Anne Wolbert Burgess’ role in the “satanic ritual abuse” panic of the 1980s.
Mindhunter, the Netflix serial-killer drama headed into its second season, draws on the real-life work of FBI agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas. Also on the team: a psychologist based on Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess.
Burgess, a psychiatric nurse and academic (rather than a psychologist), has in fact made wide-ranging contributions to forensic science. A press release from Connell School of Nursing at Boston College notes that, “[her] research and books cover topics such as serial killers and rapists, kidnapping, sexual victimization and exploitation of children, cyber crimes, sexual abuse, and elder abuse …” Mindhunter reviewers have referred to her as “a pioneer in the treatment of trauma and abuse victims,” and that the Carr character helps the agents “legitimize their research with her sociological and science-backed knowledge.”
Yes, it’s just a TV character. But portraying Burgess as a trustworthy source of “science-based knowledge” should appall anyone who recalls her most significant claim to national prominence — igniting a wave of “satanic ritual abuse” day care prosecutions in the 1980s and early ’90s.
The bizarre, lurid accusations that caretakers were performing cult-like acts on children lacked any basis in fact – no physical evidence or adult witnesses, but ample misguided and manipulative “therapy” for the ostensible child victims. Today no reputable psychologist or social scientist will argue otherwise. The lives of defendants were crushed by a “moral panic” that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.
In their 2001 book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker described Burgess as a “promoter of the use of children’s drawings to diagnose sexual abuse, developer of the idea of the sex ring, [and a] participant in developing the case that imprisoned the Amirault family.” The Amirault (Fells Acres Day Care) case in Malden, MA was among the most notorious prosecutions of the moral panic, along with McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA, Wee Care Nursery School in Maplewood, NJ, and Little Rascals Day Care in Edenton, NC.
Most grievous for the future Little Rascals defendants, it was Ann Wolbert Burgess who led a three-day conference on North Carolina’s Outer Banks just months before the first arrest in 1989. The agenda: learning how to spot child molesters operating day-care facilities. Among those being indoctrinated were not only the police officer who would first interview children in the case — and to advise parents of their supposed abuse — but also the district attorney who would charge the so-called Edenton Seven.
In the beginning, more than 90 children accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with a complaint from one Little Rascals parent that her child had been slapped. Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors ultimately would charge only owners Bob and Betsy Kelly, employees Dawn Wilson, Robin Byrum, and Darlene Harris, and video store owner Scott Privott – an acquaintance of Bob Kelly who had never set foot in the day care.
Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and set on fire, and countless other fantastic incidents involving hot air balloons, pirate ships, spacecraft, and trained sharks.
Learning from the mistakes of their peers in the collapsed McMartin Preschool case, Little Rascals prosecutors made sure therapists avoided keeping evidence of their interview techniques. After what remains the longest criminal trial in North Carolina history, Bob Kelly was convicted on 99 counts of child sexual abuse. Betsy Kelly and Scott Privott took plea deals while maintaining their innocence. Charges against the other three were dropped. Before their convictions were overturned on multiple grounds in 1995, Kelly had served six years in prison. Dawn Wilson three.
Between 1991 and 1997, documentarian Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary Frontline episodes – eight hours! — on the Little Rascals case. Although “Innocence Lost” failed to deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay. No similar “satanic ritual abuse” cases have occurred since.
Ann Wolbert Burgess has never apologized for her role in Little Rascals (and didn’t respond to my request for an update on her views).
Perhaps Mindhunter will find a way to work “satanic ritual abuse” into a future storyline – paging Wendy Carr!