Mass Hysteria in Oude Pekela
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Unfortunately, Dr. Mik was accorded credence by many
people, including politicians. Others declared him to be a fool.
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."