The Corner

Culture

Oprah and McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

In a post yesterday, I mentioned the contribution made by Oprah Winfrey to the ritual satanic abuse witch hunts of the 1980s. One of the most notorious cases of that era was the McMartin preschool trial, and I quoted this from an article last year by Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard (my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

Eventually that case collapsed, but I was unaware of this particular  postscript.

Here’s Howard Rosenberg, writing in the LA Times In January 1990 (my emphasis added):

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquitting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream.

At least that’s the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants…

Even in trying to address child molestation trials as a generic issue, the [Geraldo]  show was overwhelmingly concerned with the ordeal of the children caught up in the McMartin case. No one would reject that as a legitimate concern. But what about the ordeal of the seven original defendants, especially Buckey and his mother, who each spent years in jail?

That question was not addressed on “Geraldo.” Nor was it addressed on two earlier TV retrials of the case, on “Oprah” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” Compared to them, “Geraldo” was as judicious as the Supreme Court.

A smaller number of former McMartin students and their parents were on stage in Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago studio along with Greg Mooney, the attorney who represents many of the McMartin families, and Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, which treated some of the McMartin children.

Speaking by satellite from Los Angeles–and as electronically disadvantaged as the satellite guests on “Geraldo”–were McMartin Judge William Pounders and Brenda Williams, the most articulate of the McMartin jurors who have gone public after the verdict.

The level of fairness here was typified by Winfrey’s admission that she would have made a poor McMartin juror because “I would say, ‘The children said it; all right, you’re right.’ ” The studio audience applauded.

Their truth, presumably.

Rosenberg:

Winfrey’s show is a perfect vehicle for emotions, which she brings out with great sincerity. That’s her strength. Yet her show has difficulty reaching the stories beneath the surface tears, and, like much of TV, it strips away nuances and tailors complexities to its own time constraints.

Winfrey to a former McMartin student: “What did you tell the jury?” That’s right, capsulize 16 days of testimony in a few sentences.

Again to the same student: “How old were you when all of these things allegedly happened?” And now to the student’s mother: “How did you at first find out that something was allegedly going on at the school?”

Using allegedly here was like trying to mend decapitation with a Band-Aid.

Of all of TV’s talk show hosts, Winfrey is perhaps the least inclined to play devil’s advocate. She could have asked Pounders about the propriety of his multiple talk show appearances, but didn’t. She could have demanded evidence when one of her guests accused McMartin defendants of “terrorist tactics,” but didn’t.

It was clear that she, her studio audience and the McMartin kids and their parents were on the same side…

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