Psychiatric Times retracts essay on “satanic ritual abuse”

psych timesSome Retraction Watch readers may recall this episode, recounted in a recent op-ed by Lew Powell:

During the 1980s and early ’90s a wave of nonexistent “satanic ritual abuse” claims shut down scores of day cares such as Little Rascals, McMartin in California and Fells Acres in Massachusetts. In virtually every instance the charges lacked any basis in fact. Today no reputable psychologist or other social scientist will argue otherwise. The defendants were innocent victims of a “moral panic” that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.

Psychologist Richard Noll found the charges troubling too, so he wrote a piece last year for Psychiatric Times because:

Despite the discomfort it brings, we owe it to the current generation of clinicians to remember that an elite minority within the American psychiatric profession played a small but ultimately decisive role in the cultural validation, and then reduction, of the Satanism moral panic between 1988 and 1994. Indeed, what can we all learn from American psychiatry’s involvement in the moral panic?

The Psychiatric Times editor said the staff thought the essay was “terrific” and might even be a cover story for their January issue. It was posted on December 6. But you won’t find that article — available here — at Psychiatric Times anymore. As Gary Greenberg relates:

The editor made some suggestions for the print version and asked for Noll to finish them by Dec. 16. But then on Dec. 14, Noll discovered that his article  had vanished from the website. He made gentle inquiries and determined that it wasn’t a glitch, but that PT had intentionally taken down the article. The reasons were vague–something about how they didn’t like the title (which they had chosen), and how they didn’t like the fact that he had named names. But whatever the reason, the article was gone.

Here’s what the editors told Noll when he pushed for an explanation:

Dear Dr. Noll,

I don’t blame you for being miffed at the inexplicable disappearance of your article, and the long delay in getting back to you with an explanation. I’d like to offer a sincere apology for the delay, and to explain what happened. It hasn’t helped that our offices were closed most of last week and that communications between editorial board members and staff have been generally slow because of vacations.

As you know, Professor [redacted] is the final arbiter of History of Psychiatry columns, so our staff enthusiastically went ahead and posted your article. I read it the weekend it was posted, however, and grew immediately concerned that it raised potential liability issues—possibly for you and, by extension, for Psychiatric Times. I therefore thought it prudent to hide the piece from public view until I could get some guidance from our editorial board. The board did support these concerns, and it was suggested that I consider obtaining corporate legal advice. There was also the suggestion that Drs. Kluft and Braun and some others discussed in your essay needed to be given the opportunity to respond to claims made in the piece. However, there was also general consensus that the piece “may be of some historical interest, but not particularly relevant to the problems facing psychiatry today.” Ultimately, it was the board’s recommendation that we not publish the piece.

We respect your expertise and previous contributions to Psychiatric Times. The scenario is a first for us. I’m so sorry it happened this way. We will return your copyright form and hope that you find another venue for the piece.

Greenberg notes that Noll is “no stranger to controversy:”

He wrote a book in 1994 called The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement. The book was published by Princeton University Press, which was pleased enough with it to submit it for a Pulitzer. It didn’t win, but the Association of American Publishers gave it its Best Book in Psychology award for that year. Princeton is also the publisher of Jung’s collected works, which is a beautiful and expensive multivolume set, one that most likely yields substantial financial rewards for both the press and the Jung family. So it’s no surprise that when the Jung family objected to Noll’s book, which made a splash in popular media, Princeton U Press decided to dump Noll, and pulled the plug on another Jung project he was editing for them, which was already in page proofs. I guess they decided it had been a mistake to let Noll bite the hand that was feeding them.

Powell, we should note, has also been urging the Journal of Child and Youth Care (now called Relational Child & Youth Care Practice) to retract a 1990 issue devoted to “In the Shadow of Satan: The Ritual Abuse of Children.”

14 thoughts on “Psychiatric Times retracts essay on “satanic ritual abuse””

  1. Geez, talk about running for cover as soon as there is a whiff of controversy. I guess we can’t depend on PT to plunge into the difficult and dangerous areas of psychiatry.

    I note that the letter states that they sought legal advise, but does not state that the legal advise said not to publish the article.

