Witch Hunts, Sex Scandals, and the Atheist Community

I attended The Amazing Meeting 2, the skeptics conference organized by magician James Randi, in 2004.  I’ve been to many conferences before and after, but this one was a big deal for me.  Though not actually an atheist conference, I think it was the first chance I had to publicly kick around my embryonic interest in atheism.  A year later, I heard Sam Harris lecture on his new book, The End of Faith, and my interest in Christianity and atheism was ignited.

I bring this up because of dark clouds gathering over The Amazing Meeting.  I don’t pretend to understand the issue, but an Elevatorgate-like discussion has blown up about an incident of sexual harassment at a previous TAM, how it was handled, and then the inevitable recursive discussions about the descriptions of those incidents, critiques of those discussions, analysis of those critiques, and so on, seemingly to infinity.

Are women welcome and safe at TAM?  That the question is even being asked is incredible to me, but early evidence suggests the fraction of attendees who are women will be half of last year’s 40% because of concern over this story.  It must be an unintended consequence to all sides for a conference that is accused of being unfriendly to women to now become even more populated by men.

Some good has come out of this in that it has encouraged conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies.  That sounds like a positive step to restore confidence, assuming that they’re not extreme by, say, prohibiting a handshake or tap on the shoulder.

I’m amazed at the byzantine turns this topic has taken and the hold it has on some atheist bloggers.  It would take me days to read all that has been written, and let me say again that, not having done that, I don’t pretend to be well-informed about the issue.  But let me summarize an event that happened in my part of the country about 15 years ago that, while much more extreme, may have parallels to today’s anxiety about TAM.

Perhaps you remember the story about the Wenatchee child sex ring, what has been called history’s most extensive child sex abuse investigation.

It began in 1992, when, after much questioning, the 7-year-old daughter of poor and uneducated parents accused a family acquaintance of molesting her.  After repeated encouragement by the Wenatchee police lieutenant who was acting as foster parent to the girl and her sister, the girls eventually named over a hundred abusers and many child victims.

Local Pentecostal pastor Robert Robertson tried to do the right thing and talk sense to the investigators.  For his troubles, he and his family were sucked into the investigation, and the story was rewoven to include his church as a center for orgies with the children.  Others who also tried to rein in the crazy were also charged or fired.  (What explains a defense of the accused but that that person is similarly guilty?)

Child witnesses, mostly from 9 to 13 years old, were often taken from their families and placed in foster care. Many said later that they were subjected to hours of frightening grilling and if they didn’t believe they had been sexually abused, they were told they were “in denial” or had suppressed the memory of the abuse. They were also told that siblings and other children had witnessed their abuse, or that that their parents had already confessed.

Interrogators called some children who denied abuse liars. Children were told that if they agreed to accusations they wouldn’t be separated from parents or siblings. Many of them later recanted. [The police lieutenant] neither recorded nor kept notes of his interrogations.

Recantations were ignored. “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” [the] Wenatchee Child Protective Services [supervisor said.] “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it.”

In all, “43 adults were arrested and accused of 29,726 counts of sexually abusing 60 children….  Eighteen pleaded guilty, mostly on the basis of signed confessions.  Ten were convicted at trial.  Three were acquitted.  Eighteen went to prison.”  All confessions were later recanted, all felony convictions related to the sex ring appear to have been overturned, a third of the children claimed to have been abused were at one point taken from their parents and put up for adoption, and the city of Wenatchee had to face lawsuits claiming millions of dollars in damages.

It was a modern-day replay of the 1692 Salem witch trial in which several girls’ accusations resulted in 19 people being hanged and one more pressed to death.

No, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire, and someone encouraging restraint isn’t necessarily part of the problem.  I hope the Wenatchee example of good intentions gone horribly wrong highlights some potential parallels with the TAM situation and that all parties analyze the evidence dispassionately.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Links about the Wenatchee sex case:

  • “Wenatchee Witch Hunt: Child Sex Abuse Trials In Douglas and Chelan Counties,” HistoryLink.
  • “Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions,” Wikipedia.

Links about charges against The Amazing Meeting:

  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Discussion Podcast (part 1),” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/12/12.
  • “‘Dogmatic Feminism’ Pt. 2, and Some Other Things,” Ask an Atheist blog, 6/14/12.
  • Jason Thibeault, “Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events,” Lousy Canuck blog, 6/15/12.