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A witch-hunt is a search for persons labelled "witches" or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic or mass hysteria. Before 1750 it was legally sanctioned and involved official witchcraft trials. The classical period of witchhunts in Europe and North America falls into the Early Modern period or about 1400 to 1700, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 executions.
The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century. In the Kingdom of Great Britain, witchcraft ceased to be an act punishable by law with the Witchcraft Act of 1735. In Germany, sorcery remained punishable by law into the late 18th century. Contemporary witch-hunts have been reported from Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea. Official legislation against witchcraft is still found in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon.
From at least the 1930s, the term "witch-hunt" has been used figuratively to describe activities by governments (and, occasionally, by business entities) to seek out and expose perceived enemies, often apparently as a means of directing public opinion by fostering a degree of moral panic. The Second Red Scare of the 1950s, culminating in the McCarthyist persecution of suspected communists in the United States, is especially associated with this usage of the term "witch hunt." The use of the term in this context is ironic, since the typical implication is that the witches being hunted do not exist. In reality, McCarthy and his allies were hunting spies, not witches, and in fact numerous American citizens at that time were later shown to be spying for the Soviet Union.
The wide distribution of the practice of witch-hunts in geographically and culturally separated societies (Europe, Africa, India, New Guinea) since the 1960s has triggered interest in the anthropological background of this behaviour. The belief in magic and divination, and attempts to use magic to influence personal well-being (to increase life, win love, etc.) are human cultural universals.
Belief in witchcraft has been shown to have similarities in societies throughout the world. It presents a framework to explain the occurrence of otherwise random misfortunes such as sickness or death, and the witch sorcerer provides an image of evil. Reports on indigenous practices in the Americas, Asia and Africa collected during the early modern age of exploration have indeed been taken to suggest that not just the belief in witchcraft but also the periodic outbreak of witch-hunts are a human cultural universal.
Punishment for malevolent sorcery is addressed in the earliest law codes preserved; both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part. The Code of Hammurabi (18th century BCE short chronology) prescribes that
The pre-Christian Twelve Tables of pagan Roman law had provisions against evil incantations and spells intended to damage cereal crops. In 331 BC, 170 women were executed as witches in the context of an epidemic illness. Livy emphasizes that this was a scale of persecution without precedent in Rome. In 184 BC, about 2,000 people were executed for witchcraft (veneficium), and in 182–180 BC another 3,000 executions took place, again triggered by the outbreak of an epidemic. There is no way to verify the figures reported by Roman historians, but if they are taken at face value, the scale of the witch-hunts in the Roman Republic in relation to the population of Italy at the time far exceeded anything that took place during the "classical" witch-craze in Early Modern Europe. Persecution of witches continued in the Roman Empire until the late 4th century AD and abated only after the introduction of Christianity as the Roman state religion in the 390s.
The Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis promulgated by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the 2nd century BC became an important source of late medieval and early modern European law on witchcraft. Strabo, Gaius Maecenas and Cassius Dio all reiterate the traditional Roman opposition against sorcery and divination, and Tacitus used the term religio-superstitio to class these outlawed observances. The emperor Augustus strengthened legislation aimed at curbing these practices.
The Hebrew Bible condemns sorcery. Deuteronomy 18:10–12 states "No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one that casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord;" and Exodus 22:18 prescribes "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"; tales like that of 1 Samuel 28, reporting how Saul "hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land" suggest that in practice sorcery could at least lead to exile.
In the Judaean Second Temple period, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach in the 1st century BC is reported to have sentenced to death eighty women who had been charged with witchcraft on a single day in Ashkelon. Later the women's relatives took revenge by bringing (reportedly) false witnesses against Simeon's son and causing him to be executed in turn.
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The general desire of the Catholic Church's clergy to check fanaticism about witchcraft and necromancy is shown in the decrees of the Council of Paderborn, which, in 785, explicitly outlawed condemning people as witches and condemned to death anyone who burnt a witch. Emperor Charlemagne later confirmed the law. The Council of Frankfurt in 794, called by Charlemagne, was also very explicit in condemning "the persecution of alleged witches and wizards", calling the belief in witchcraft "superstitious", and ordering the death penalty for those who presumed to burn witches.
Similarly, the Lombard code of 643 states:
This conforms to the teachings of the Canon Episcopi of circa 900 AD (alleged to date from 314 AD), which, following the thoughts of Augustine of Hippo, stated that witchcraft did not exist and that to teach that it was a reality was, itself, false and heterodox teaching.
