Satanic ritual abuse

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Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) is a term, originating in the United States in the 1980s, for child abuse involving Satanic belief or rituals. In the 1980's, allegations of widespread SRA created a storm of publicity, and led to many prosecutions and many subsequent appeals. The issues evoked bitter controversy about the role of therapists, about the credibility of witness accounts, about the role of the media in fomenting fear, and about the willingness of police, psychologists, social workers and members of the general public to believe such allegations in the absence of physical evidence. Those who claimed that SRA was widespread asserted the existence of secret, criminal organizations motivated by worship of Satan that practice ritual torture and sexual abuse of children in order to "program" them into the ideology of Satan worship. [1] Mainstream authorities later came to doubt the credibility of these claims, which are often termed an exemplar of moral panic.

One frequently cited source for satanic abuse, the Report of the Ritual Abuse Task Force from the Los Angeles County Commission for Women, defined 'ritual abuse' as "a brutal form of abuse of children, adolescents, and adults, consisting of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, and involving the use of rituals (not necessarily satanic). However, most survivors state that they were ritually abused as part of satanic worship for the purpose of indoctrinating them into satanic beliefs and practices. [2]


Child abuse, particularly when it involves sexual abuse or physical abuse, is among the most heinous of crimes. Those accused are vilified by friends and family, and become social pariahs; when accusations turn out to be false[3], there is accordingly a widespread sense of shame and outrage at the pain caused to innocents. Because child abuse is so horrific, cases are widely publicized; this exaggerates the true extent of cases of abuse, and evokes public fear out of proportion to the risks as measured by objective evidence.

Allegations of SRA were common in the 1980s, and many therapists regarded it as their professional responsibility to ‘’believe’’ their clients, and felt that this was important in therapy[4]. Some were led to act as advocates for them. Many therapists believed that recovered memories were likely to be accurate, that early trauma was a common cause of later psychological or behavioural disorders, that memories of traumatic events were often suppressed, and that hypnosis and other techniques designed to recover such memories were beneficial therapeutically [5][6]. Their views strengthened the belief of clients in the veracity of their memories, and validated those memories for them as likely explanations for their problems.

As allegations of SRA became public, apparently endorsed by health care professionals, the veracity of these allegations was accepted by journalists, and in turn by their mass readership, and by some social workers, politicians, and some in law enforcement. The book Michelle Remembers became a best-seller, generally accepted as fact, and was followed by a number of similar books that were cynical examples of fiction masquerading as fact.

But throughout the 1990s, academic psychologists began to show that false memories can be induced readily, especially with hypnotic-like techniques. Sociologists and criminologists found no objective evidence for organized ritual abuse on anything like the scale implied by the frequency of allegations, and investigative journalists uncovered inconsistencies and fabrications in widely publicized stories. A succession of high-profile court cases dissolved under judicial examination for lack of adequate evidence, and public hysteria about widespread ritual abuse turned to outrage at the apparent false accusations and the harm caused to the families involved.

Overall, the credibility of psychotherapists and social workers suffered profoundly. In this there is no comfort for the victims of actual abuse, or for those disturbed individuals with false memories, many of whom may be victims of real abuse if not abuse as they remember it. The therapeutic challenge remains; how to heal those who believe themselves to be victims of abuse, whether or not those beliefs are founded in fact. Those people, regardless of the objective causes, have real pain that deserves to be treated.

The origins of a "moral panic"

Some psychotic murderers have called themselves Satanists, and some people sexually abuse children using rituals and perhaps references to the Devil to manipulate them. There are also some "pseudo-satanic" juvenile delinquents. However, in the late 1980s, widespread media accounts portrayed Satanism as a worldwide conspiracy behind such crimes as child sexual abuse, ritual murder, and cattle mutilation [7], precipitating what has been called a "moral panic". [8]

These claims started to appear rather suddenly; the first "survivor" account was published in 1980 in the best selling book, Michelle Remembers, after which accusations spread rapidly in the USA during the early 1980s and then declined again during the early 1990s.[9] Michelle Remembers was originally published as a factual account of her life; the book stated that "the source material was scrutinized" and that "Satanism has apparently existed there for many years"[10] Several subsequent investigations by journalists concluded that her accounts were fictional[11], although apparently they are still believed by some recovered memory therapists [12]

Soon after its publication, there were a series of highly publicized cases, including one about a "sex ring" in Kern County, California[13], and the McMartin Preschool case. These cases typically involved allegations by preschool children that they had been abused by day-care workers in bizarre scenarios with Satanic or ritualistic overtones. The allegations in the McMartin case led to the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history, but to no convictions, and subsequent analysis of interview techniques led to the recognition that suggestive questioning could readily lead children to make false accusations. [14]

