In recent years, claims by children (and adults) of sexual abuse by caregivers have led to criminal prosecution of parents, baby sitters, and child care workers throughout the United States. It may also be happening in other countries, but I am not familiar with those cases.
The obvious first question has to be "Is it true?" Initially, many adults assumed that young children would not be able to "make up" stories about such things because "childhood innocence" would preclude knowledge of such sexual matters. Juries were quick to convict defendants in these cases and frequently imposed harsh sentences on those convicted. Was justice served? What does modern, scientific psychology have to say about the assumptions underlying these claims, charges, and consequences?
The Public Broadcasting System program, Frontline, has provided one of the most comprehensive, in-depth, examinations of one of the most controversial cases so far. Over a series of three broadcasts beginning in 1971, producer Ofra Bikel has reported the origin and outcome of the "Little Rascals Child Care" case in Edenton, North Carolina. Seven people were charged with ritual killings, torture and sexual abuse on the basis of reports by three- to five-year-old children. One defendant received 12 life sentences when he was found guilty. Frontline: Out of Edenton: The Legal and Scientific Issues provides an interesting discussion of the issues in this case.
Most psychologists would probably express serious doubts about the claims presented as evidence in this and similar cases, not because they doubt that sexual abuse of children occurs, but because of their understanding of how memory works and how unreliable it can be — especially when it is being influenced by outside forces that might have ulterior motives. The American Psychological Association has issued a position paper on the issue of the reliability of "recovered" Memories of Childhood Abuse by adults. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation references a statement of concern by the American Medical Association, and an extensive FAQ about False Memory Syndrome. Although FMS generally refers to adults recovering repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, the FAQ includes sources of information about claims made by very young children.
Standing up for the truth can be risky business. Your intrepid guide is aware of threats against the life of Elizabeth Loftus, a recognized authority on memory, (and others) by some of the more extreme proponents of the "recovered memory" position. ( Her 1995 article "Remembering Dangerously", which appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer, is particularly interesting.) He hopes that none of those folks learn of the existence of this page.
"First of All, Do No Harm"