The "Decretum" of Burchard, Bishop of Worms (about 1020), and especially its 19th book, often known separately as the "Corrector", is another work of great importance. Burchard was writing against the superstitious belief in magical potions, for instance, that may produce impotence or abortion. These were also condemned by several Church Fathers. But he altogether rejected the possibility of many of the alleged powers with which witches were popularly credited. Such, for example, were nocturnal riding through the air, the changing of a person's disposition from love to hate, the control of thunder, rain, and sunshine, the transformation of a man into an animal, the intercourse of incubi and succubi with human beings and other such superstitions. Not only the attempt to practice such things, but the very belief in their possibility, is treated by Burchard as false and superstitious.
Pope Gregory VII, in 1080, wrote to King Harald III of Denmark forbidding witches to be put to death upon presumption of their having caused storms or failure of crops or pestilence. Neither were these the only examples of an effort to prevent unjust suspicion to which such poor creatures might be exposed.[note 1]
Early secular laws against witchcraft include those promulgated by King Athelstan (924–939):
In some prosecutions for witchcraft, torture (permitted by the Roman civil law) apparently took place. However, Pope Nicholas I (866), prohibited the use of torture altogether, and a similar decree may be found in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.
On many different occasions, ecclesiastics who spoke with authority did their best to disabuse the people of their superstitious belief in witchcraft. This, for instance, is the general purport of the book, Contra insulsam vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis ("Against the foolish belief of the common sort concerning hail and thunder"), written by Agobard (d. 841), Archbishop of Lyons.
The manuals of the Roman Catholic Inquisition remained highly skeptical of the witch craze and of witch accusations, although there was sometimes an overlap between accusations of heresy and of witchcraft, particularly when, in the 13th century, the newly formed Inquisition was commissioned to deal with the Cathars of Southern France, whose teachings were charged with containing an admixture of witchcraft and magic.
Although it has been proposed that the witch-hunt developed in Europe from the early 14th century, after the Cathars and the Templar Knights were suppressed, this hypothesis has been rejected independently by two historians (Cohn 1975; Kieckhefer 1976). They contend that the early witch-hunts originated among common people in the Switzerland and in the Croatia, who pressed the civil courts to support them.
In the case of the Madonna Oriente, the Inquisition of Milan was not sure what to do with two women who in 1384 and in 1390 confessed to have participated in a type of white magic. The women were released with advice to avoid superstitions.
A Catholic figure who preached against witchcraft was popular Franciscan preacher, Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444).
Bernardino's sermons reveal both a phenomenon of superstitious practices and an over-reaction against them by the common people. However, it is clear that Bernardino had in mind not merely the use of spells and enchantments and such like fooleries but much more serious crimes, chiefly murder and infanticide. This is clear from his much-quoted sermon of 1427, in which he says:
In 1484, in the Late Middle Ages, Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a Papal bull authorizing the "correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising" of devil-worshippers who have "slain infants", among other crimes. He did so at the request of two inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, members of the Dominican Order, who had been refused permission by the local bishops in Germany to investigate.
In 1487, Kramer and Sprenger published the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (the 'Hammer against the Witches') which, because of the newly invented printing presses, enjoyed a wide readership. The book was soon banned by the Church in 1490, and Kramer and Sprenger censured, but it was nevertheless reprinted in 14 editions by 1520 and became unduly influential in the secular courts. In 1538 the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its members not to believe what the Malleus said, even when it presented apparently firm evidence.
The witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a major issue again and peaking in the 17th century. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which were sometimes used to protect the people) now became a sign of a pact between the people with supernatural abilities and the devil. To justify the killings, Protestant Christianity and its proxy secular institutions deemed witchcraft as being associated to wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, and cannibalistic infanticide. It was also seen as heresy for going against the first of the ten commandments (You shall have no other gods before me) or as violating majesty, in this case referring to the divine majesty, not the worldly. Further, scripture specifically decreed that "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18), which many believed.
Witch-hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be central and southern Germany. Germany was a late starter in terms of the numbers of trials, compared to other regions of Europe. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. The first major persecution in Europe, when witches were caught, tried, convicted, and burned in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called "True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches".
In Denmark, the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Christian IV of Denmark, in particular, encouraged this practice, and hundreds of people were convicted of witchcraft and burnt. In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1542 regulated the penalties for witchcraft. In the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, over 70 people were accused of witchcraft on account of bad weather when James VI of Scotland, who shared the Danish king's interest in witch trials, sailed to Denmark in 1590 to meet his betrothed Anne of Denmark. The Pendle witch trials of 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history.
