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date: 18 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Organized sexual abuse refers to the coordinated sexual abuse of multiple children by multiple perpetrators. It has proved to be a particularly controversial form of sexual abuse. Initial reports of organized abuse in the 1980s were met with shock and disbelief, followed by a significant backlash as journalists and academics claimed that organized abuse allegations were the product of “moral panic” and “false memories.” In the mass media, investigations into organized abuse were presented throughout the 1990s as evidence that public anxiety about child sexual abuse had generated a “witch-hunt” in which even the most outrageous allegation of abuse was considered credible. While this argument was advanced by journalists and academics, it developed first in the mass media, where the culture of news production promoted a particularly skeptical view of sexual abuse allegations. Claims of a sexual abuse witch-hunt were embedded within a broader backlash against feminism and child protection that called into question the prevalence and severity of sexual violence. Journalists and editors took a particularly activist role in the social construction of organized abuse as synonymous with false and exaggerated allegations.

A number of recent developments have fragmented an apparent journalistic consensus over the incredibility of organized abuse claims. The mass media has played a key role in publicizing the problem of clergy abuse, focusing in particular on institutionalized cultures of silence and disbelief. Sexual abuse by celebrities and authority figures has also received global media coverage and emphasized the failure of authorities to act on reports or suspicion of sexual abuse. Such media stories directly contest prior claims by journalists that society and major institutions are overly reactive to sexual abuse disclosures. Instead, the contemporary mass media includes expanded opportunities for recognition and reporting on the diversity of sexual abuse including organized abuse. The emergence of social media has also generated new possibilities for reporting, information dissemination, and debate on organized abuse. Accordingly, public discussion of organized abuse has taken on polyvocal and increasingly agonistic qualities, as older tropes about “false memories” and “moral panics” are contradicted by factual reporting on organized abuse investigations and convictions. The capacity of victims, survivors, and others impacted by organized abuse to speak for themselves on social media, rather than through the mediation of a journalist, is a key development that introduces a new dynamic of accountability and transparency that had previously been absent in media coverage of this challenging issue.

Keywords: sexual abuse, organized abuse, media, crime, moral panic, false memories, witch-hunts, social media

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