In addition, therapists in the 1980s reported a flood of accounts of cases of multiple personality disorder in which the person had memories of involvement in a destructive Satanic cult[15] [16] but objective validation of these memories was seldom forthcoming, and in several cases collateral history proved that the claims of ritual abuse were false. [17] Some have blamed irresponsible journalistic coverage of issues relating to child abuse for spreading unfounded fears [18]

No law enforcement agency or research study has found the kind of physical evidence needed to support accounts of SRA. In 1994, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service of the UK estimated that 242 cases of organized abuse occur each year in the UK, of which about 21 involve allegations of ritual or satanic abuse. Thus, organized abuse accounts for only a small minority of all cases handled by child protection teams, and no evidence was found that the sexual and physical abuse of children was part of rites directed to a magical or religious objective. In the three substantiated cases of ritual, not satanic, abuse, the ritual was secondary to the sexual abuse. [19]

In 1990, the state of Utah set up a task force to report on ritual abuse. The report, published in 1992, noted that an opinion poll had found that 90 percent of Utah citizens believed that ritualistic sex abuse was occurring and that 68 percent supported more money being spent on investigating it. The report conceded that hard evidence was scarce, explaining that survivors reported that such groups were skilled at destroying evidence of their crimes. What we do have, said the report, is the evidence reported by the victims themselves. Other supposed 'evidence' included the book Michelle Remembers, which was cited in the bibliography as fact [20].

The report also stated that there had been "successful prosecution of child abuse which contain indisputable elements of ritual abuse." This was contradicted by Kenneth Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent, Behavioral Science Unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Federal Bureau of Investigation who detailed the consistent lack of evidence supporting these allegations in the USA.[21]

False accusations in the midst of panic

Throughout the 1980s in the UK, some social workers came to believe child sex abuse was common, and that it could explain children's behavioural disorders. Several high profile cases of alleged ritual abuse were brought to courts, but the cases collapsed accompanied by trenchant criticism of police and social workers' willingness to believe allegations unsupported by solid evidence [22] The last high profile case was in 1991, when five boys and four girls, aged between eight and 15, were taken from their homes on South Ronaldsay, one of the Orkney Islands off the North West coast of Scotland. The children were removed by police and social workers in a dawn raid on February 1991, and taken to foster parents. The raid was organized after social workers questioned members of another family, whose father had been jailed for sexual abuse; this questioning led them to suspect the existence of a child sex ring and ritual abuse. The children, however, denied that any abuse had occurred (and were continuing to deny it fifteen years later[23]), but their denials were not believed by the social workers. The local community organized a public meeting to demand the return of the children to their homes; after two months, Sheriff David Kelbie ordered the children be returned, as there was no evidence against their parents. He said that the handling of the case by social workers had been fundamentally flawed and that the children had been subjected to cross-examinations designed to make them admit to being abused.[24]

Reviewing the rise and fall of the Satanic ritual abuse panic, University of New Hampshire historian David Frankfurter in his award-winning book Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History, argued that demonic conspiracies and satanic ritual abuse are simply myths of evil conspiracies that provide societies an excuse for bullying those who are already considered suspect; he also argued that those seeking to purge demonic conspiracies have done more violence than the devotees of those so-called evil groups.[25]

Belief in widespread ritual abuse

Although campaign groups for victims of abuse claim that there is some objective evidence to support the accounts of alleged survivors, most academic commentators have concluded that the evidence for a vast Satanist conspiracy or extensive networks of "ritual abuse" practitioners is at best flimsy. While there are cases where psychotic abusers used Satanic symbols, there is dispute as to whether there have been any cases in which Satanic belief systems have contributed to any abuse. [26] The issue is hard to resolve objectively because of difficulties in diagnosis - behaviors that may be mistaken for ritual abuse include repetitive psychopathological abuse, sexual abuse by pedophiles, child pornography portraying ritual abuse, distorted memory, false memory, false report due to a severe mental disorder, pseudologia phantastica, adolescent behavior simulating ritual abuse, epidemic hysteria, deliberate lying, and hoaxes.[27]Children who have experienced extreme abuse develop coping strategies that include anxiety, denial, self-hypnosis, dissociation, and self-mutilation, and nurses who care for such children recognize that some of their reports must be discounted as false memories because they emerge from fantasy, distortions, innocent deceptions, false beliefs, lies, or adult coaching.[28]

Doubting the literal truth of the testimony of alleged victims of abuse does not imply deliberate deception. When people claim to recall past-life experiences, or UFO alien contact and abduction, as many people have done, it is possible that they have imagined the entire complex scenarios and later defined them as memories of actual events. Such fantasy events can be elicited under hypnotic procedures and structured interviews that include strong, repeated demands for the requisite experiences and that then legitimize the experiences as "real memories." Skeptics of SRA allegations suspect that the evidence of alleged victims often involves similar false memories [29], although some have questioned whether false memories of truly traumatic events can be easily created. It has been suggested that false memories of SRA are particularly likely in disturbed patients who either are Christian fundamentalists or who have therapists who are, and who believe in a literal Satan, at a time when the popular media abound with such stories of satanic abuse.[30]