Witch hysteria also erupted in the Americas. In 1645, 46 years before the notorious Salem witch trials, Springfield, Massachusetts experienced America's first accusations of witchcraft when husband and wife Hugh and Mary Parsons accused each other of witchcraft. At America's first witch trial, Hugh was found innocent, while Mary was acquitted of witchcraft but sentenced to be hanged for the death of her child. She died in prison. About eighty people throughout England's Massachusetts Bay Colony were accused of practicing witchcraft- thirteen women and two men were executed in a witch-hunt that lasted throughout New England from 1645–1663. The Salem witch trials followed in 1692–93.
Once a case was brought to trial, the prosecutors hunted for accomplices. Magic was not considered to be wrong because it failed, but because it worked effectively for the wrong reasons. Witchcraft was a normal part of everyday life. Witches were often called for, along with religious ministers, to help the ill or to deliver a baby. They held positions of spiritual power in their communities. When something went wrong, no one questioned the ministers or the power of the witchcraft. Instead, they questioned whether the witch intended to inflict harm or not.
Current scholarly estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft vary between about 40,000 and 100,000. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known to have ended in executions is around 12,000.
Prominent contemporaneous critics of witch hunts included Gianfrancesco Ponzinibio (fl. 1520), Johannes Wier (1515–1588), Reginald Scot (1538–1599), Cornelius Loos (1546–1595), Anton Praetorius (1560–1613), Alonso Salazar y Frías (1564–1636), Friedrich Spee (1591–1635), and Balthasar Bekker (1634–1698).
Some authors claim that millions of witches were killed in Europe, while modern scholarly estimates place the total number of executions for witchcraft in the 300-year period of European witch-hunts far lower. William Monter estimates 35,000 deaths (see table below), historian Malcolm Gaskill 40,000–50,000. About 75 to 80 percent of those were women.
|Region||Number of trials||Number of executions|
|British Isles and North America||~5,000||~1,500–2,000|
|Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria including Czech lands - Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia)||~50,000||~25,000–30,000|
|Eastern Europe (Poland and Lithuania, Hungary and Russia)||~7,000||~2,000|
|Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Italy)||~10,000||~1,000|
In England, Scotland and Ireland, between 1542 and 1735 a series of Witchcraft Acts enshrined into law the punishment (often with death, sometimes with incarceration) of individuals practising, or claiming to practice witchcraft and magic. The last executions for witchcraft in England had taken place in 1682, when Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susanna Edwards were executed at Exeter. In 1711, Joseph Addison published an article in the highly respected The Spectator journal (No. 117) criticizing the irrationality and social injustice in treating elderly and feeble women (dubbed Moll White) as witches. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. Kate Nevin was hunted for 3 weeks and eventually suffered death by Faggot and Fire at Monzie in Perthshire, Scotland in 1715. Janet Horne was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727. The final Act of 1735 led to prosecution for fraud rather than witchcraft since it was no longer believed that the individuals had actual supernatural powers or traffic with Satan. The 1735 Act continued to be used until the 1940s to prosecute individuals such as spiritualists and Gypsies. The act was finally repealed in 1951.
The last execution of a witch in the Dutch Republic was probably in 1613. In Denmark this took place in 1693 with the execution of Anna Palles. In other parts of Europe, the practice died down later. In France the last person to be executed for witch craft was Louis Debaraz in 1745. In Germany the last death sentence was that of Anna Schwegelin in Kempten in 1775 (although not carried out). The last known official witch-trial was the Doruchów witch trial in Poland in 1783. Two unnamed women were executed in Poznań, Poland, in 1793, in proceedings of dubious legitimacy.
Anna Göldi was executed in Glarus, Switzerland, in 1782, and Barbara Zdunk in Prussia in 1811. Both women have been identified as the last person executed for witchcraft in Europe, but in both cases, the official verdict did not mention witchcraft, as this had ceased to be recognized as a criminal offense.
Witch hunts still occur today in societies where belief in magic is prevalent. In most cases, these are instances of lynching and burnings, reported with some regularity from much of Sub-Saharan Africa, from rural North India and from Papua New Guinea. In addition, there are some countries that have legislation against the practice of sorcery. The only country where witchcraft remains legally punishable by death is Saudi Arabia.
