Satanic panic attack

The Globe and Mail/August 1, 2002
By Margaret Wente

On June 3, 1992, Saskatchewan police launched a mass arrest in a shocking case of child sex abuse. Among the nine people they rounded up was John Popowich, a police officer. He was accused of forcing children to engage in anal intercourse and fellatio at gunpoint.

The children all had one thing in common: a babysitting service in Martensville, a sleepy little town near Saskatoon with some strongly religious citizens. The day after the arrests, Martensville's mayor and police chief held a news conference to appeal for national support in its time of crisis.

The panic that swept through Martensville was being repeated throughout North America. Each case featured bizarre accusations, alleged Satanic cults, grossly inept questioning of children, and hysterical adults who believed every impossible tale wrung from them.

The panics have been thoroughly debunked. But Mr. Popowich's nightmare lasted for a decade. It didn't end until last month, when he finally won an apology from the government and a $1.3-million settlement. "The most important part," he told me yesterday, "was getting my name cleared."

The hysteria in Martensville began with a complaint from parents, who told police that their two-year-old had been sexually assaulted at the babysitting service. The file wound up in the hands of a rookie officer named Claudia Bryden, who promptly began to interview all the children and their families. The children began accusing various adults, including the owners and their son. One investigator, suspecting police involvement, showed a child a book of photos of officers in the Saskatoon police department. He picked out a picture of Mr. Popowich.

By that time, Satanic panic had swept the town. Among the true believers was the Martensville police chief. His evidence of cult activity included some writings by a local man that featured odd, occult-sounding words. (They turned out to be excerpts from a fantasy novel he was writing.) The chief even warned his forces that gun-toting Satanists were about to kidnap the children and sacrifice them. He armed them with assault rifles, and told them to keep an eye out for the high priestesses, who could be identified by a tattoo of a scarab beetle on their wrists.

After his arrest, Mr. Popowich was suspended from his job without pay. His daughter was beaten up in school, and relatives froze him out. He and his wife held garage sales and sold their possessions to raise money.

Meantime, a team from the RCMP and the Saskatoon police took over the investigation. The new team soon found that the evidence was weak, to say the least. In fact, there wasn't any. There were only the wild stories of the children. One investigator told the Crown prosecutors flatly that he thought Mr. Popowich was innocent. The prosecutors pressed on anyway, and Mr. Popowich and several other people went to trial.

Mr. Popowich had never met any of the children. When they couldn't identify him in a lineup, the charges against him were stayed. But he could still be charged again and, in the eyes of much of the community, he was still guilty. "If you're charged, people feel there's got to be something to it," he says.

In 1994, he launched a lawsuit against the government for malicious prosecution. The province fought back tenaciously. The documents amounted to 100,000 pages. He battled countersuits. Meantime, the two people who'd been found guilty had their convictions overturned.

Mr. Popowich's case against the province was to finally reach the trial stage next October. But this spring, a pre-trial judge told the government it would lose. It was a clarifying moment, and the government quickly settled.

Mr. Popowich, now 56, is among the lucky ones. Unlike many of the men and women caught up in the child-abuse hysteria across North America, he never did do jail time.

Saskatchewan has now completely reversed itself. Justice Minister Chris Axworthy personally met Mr. Popowich and his family to apologize, and says the province expects to settle quickly with the other wrongfully accused who are suing over Martensville. (He also promised that no one involved in prosecuting the Martensville case would lose their jobs.)

"On behalf of the government of Saskatchewan, I wish to express regret over the injuries you have suffered," Mr. Axworthy wrote in his letter of apology. "The government of Saskatchewan affirms that you are innocent of all charges and that you are entitled to enjoy a reputation as a fully innocent citizen."

It is the word Mr. Popowich has waited a decade to hear. He is innocent.

"I've quit walking around looking at the sidewalk all the time," he says. "Now I can keep my head up again."

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