Everyone who gets involved with child sex-abuse cases - victims, attorneys, investigators and reporters assigned to cover the story - goes on trial with the defendants, a panel of experts said Tuesday night.
And because child sex-abuse cases are extraordinary in their sensitivity and enormity, the panelists said, all those involved need to reassess their individual and professional responses to them.Assembled to discuss the documentary video on the McMartin Preschool case and media responsibility in covering social issues, the panel included a child therapist, journalists, attorneys and an investigator.
The documentary, "After McMartin . . . Who Walks Point?" was produced by the Utah Media Arts Center and Independent Media Network. The film focused on another panel of experts as they dissected the aftermath of the McMartin Preschool case, the longest and most expensive trial in U.S. history.
The case began in 1983 in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Its investigation and prosecution spanned seven years, cost at least $17.2 million, involved hundreds of charges, dozens of alleged child sex-abuse victims and seven defendants. It ended in acquittals or mistrials for the only two defendants charged after the preliminary hearing, Raymond Buckey, 32, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 63.
Raymond Buckey was retried on 12 child-molestation counts. That trial ended in a hung jury. The Buckeys have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Los Angeles County, the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif., news organizations and several public officials.
Jurors told reporters after the first trial that they believed the children had been molested, but that the prosecution didn't prove its case. Interviewing techniques used by therapists who were the first people to investigate the children's allegations seriously damaged the prosecution's case, jurors said.
Journalists also came under fire in the aftermath of the trials for their willingness to sensationalize the trials and use suspect information in their stories.
Tuesday night, the local panelists discussed what they have learned from the many mistakes made in the McMartin case.
David Hechler, an investigative reporter from New York City and a member of the panel filmed for the documentary, served as moderator and suggested that all the agencies and individuals involved should confront the implications of the recent upsurge in reports across the country of organized, ritual child sex abuse.
Hechler said that the allegations of ritual, Satanic child sex abuse need to be investigated either to expose or debunk them.
Reports of Satanic cults are not a new phenomenon. But few people want to talk about them publicly.
And, as Willie Draughon, an investigator with the attorney general's office, pointed out, "Satanic cults are not against the law - until they break the law."
Prosecutors will always focus on specific charges they believe they can prove in court. Journalists who become aware of the undercurrent of ritual abuse allegations have difficulty reporting them, however, because those allegations probably won't evolve into formal charges. Reporters must report on what is happening and not what isn't happening, panelists said.
Draughon suggested that reporters not try to cover ritual abuse with routine court reporting, but to examine it as a phenomenon on its own, and in that way, educate the public about the allegations in much the same way news stories opened the public's eyes to other types of child abuse.
"Ritual abuse today is where child sex abuse was 10 years ago," he said. "But are we ready to deal with it?"
The same problem exists with the emergent trend of child sex abuse perpetrated by juveniles, which Draughon said comprise roughly half the sex-abuse cases in Utah.
Others on the panel were Lois Collins of the Deseret News, Paul Rolly of The Salt Lake Tribune, Sheila Hamilton, KTVX News, Michael Rawson, KUTV News, Julie Bradshaw, a therapist with the Primary Children's Medical Center child-protection team, Assistant Attorney General Barbara Bearnson and defense attorney Brad Rich.