To the editors:

A letter from Believe the Children executive director Beth Vargo appeared in the Reader March 29, accusing me of misrepresenting her organization in my article “The Mouths of Babes” (March 15). Several points deserve further clarification.

(1) There is nothing unethical about quoting from the public record, as Vargo absurdly suggested. She may claim that her group is interested in open debate on the ritual abuse controversy, but her group’s publications suggest otherwise. An article in the fall 1994 newsletter strongly suggests that those who take the opposite side in the controversy are motivated by “malice . . . misunderstanding, greed and petty jealousy.”

(2) It is true, as Vargo says, that a brief “cautionary statement” appeared near the end of her article “Ritual Child Abuse in Day Care,” which I quoted as an example of the group’s extreme views. But Vargo’s own quotation of this article omits a crucial sentence. The relevant portion reads, in full: “The presence of one or more symptoms does not necessarily mean a child has been abused. Conversely, the absence of symptoms should not be construed as an indication that a child has not been abused: some children who have been ritually abused are asymptomatic during the period when the abuse is occurring.”

This statement appears in the context of an article detailing such possible “symptoms” of ritual child abuse as: “refusal to eat red or brown foods, such as spaghetti sauce,” “singing odd songs or chants,” “fear of closets,” “fear or mistrust of doctors,” fear of burglars and other “bad people,” “rapid mood swings; resisting authority . . . hyperactivity . . . poor attention span and learning problems.” Vargo also suggests that in choosing day-care facilities parents should “avoid multi-story buildings” because this increases “the potential for abuse.”

(3) My article did not suggest that Believe the Children advisory board member Kathleen Coulborn Faller “lacks professional credentials”; I described her as a University of Michigan professor. Such credentials do not render her or her works immune to criticism.

I find it ironic that the executive director of an organization called Believe the Children would react with such umbrage to an article suggesting that we do just that–believe the three girls whose recantations have led prosecutors to drop all criminal charges in the Hill case.

David Futrelle