Mass Hysteria in Oude Pekela

Benjamin Rossen*

ABSTRACT: This account describes allegations that dangerous child molesters were operating in a small village in the Netherlands and the subsequent multiple interrogations of nearly all the preschool children in the village.  This started as a result of slight anal injuries resulting from sex play between two small boys.  Over several months the stories grew to include fecal and urinary games, sexual abuse, vaginal and anal rape, sadomasochistic performances, manufacture of pornography, drug administration, bizarre rites, and the sacrificial torture and murder of infants.  There were no physical injuries apart from the slight anal injuries in the first two children and no pornography or other evidence was found and the police eventually declared the episode to be an outburst of mass hysteria.  However, the allegations are still being taken seriously by some people and this episode has created much controversy in the Netherlands.

Oude Pekela is a small village, population 8,000, in the North of the Netherlands near the German border.  The collapse of the cardboard industry in the district about 20 years ago, leaving nothing to replace it, has led to the development of a subculture characterized by a feeling of helplessness and resentment; 60% of the population is living on welfare.  There is a sense among Pekelders that life has cheated them.  There is also a rather primitive populist political undercurrent.  In these respects, Oude Pekela is not a typical Dutch town.

Just over a year ago two boys aged four and five, while engaged in exploratory sex play with each other in the bushes, sustained slight anal injuries.  Another ten-year-old boy may have been present.

Apparently one of the boys tried to push a twig into the anus of another causing as slight wound although at this stage we will probably never know exactly what happened.  The mother of the injured child discovered a spot of blood in his underwear and took him to the family physician, Dr. Jonker.

Dr. Jonker suspected that the child had been raped by strangers.  In cooperation with the city council, police and a psychiatrist, he arranged a meeting for parents at the local town center (actually, a pub).  About 300 parents attended this meeting and a second meeting held a week later.  The parents were told that dangerous child molesters were operating in the village and that their own children may already have been abused.  During the course of the meeting, the psychiatrist explained the signs of sexual abuse (accommodation syndrome) and urged parents to question their children.

Over the next few months streams of reports came in.  At first children told of being given candy and taken for rides.  This developed into fecal and urinary games, sexual abuse, anal and vaginal rape, sadomasochistic performances, manufacture of pornography, burning with cigarettes, drug administration, bizarre rites, and the sacrificial torture and murder of infants.

School teachers got in on the act and ran interrogation sessions during the day.  Social workers and police used up the children's free time for further interrogations.  Parents continued these into the night.  The number of children reported to Dr. Jonker ran into the hundreds including nearly the entire population of preschoolers in Oude Pekela.  Operating under the supposition that children suffer permanent damage if they are allowed to live with a secret of sexual abuse, the interrogators charged ahead with inquisitorial intensity.  One of the kindergarten teachers was quoted as saying, "We put them at ease, came up with examples of what we did as we go away with someone and sometimes put words into their mouths."

The unfolding of this drama in the media has been traumatic for the entire nation.  The average person believes most of the stories at face value.  This is remarkable, for the stories are hardly believable.  None of the children had been missed for longer than 40 minutes, and showed no signs of having been abused until the parents questioned them.  In order to appreciate how remarkable this is, you would have to know how, in a little town of the Netherlands, everybody knows what everybody else is doing at all times.  This suffocating atmosphere is referred to as "social control."  The pornographers are believed to have moved about town in disguise, as clowns for example, enticing children away at precisely the moments when they would not be missed and returning them just in time to evade discovery.  This has been taken as evidence that the pornography gang is comprised of master criminals, with wide experience and international connections a classical conspiracy theory that is unfalsifiable.  People in many places are frightened that the master gang might come to their town, or perhaps have already done so.

In the meantime the children of Oude Pekela have been traumatized by more than a year of intensive interrogation, therapy and psychiatric counseling.  They are, now, indeed, wetting their beds, showing unreasonable fear of strangers, becoming aggressive at school, and engaging in unnaturally large amounts of sex play.  Children have been reported urinating on the walls and tearing wallpaper away.  In other families, domestic violence, gambling addiction, alcoholism and marital breakdown are blamed on the pornographers.