Witch hunts in modern times are continuously reported by the UNHCR of the UNO as a massive violation of human rights. Most of the accused are women and children but can also be elderly people or marginalised groups of the community such as albinos and the HIV-infected. The causes of witch hunts include poverty, epidemics, social crises and lack of education. The leader of the witch hunt, often a prominent figure in the community or a "witch doctor", may also gain economic benefit by charging for an exorcism or by selling body parts of the murdered.
In many societies of Sub-Saharan Africa, the fear of witches drives periodic witch-hunts during which specialist witch-finders identify suspects, with death by mob often the result. Countries particularly affected by this phenomenon include South Africa, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Witch-hunts against children were reported by the BBC in 1999 in the Congo and in Tanzania, where the government responded to attacks on women accused of being witches for having red eyes. A lawsuit was launched in 2001 in Ghana, where witch-hunts are also common, by a woman accused of being a witch. Witch-hunts in Africa are often led by relatives seeking the property of the accused victim.
Audrey I. Richards, in the journal Africa, relates in 1935 an instance when a new wave of witchfinders, the Bamucapi, appeared in the villages of the Bemba people of Zambia. They dressed in European clothing, and would summon the headman to prepare a ritual meal for the village. When the villagers arrived they would view them all in a mirror, and claimed they could identify witches with this method. These witches would then have to "yield up his horns"; i.e. give over the horn containers for curses and evil potions to the witch-finders. The bamucapi then made all drink a potion called kucapa which would cause a witch to die and swell up if he ever tried such things again.
The villagers related that the witch-finders were always right because the witches they found were always the people whom the village had feared all along. The bamucapi utilised a mixture of Christian and native religious traditions to account for their powers and said that God (not specifying which God) helped them to prepare their medicine. In addition, all witches who did not attend the meal to be identified would be called to account later on by their master, who had risen from the dead, and who would force the witches by means of drums to go to the graveyard, where they would die. Richards noted that the bamucapi created the sense of danger in the villages by rounding up all the horns in the village, whether they were used for anti-witchcraft charms, potions, snuff or were indeed receptacles of black magic.
The Bemba people believed misfortunes such as wartings, hauntings and famines to be just actions sanctioned by the High-God Lesa. The only agency which caused unjust harm was a witch, who had enormous powers and was hard to detect. After white rule of Africa, beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft grew, possibly because of the social strain caused by new ideas, customs and laws, and also because the courts no longer allowed witches to be tried.
Amongst the Bantu tribes of Southern Africa, the witch smellers were responsible for detecting witches. In parts of Southern Africa, several hundred people have been killed in witch hunts since 1990.
In March 2009, Amnesty International reported that up to 1,000 people in the Gambia had been abducted by government-sponsored "witch doctors" on charges of witchcraft, and taken to detention centers where they were forced to drink poisonous concoctions. On 21 May 2009, The New York Times reported that the alleged witch-hunting campaign had been sparked by the Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh.
In Sierra Leone, the witch-hunt is an occasion for a sermon by the kɛmamɔi (native Mende witch-finder) on social ethics : "Witchcraft ... takes hold in people’s lives when people are less than fully open-hearted. All wickedness is ultimately because people hate each other or are jealous or suspicious or afraid. These emotions and motivations cause people to act antisocially". The response by the populace to the kɛmamɔi is that "they valued his work and would learn the lessons he came to teach them, about social responsibility and cooperation."
In India, labeling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores or even to punish her for turning down sexual advances. In a majority of the cases, it is difficult for the accused woman to reach out for help and she is forced to either abandon her home and family or driven to commit suicide. Most cases are not documented because it is difficult for poor and illiterate women to travel from isolated regions to file police reports. Less than 2 percent of those accused of witch-hunting are actually convicted, according to a study by the Free Legal Aid Committee, a group that works with victims in the state of Jharkhand.
A 2010 estimate places the number of women killed as witches in India at between 150 and 200 per year, or a total of 2,500 in the period of 1995 to 2009. The lynchings are particularly common in the poor northern states of Jharkhand, Bihar and the central state of Chhattisgarh. Witch hunts are also taking place among the tea garden workers in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal India. The witch hunts in Jalpaiguri are less known, but are motivated by the stress in the tea industry on the lives of the adivasi workers.
Witch hunts in Nepal are common, and are targeted especially against low-caste women. The main causes of witchcraft related violence include widespread belief in superstition, lack of education, lack of public awareness, illiteracy, caste system, male domination, and economic dependency of women on men. The victims of this form of violence are often beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and murdered. Sometimes, the family members of the accused are also assaulted. In 2010, Sarwa Dev Prasad Ojha, minister for women and social welfare, said, "Superstitions are deeply rooted in our society, and the belief in witchcraft is one of the worst forms of this." 
