IPT Book Reviews

Title: Behind the Playground Walls  Positive Review
Authors: Jill Waterman, Robert J. Kelly, Mary Kay Oliveri, & Jane McCord
Publisher: The Guilford Press 1993

The Guilford Press
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New York, NY 10012
(800) 365-7006


This 308-page book describes an ambitious research project on the effects of alleged sexual abuse in two preschools. The project began with a group of subjects who had reported experiences of ritualistic sexual abuse from Manhattan Beach and a control group of preschool children who had not been abused.  Two years into the study, a group of preschool children from Reno, Nevada was added.  In this latter group, the children had experienced nonritualistic abuse by one perpetrator who confessed and pled guilty.  The ritual abuse sample was comprised of 82 children (the majority from the McMartin Preschool), the control group of 37 children, and the Reno non-ritualistic abuse group of 15 children.

The book is divided into six parts and 21 chapters.  Part I outlines the problem and goals of the research project; Part II describes the disclosure process and the parents' reactions; Part III describes the effects on the children and compares the effects of ritualistic abuse and nonritualistic abuse; Part IV discusses the impact of the abuse on the parents, family relationships, and therapists; and Part V describes coping patterns, mediating variables, and clinical implications.  Finally, Part VI includes three chapters that discuss the implications of the research and make conclusions and recommendations. The book contains a subject index and a fair list of references.


The main difficulty with this book is that the ritualistic abuse group is comprised of subjects in preschool cases, mainly McMartin, where there were no convictions and where there is a serious question as to whether the children were actually abused.  The authors attempt to overcome this by stating they acknowledge the allegations were not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  They add however, that child sex crimes are hard to prosecute successfully.  They say their concern is with the problems the children had encountered and not whether they can prove whether the children were actually abused.  However, since the focus of the study is on the effects of the abuse, simply calling it a "reported" ritualistic sexual abuse group does not solve the problem of interpreting the data if the abuse has not occurred.

They also make a false claim when they assert that the Country Walk Case in Miami resulted in convictions in criminal court for ritualistic abuse.  None of the counts on which Frank Fuster was convicted are ritualistic abuse.  There were allegations of ritual abuse behaviors but the prosecution did not include those in their charges.

This desperate attempt to evade the issue of the reality of the claims of ritualistic abuse runs entirely counter to a fundamental aspect of scientific knowledge.  The truth of a knowledge claim is not determined by the strength of the belief of the individual putting forth the claim.  An operational definition of ritualistic abuse, as with nonritualistic abuse, requires a demonstrated and observed behavior pattern other than the subjective belief of individuals.

There are other difficulties with the study.  The Reno children were older than the other groups.  All of the reported ritualistic abuse children and the Reno children had been in psychotherapy contrasted with almost none of the control group.  The study did not begin until three years after the ritualistic abuse children began disclosing the abuse.  The assessments were done by the children's therapists and others who knew which group the child was in.

The actual assessments were thorough and the assessment instruments were carefully selected and included several objective measurements such as the Child Behavior Checklist.  The researchers have gathered a great amount of fascinating data.  The difficulty is in determining what it means.

An interesting finding was that the children reporting ritualistic abuse experienced the most distress after disclosing their abuse.  (One would expect the greatest distress to be during the period when they were ostensibly involved in terrorizing acts such as witnessing animals being tortured, being placed in coffins with dead bodies, being forced to drink urine and eat feces, and witnessing the killing of babies.)  It was also during this period that the children became inappropriately sexualized.  The therapists for these children judged them to be seriously disturbed, with four-fifths rated by their therapists as meeting the criteria for PTSD.  They were much more severely affected than the nonritualistic abuse group.

The authors note the difficulties in comparing the groups because of the differences mentioned above along with the effects of the controversial legal and community response to the allegations.  In the nonritualistic abuse group the offender pled guilty, no one disbelieved the veracity of the allegations, and the children did not testify.  This is in contrast to the ritualistic abuse group where there was massive publicity and controversy, polarization in the community, and a period of several years before the children testified in the trial.

However, there is no discussion of what the data mean if it is assumed that there was no abuse at the McMartin preschool.  What seems apparent is that if, in fact, there was no sexual abuse, ritual or otherwise, the PTSD and multitudinous other effects were caused by the interviews, the parents' responses, and the therapy.

A control group of falsely accused children who had been through similar interviews and therapy could have provided some insight.  There are many cases, such as Jordan, Minnesota, where most observers believe the allegations were false and where there has been documentation of the adverse effects on the children of the experience.  However, it is likely that there will remain serious disagreement between these researchers and their skeptics as to whether abuse has occurred or not in this or in other similar cases such as Kelly Michaels and Edenton.

Roland Summit, in a chapter entitled "Uses and Abuses of Research," warns that the book might be exploited by defense experts and spends several pages bashing Ralph Underwager, who testified in the Jordan, Minnesota case which Summit identifies as the "birthplace of the backlash."  However, he briefly admits that the prosecution testimony may be subject to similar criticisms and that "the early rush to identify victims was relatively naive to the risks of false incrimination" (p.269).  Although he acknowledges that criminal defendants have a right to an attorney who protects the presumption of innocence, he complains that this may not assure a fair hearing for victimized children.  He does, however, make a valid point with his observation that "existing agencies are not only counterproductive but sometimes mutually antagonistic to the needs of children and families who speak out against unspeakable acts" (p.262).  No one can doubt that in cases such as McMartin, Kelly Michaels, Jordan, and Edenton, many mistakes were made and everyone was hurt.

This book is useless for comparing the effects of ritualistic abuse to nonritualistic abuse but provides important information about the effects on the children involved in these cases.  If we assume that there was no sexual abuse in Manhattan Beach, this book provides the strongest and most fully documented evidence for the destructive, harmful, and iatrogenic damage done by false allegations of sexual abuse.  The greater damage found in the alleged ritualistic abuse group compared to the children from Reno suggests that being embroiled in a false allegation can be more harmful than actual abuse.

Reviewed by LeRoy Schultz, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, West Virginia University, and Hollida Wakefield, Institute for Psychological therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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