The police in the Netherlands are generally well trained and tend to be sober and moderate in their approach in most matters.  Since no pornography could be found, a hospital investigation revealed no physical injuries apart from the slight wounds on the first two children, and the stories of the children were seriously confused and at variance with one another, the police declared the episode to be an outburst of mass hysteria.

There was an immediate and furious outcry.  The parents of Oude Pekela accused the government of covering up for criminals.  Religious crusaders and television preachers attacked the government for its liberal policies.  In order to appreciate the impact of these allegations, it is necessary to understand something of the political background.

As early as 1980, the U.S. government began to accuse the Netherlands of being the world's largest source of child pornography.  Pressure came from the White House to tighten Dutch laws and prosecutors' policies.  The Ministry of Justice responded by setting up the De Wit Commission to enquire into child pornography in the Netherlands.  Their very thorough study found that the Netherlands is not now, and has never been, a significant producer of child pornography.  Indeed, more child pornography is produced in the U.S.A. and comes to the Netherlands the other way around.  The myths die hard, however, and periodically there are still outbursts of allegations to be heard from the American side of the Atlantic.  The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Child Pornography and Pedophilia even treated seriously the claim of the religious right-wing campaigners, J. Densen-Gerber and Kenneth Herman of D.C.I., that children were sold into sexual slavery at auctions held in Amsterdam.  These kinds of astonishing allegations have been read with a sense of disbelief and wounded pride in the Netherlands.  People now talk about "The American Allegations" and everyone knows what they mean.  The discovery that American secret agents in pursuit of child pornography were operating in Amsterdam resulted in an outburst of angry resentment against the U.S.

This kind of emotional undercurrent feeds p0litical opportunists.  The Netherlands also has its religious right-wing campaigners, and some of them are in politics.  They have used the Oude Pekela situation to make mileage.  Allegations that the government has instructed the police to put the Oude Pekela investigation into the stove pot to protect their political reputation are heard in The Hague and in the media.  Even the American ambassador here has effectively challenged the government over the Oude Pekela affair.

The police were caught up in a difficult situation.  If they had agreed that a secret master criminal gang has done it all and got away, they would have looked foolish and ineffective.  If they said nothing had happened, they would be accused of covering up.  In the meantime, a hard core of angry parents apparently driven by Dr. Jonker, were getting media attention and demanding that the criminals be tracked down and punished.

The Justice Ministry in Groningen responded by appointing a psychiatrist, Dr. Mik, to interview the children.  His job was to separate the truth from the fiction.  The police and justice knew that nothing had happened and felt confident that an expert would arrive at the same conclusion and announce it to the nation with authority.  They were to be disappointed.  Dr. Mik spent months questioning the children using all the very worst possible methods and came out with the finding that "... it is all true and worse than we imagine."  Dr. Mik's spectacular findings received national headlines every day for several weeks.  He described his methods for getting the truth out of the children.

"I told the child a story:  'Mother was working in the garden.'  'No no' called out the child, 'My father was digging in the garden.'  I again, 'Then a cat barked.'  'No!' laughed the child, 'A dog barked.' ...  and so I went on, until eventually the auto came, a red auto I knew, ... and then came a red auto with white stripes.'  'No no' called the child then, 'There were no white stripes.  It was a red auto.' and so I went on, telling the story ...  Many older children said at home that they knew nothing, while from their behavior it seemed opposite.  So I said to such a child: 'I can imagine that terrible things have happened to you, nasty things that you dare not talk about.  But perhaps we can try?' Sometimes it succeeded, sometimes not."  (cited from the front page story in De Telegraaf, 22 Jan. 1988 (largest newspaper in the Netherlands)

Unfortunately, Dr. Mik was accorded credence by many people, including politicians.  Others declared him to be a fool.  One university professor called him the Witch Doctor of the North.  The Queen decorated him for his services to the nation.  Battle lines were drawn.  People declared themselves believers and nonbelievers.  In the meantime, the issue remains unresolved.  Dr. Mik is still interviewing the children and more than a year after the beginning of the affair, children are still elaborating and expanding their stories.  Recently, Dr. Mik has managed to get teenagers to join the circus.  This is not only a tragedy for the children who are being taught to believe that they have been sexually abused, but also for the nation.  People are far less confident about dismissing "The American Allegations."  Some people are afraid that "They just might be true after all."

* Benjamin Rossen is a doctoral student at the Free University of Amsterdam[Back]

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