In 1996, a survey of clinical members of the American Psychological Association showed that only a minority of clinical psychologists had encountered ritual cases. Of those that had, most believed their clients' claims, although the evidence for the allegations, especially in cases reported by adults claiming to have suffered the abuse during childhood, was questionable. [31] Most experts have concluded that many, if not most, memories of child sexual abuse recovered in adulthood are not a true reflection of history [32] Nevertheless, some psychotherapists believe that there are tens of thousands of survivors of ritual abuse in the U.S.A. Valerie Sinason, a psychotherapist and founder of the Clinic for Dissociative Studies in the UK is one who believes her clients: "the crimes I'm talking about are cannibalism, induced abortions for the purpose of murder and cannibalism, necrophilia, bestiality, anal, vaginal and oral abuse, and murder. Those crimes are in addition to the severe kinds of grievous bodily harm and everything else that people know about: eating sh*t, drinking blood, drinking urine, they make people feel sick, eating spiders, being put in coffins for long hours with spiders and snakes. They are all things that stir up archetypes, which is why they are used, of course. Those kind of crimes are pretty unbearable ones to hear about. You are hearing about those all the time."[33] [34]

Modern Satanism

Those who do believe that ritual abuse is a widespread hidden problem disagree about whether Satanist belief systems have any role in it. Gould, whose paper on ritual abuse said "The evidence is rapidly accumulating that the problem of ritual abuse is considerable in scope and extremely grave in its consequences," only addressed Satanism with the comment "While ritual abuse is certainly an integral part of some kinds of Satanism, it is most likely that the deeper reason for the prevalence of ritual abuse is that, simply put, it reliably creates a group of people who function as unpaid slaves to the perpetrator group."[35] On the other hand, the sociologist Stephen Kent believes that intergenerational satanic accounts are plausible and that rituals may come from a deviant interpretation of religious texts.[36]

'Modern Satanism' has attracted some attention from academics who are interested in religious cults [37]. The "Church of Satan" was formed in 1966 by Anton LaVey, who codified the beliefs and practices of the early Church in The Satanic Bible [38]; it is an adaptation of the views of non-Satanic occultists such as Aleister Crowley, and is founded in a secular world view which emphasises man's animal nature. In opposition to Abrahamic religion, it denies supernatural spirituality and the legitimacy of morality derived from superstitious beliefs, and celebrates pride, vengefulness and avarice as virtues, and regards conformity and obedience as vices. Some of LaVey's successors in the Church of Satan have come to regard The Satanic Bible as a diabolically inspired quasi-scriptural text, and theistic Satanists, like many Christians, affirm the reality of Satan. Although most contemporary Satanists are not members of the Church of Satan, most are inspired by LaVey's writings.[39]

Changing terminology

While the reports of the 1980s used the term "Satanic", some have suggested that it is inaccurate or overly dramatic and prefer to use the terms "ritual abuse", "sadistic abuse", and "sexual abuse". Unquestionably, sadism, which is not specific to child abuse or even nonconsensuality, is a well-recognized term, deriving from the Marquis de Sade. The other terms, while not precisely defined, are commonly used in broader anthropological contexts.

Not all cults are Satanic, and not all sadism is ritualistic or even a group activity. Whether or not a given ritual is abusive is also dependent on context: eating pork is commonplace to billions of people, while forcing a devout Muslim or Jew to eat pork would be abusive. Some cultures believe male circumcision or female genital mutilation are quite appropriate, and neither Christianity or Satanism may have anything to do with their beliefs.

Some authors, notably Jean Goodwin, have suggested substituting "sadistic" for "satanic" in the ongoing legal process.[40] In the book Satan's Silence, Nathan and Snedeker state Goodwin said that the change would (their quote) "reinforce adults' and children's claims for various reasons.[41] Firstly, whereas accounts of satanic ritual abuse posited behavior that criminologists and the public had never heard of, the term sadist has been widely applied to historical precedents, including to Caligula, the Spanish Inquisition, Jack the Ripper and John Gacey. There were, however, differences between the general patterns of serial killers and the cases under discussion:

  • Serial killers usually murder their victims quickly [with notable exceptions]— they do not allow them to leave and return over prolonged periods
  • Criminal sadists are usually loners; gangs of perpetrators, as alleged in ritual abuse accounts, are very rare. However, sometimes they recruit a partner, and some sociopathic authoritarians such as Charles Manson have directed several people.
  • Criminal sexual sadists have been men, rather than the women frequently accused of satanic ritual abuse.


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