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The Martensville moral panic Hale, Michael Edward

Abstract

This is a study of a child abuse panic. The events that brought Martensville, Saskatchewan to national and international attention in 1992 were similar in many respects to other panics concerning multiple allegations of child abuse that occurred in the Western world in the 1980s and 1990s. The methodology of the study included a review of descriptions of child abuse panics published in the mass media and in books and journal articles. Interviews were conducted with residents of Martensville, child advocates, reporters, investigators, officers of the court, expert witnesses and several of the accused. Five theoretical accounts or explanations of the events were examined in detail: Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories, false memory syndrome, hysterical epidemic and moral panic. These accounts were considered in light of broader sociological theory. It was determined that the moral panic account provided greater explanatory potential than the other accounts. Moral panics are seen as a form of distorted communication that was typical of mass media treatment of certain conditions in the 1980s and 1990s under which allegations of child abuse targeted a group of people who were defined as a threat. Feminist theory, the concept of risk society and Habermas' theory of communicative action were examined to provide insights into ways of addressing and mitigating the panic and harm that occurred in Martensville. Conclusions and policy considerations centre on the need for training of professions involved in the investigation and response to child abuse, public education within a framework of communicative rationality and, ultimately, reclamation of the public sphere with attendant expansion of opportunities for face-to-face communication in public decision-making.

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