Though the practice of "white" magic (such as faith healing) is legal in Papua, the 1976 Sorcery Act imposes a penalty of up to 2 years in prison for the practice of "black" magic. In 2009, the government reports that extrajudicial torture and murder of alleged witches – usually lone women – are spreading from the highland areas to cities as villagers migrate to urban areas. For example, in June 2013, four women were accused of witchcraft because the family "had a 'permanent house' made of wood, and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing". All of the women were tortured and Helen Rumbali was beheaded. Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, said that the accusations started because of economic jealousy born of a mining boom.
Reports by UN agencies, Amnesty International, Oxfam and anthropologists show that “attacks on accused sorcerers and witches — sometimes men, but most commonly women — are frequent, ferocious and often fatal.” It’s estimated about 150 cases of violence and killings are occurring each year in just the province of Simbu in Papua New Guinea alone. Reports indicate this practice of witch hunting has in some places evolved into “something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic.” One woman who was attacked by young men from a nearby village “had her genitals burned and fused beyond functional repair by the repeated intrusions of red-hot irons.” Few incidents are ever reported, according to the 2012 Law Reform Commission which concluded that they have increased since the 1980s.
Witchcraft or sorcery remains a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia, although the precise nature of the crime is undefined.
The frequency of prosecutions for this in the country as whole is unknown. However, in November 2009, it was reported that 118 persons had been arrested in the province of Makkah that year for practising magic and “using the Book of Allah in a derogatory manner”, 74% of them being female. According to Human Rights Watch in 2009, prosecutions for witchcraft and sorcery are proliferating and "Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police."
In 2006, an illiterate Saudi woman, Fawza Falih, was convicted of practising witchcraft, including casting an impotence spell, and sentenced to death by beheading, after allegedly being beaten and forced to fingerprint a false confession that had not been read to her. After an appeal court had cast doubt on the validity of the death sentence because the confession had been retracted, the lower court reaffirmed the same sentence on a different basis.
In 2007, Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian national, was executed, having been convicted of using sorcery in an attempt to separate a married couple, as well as of adultery and of desecrating the Quran.
Also in 2007, Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, a Sudanese national, was sentenced to death after being convicted of producing a spell that would lead to the reconciliation of a divorced couple.
In 2009, Ali Sibat, a Lebanese television presenter who had been arrested whilst on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to death for witchcraft arising out of his fortune-telling on an Arab satellite channel. His appeal was accepted by one court, but a second in Medina upheld his death sentence again in March 2010, stating that he deserved it as he had publicly practised sorcery in front of millions of viewers for several years. In November 2010, the Supreme Court refused to ratify the death sentence, stating that there was insufficient evidence that his actions had harmed others.
On 12 December 2011, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar was beheaded in Al Jawf Province after being convicted of practicing witchcraft and sorcery. Another very similar situation occurred to Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri and he was beheaded on 19 June 2012 in the Najran Province.
In modern terminology 'witch-hunt' has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence. It is used whether or not it is sanctioned by the government, or merely occurs within the "court of public opinion".
The first such use reported by the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1932. Another early instance is George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). The term is used by Orwell to describe how, in the Spanish Civil War, political persecutions became a regular occurrence.
The term is used when a hunt for wrongdoers becomes abused, and a defendant can be convicted merely on an accusation. For example, in the History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us, narrator Liev Schreiber explains that "the search for runaway slaves becomes a witch hunt. A black man can be convicted with merely an accusation. Unlike white people, they do not have the right to trial by jury. Judges are paid ten dollars to rule them as slaves, five to set them free."
Use of the term was popularized in the United States in the context of the McCarthyist search for communists during the Cold War, which was discredited partly through being compared to the Salem witch trials. Arthur Miller's The Crucible is notable for using the Salem Witch Trials as an extended simile for McCarthyism.
From the 1960s, the term was in wide use and could also be applied to isolated incidents or scandals, specifically public smear-campaigns against individuals. The phenomenon of day care sex abuse hysteria, most notably the McMartin preschool trial of 1984 to 1990, is another iconic example of a moral panic which saw day care providers accused of what was dubbed "satanic ritual abuse", i.e. the charge of physical and sexual child abuse out of an alleged Satanist motivation. The case and the associated media coverage has been frequently termed a witch-hunt by commentators and social researchers. More generally the societal reaction to child sexual abuse has been criticized as a witch-hunt by some academics and commentators since the early 1990s.
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