    1. +1. However, note that the letter doesn’t even say that that Psychiatric Times actually sought any legal advice, only that “it was suggested that I consider obtaining corporate legal advice.” I doubt any competent lawyer would read the article as being libelous.

  2. RIchard Noll ends his essay with three questions:
    “Are we ready now to reopen a discussion on this moral panic? Will both clinicians and historians of
    psychiatry be willing to be on record? Shall we continue to silence memory, or allow it to speak?”

    Apparently the Psychiatric Times’ answers are:
    – No. No, and let’s continue to silence memory

  3. Thank you for drawing attention to this odd episode in Reaction Watch.
    Just a few details to bring your readers up to date on the story since Gary Greenberg’s blog (thouch many of them can be found in Dr. John Nardo’s blog post
    On 7 January 2014 I was sent an email by PT editor Susan Kweskin informing me that, “On further reflection and internal discussion, we have decided that we would like to repost your article.” They wanted to give some of the psychiatrists “the opportunity to respond or provide comment — if they wish.”
    I welcomed this offer and awaited word that PT had contacted the psychiatrists who had seemingly found something objectionable in my article.
    On 16 January 2014 I received a gracious email from PT’s editor-in-chief, Dr. James Knoll, updating me on the status of my submission. This message cleared up the mystery of the published article’s disappearance from PT. According to Dr. Knoll, “In an effort to present both sides, PT contacted Dr. [Richard] Kluft [of Philadelphia]. Please know that not only did he take exception to a number of your points, but he also raised the issue of legal liability. We are currently in the process of confirming that Dr. Kluft is willing to write a rejoinder to your piece.” Apparently he refused. About 10 days later I received another email from Dr. Knoll telling me that the reposting of my piece was to be put on hold at the advice of their attorneys. He did not outright reject the possibility it would be reposted, but I have heard nothing since.
    When I signed the “Copyright Assignment” form on 26 Nov 2013 I gave up all rights to my article to UMB Medica, the owner of PT. So I can’t revise and republish it in a scholarly journal, as would be my wish. Their prepublication edits were minimal: the most significant was changing my deliberately non-inflammatory title, “Speak, Memory,” to their choice of “When Psychiatry Battled the Devil.” They had ample time to ask for changes or omissions in the text prior to publication, but they did not. They thought it was wonderful.
    Since I signed over all rights to UMB Medica, and since they did in fact publish it and allowed many persons to download the PDF of the article while it was posted, I am assuming that they are (rightly) afraid that most of the liability issues, legitimate or not, are theirs to defend if challenged by Dr. Kluft.
    For those wishing for more backstory details, I urge you all to contact Dr. Richard Kluft. Perhaps someone can even convince him to comment on my article in a public forum, preferably together with a reposting of my article on Psychiatric Times.

    1. Right. Blame it on the lawyers. This is the editorial equivalent of blaming a bogus Western Blot on the proverbial sloppy grad student. As Teddy Roosevelt famously said of William McKinley, the man has the backbone of a chocolate eclair. But even McKinley never claimed that his lawyers made him do it.

      1. Right. Blame it on the lawyers.

        Given Pennsylvania’s ridiculously narrow anti-SLAPP statute, it’s a perfectly valid concern unless one has lot of money burning a hole in one’s corporate pocket. Note that Andrew Wakefield’s absurd attempt to assert Texas jurisdiction in his libel suit against the BMJ is still sitting in the Third Court of Appeals, and the merits haven’t even been reached.

    2. “When I signed the “Copyright Assignment” form on 26 Nov 2013 I gave up all rights to my article to UMB Medica, the owner of PT. So I can’t revise and republish it in a scholarly journal, as would be my wish. ”

      I think this is right, since they did publish it. They won’t escape liability even though they removed it.

      But you are free to rewrite it from scratch and submit elsewhere. If the text and organization of the article is different, there can be no copyright violation. And there would be no academic ethical violation since they removed the article and there would be no duplication. But IANAL, so you should consult with the new journal.

      I will however, like all right-thinking people, be downloading the article immediately to find out what they want to keep hidden.

  4. I always believed psychiatry to be one of the most cowardly of disciplines. Now, although I respect Dr. Noll’s efforts to the contrary, I have additional evidence to support that belief. The editors at PT should be ashamed of themselves.

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