ADDRESSES: Office—National Center for Reason and Justice, P.O. Box 230414, Boston, MA 02123-0414. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Criminal-defense lawyer, appellate attorney, and author. National Center for Reason and Justice (nonprofit group), Boston, MA, president.
(With James F. Smith) The California State Prisoners Handbook: A Comprehensive Practice Guide to Prison & Parole, Inside/Out Press (Fresno, CA), 1982.
Down in the Valley, Clear Glass (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
(With Debbie Nathan) Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: During the 1980s and 1990s, frightful stories of ritual child abuse began to filter out of small towns and urban centers in the United States. In such geographically diverse areas as Wenatchee, Washington; Bakersfield, California; and the Bronx, New York, children reported horrific tortures and abuses inflicted upon them by the adults who ran the day-care centers and nursery schools they attended. Police, social workers, mental health professionals, physicians, and other champions of the innocent identified accused perpetrators who were arrested, tried, and sent to jail. The "good guys," it would seem, had won. However, this crusade against evil was based solely on the vague assertions of impressionable and easily influenced children—not a single piece of physical evidence was ever found to corroborate any of the stories; no independent witness ever testified against the accused; and no relevant injury to any child was ever documented.
Michael Snedeker, a defense attorney, successfully defended a number of the falsely accused in California. In Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, Snedeker and coauthor Debbie Nathan examine in depth the complex social, legal, and cultural influences that led to false accusations against innocent persons, gross miscarriages of justice in the legal system, and permanent damage to both the adults and children involved in and affected by the so-called investigations.
Snedeker and Nathan provide readers "with an analysis of ritual abuse cases—based on an astoundingly detailed scrutiny of the public record, bolstered by interviews and historical research—that reveals the systemic, class-based scapegoating of people who represent the intersection of the public sphere with the (ideally) privatized, sacrosanct sphere of the family: caretakers in daycare centers," observed Marilyn Ivy in Nation. Notably, "three middle-class defendants who hired private lawyers and pleaded not guilty were acquitted," commented Judith Levine in Women's Review of Books. The "complex social anxiety that arose as a response to feminist-wrought changes in sexuality and the family" also contributed to the hysteria and injustice, Levine commented.
According to Snedeker and Nathan, manipulation of the child "witnesses," willful misinterpretation of the evidence, and sometimes blatant fabrication marred all aspects of these cases. Officials "misinterpreted physical manifestations on the bodies of the children, failed to investigate where the original accusations came from, changed procedural rules in the courts—and, most damagingly, invented new methods of interviewing children that muddled forensics and therapy," noted Amy Virshup in Newsday.
Snedeker and Nathan also detail how police and therapists often used inappropriate means to extract information from children. Billy and Byron Kniffen, for example, were abruptly taken out of their home by police and kept isolated from their family for days. When six-year-old Billy denied that any abuse had taken place, he was told that his nine-year-old brother "had already accused his parents, and then he was told exactly what Byron had said," Virshup stated. "Billy 'admitted' his parents' guilt. But Byron hadn't even been interviewed by the district attorney yet." The same technique was used on Byron, which also elicited an accusation. In other cases, "verbal 'disclosures' about events that never happened were obtained from children using interview techniques that cognitive psychologists have, subsequently, discredited as dangerously coercive and suggestive," noted Robert A. Baker in Skeptical Inquirer.
Baker called Satan's Silence "the best book yet written" about the phenomenon of adults being falsely accused and convicted in child abuse cases. The book "will leave few but the truest believers doubting the authors' conviction: that satanic ritual abuse is an imagined peril representing a social hysteria as terrible as the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism," commented Levine. "This is an important and frightening book that goes far to explain how children can be manipulated into accusing [adults] of bizarre and horrific acts," concluded Virshup. "Satan's Silence is well written, carefully researched and annotated, and effective in showing the individual and social mechanisms of panic and hysteria; the precise manner in which paranoid thinking is aroused and developed; and the way in which ignorance, fear, and religious convictions combine to create cognitive dissonance," Baker remarked. The authors, Ivy concluded, "demonstrate that there is no evidence whatsoever for ritual abuse, and that the accused in these cases have been collectively sentenced to thousands of years in prison for crimes that never occurred."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Nation, December 25, 1995, Marilyn Ivy, review of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, p. 832.
Newsday, November 12, 1995, Amy Virshup, "And in Our Own Time," review of Satan's Silence, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1996, Gloria Hochman, review of Satan's Silence, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, September 25, 1995, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Satan's Silence, p. 36.
Skeptical Inquirer, May-June, 1996, Robert A. Baker, review of Satan's Silence, p. 42.
Women's Review of Books, June, 1996, Judith Levine, review of Satan's Silence, p. 8.
National Center for Reason and Justice Web site, http://www.ncrj.org/ (February 2, 2005), "Michael Snedeker."