EDITOR'S NOTE--Most of the notoriety of the McMartin Pre-School child molestation case grew out of toddlers' descriptions of bizarre ceremonies and animal mutilation that seemed to stem from devil worship. But such tales are not unique. Investigators say similar stories crop up with frightening regularity in molestation cases, providing ammunition for defense attorneys challenging the believability of young witnesses.
Prosecution of child molestation cases is being derailed around the country because young victims are lacing their testimony with macabre tales of satanic rites, authorities say.
Although sexual abuse is medically proven in many of these case, the charges frequently crumble when preschoolers tell of drugging and assault in bloody occult ceremonies, says San Francisco Police Officer Sandi Gallant.
"Any district attorney will tell you going to court with a child under 5 is next to impossible, much less one blaming the devil," she said.
But investigators are curious about similarities they're hearing in such testimony from youngsters in unrelated and geographically separate cases.
"The main thing in the stories I've heard is the great consistency in the types of things the kids were reporting--all across the country the descriptions were very similar," Gallant said. "In the last three years there have been about 60 to 70 solid cases . . . ones where investigations were actively pursued."
The federally funded American Humane Assn. in Denver says 113,000 child molestations were reported nationwide in 1985, the last year for which statistics were compiled. That figure is up from 100,000 reported cases in 1984.
"I know there have been some infamous cases in preschools, but we don't feel that it's a widespread problem," said AHA spokeswoman Katie Bond. "They are seen as isolated incidents which gain notoriety because they're so emotionally charged."
In 75% of reported cases, abuse comes from within the family, Bond said. "We have no information on satanists, which isn't to say they're not out there, but the majority of abuse comes from parents and is limited to individuals in the home."
Alleged cult victims' accounts are sometimes horrific, the children revealing intimate knowledge beyond their years--convincing some, drawing scoffs from others.
Aline Kidd, a psychology professor at Mills College in Oakland, said child custody cases she has worked on introduced her to allegations of cult sex crimes but offered no supporting evidence.
"One woman said it was not just her husband, but the entire staff in the D.A.'s office involved in satanic practices. I found more raving delusions than substantial proof," Kidd said.
An 11-year-old Pico Rivera boy, who prompted the arrest of neighbors after he accused them of molesting him, startled officials with claims the neighbors forced him to participate in ritual killing.
Charges of kidnaping, conspiracy, false imprisonment and sexual assault of several neighborhood children were dropped before trial when another child witness recanted testimony and physical evidence was inconclusive.
"They always said nobody would believe us if we told," said the 11-year-old.
Would children fabricate such stories?
"In my practice I often see counterculture fads shown in last week's pop magazines described as this week's chosen offbeat behavior," Kidd said.
Dr. Thomas Hicklin, professor and clinical psychiatrist at the Children's Ward of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said extreme stories by abuse victims can be elaborate pleas for help.
"The admission ticket to getting help in our society is to show tremendous problems," Hicklin said. "It's possible to exaggerate under stress."
He said reports of cult abuse are on the rise, though they are rare, three or four cases a year since the early 1980s.
"Kids that are manipulating their environment often lie purposefully," he said. "They're learning this stuff somewhere, if not on TV then in horror movies--and it becomes part of their imaginations."
Victims are often too young to differentiate between fantasy and reality, a perception that normally becomes clear at age 3 to 5. Some regress to that development level following abuse, he said.
Dr. Roland Summit, psychiatry professor at UCLA, added, "People tempted to come forward fear they will be labeled as crazy or paranoid. And to some degree they're right. Usually charges are dropped at the intrusion of the bizarre."
Gallant cited several molestation cases where charges were dropped or reduced after satanic allegations surfaced or where only sex crimes were prosecuted for fear of losing the cases by including testimony about cult ceremonies. She mentioned cases in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Atlanta, Port Angeles, Wash., Jordan, Minn., and El Paso.
"Many if not most cases go absolutely nowhere despite physical evidence supporting accusations of molestation," Gallant said. "Few (agencies) have the manpower, time or money to pursue cases deemed likely to lose."