some are bisexual, some have wives and children. You can no more assume one than another, and it's a mistake to use one word to describe different orientations. Two men looking at photos of female models may share a basic sexual preference though one prefers older brunettes and the other 19-year-old blondes. But when one displays photos of suggestively posed eight-year-olds and the other recoils, they have parted company and it is at best misleading to say both are heterosexual. The irony is that the reporter who asked Little if he were gay may have gotten an honest answer. It was the wrong question.

A subsequent article on the case appeared in the ABA Journal in May 1989. It properly focused on Little's abuse of power but repeatedly referred to the judge's presumed homosexuality without once mentioning the word "pedophile." There's no more reason to call a man's assault of a boy a "homosexual act" than there is to call his attack of a girl a "heterosexual act." The crime is sexual assault whatever the gender. And coverage isn't gay-bashing, it's crime reporting.

With so many gray areas, so many judgment calls to make, covering these cases is at best challenging, at worst agonizing. It often requires knowledge of medicine, psychology, social services and the law. Yet even the experts concede it's a new field about which little is known and much is speculated.

But the journalist's job is as simple to define as it is difficult to achieve: report facts and speculation without confusing the two, and without becoming advocates. We should approach this task as if our reputations were on the line. As the McMartin reporters learned the hard way, they are. l

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