Satanic ritual abuse
(SRA, sometimes known as ritual
abuse, ritualistic abuse,
organised abuse, sadistic abuse
and other variants) refers to a moral
panic that originated in the United States in the 1980s, spreading throughout the country and
eventually to many parts of the world, before subsiding in the late
Allegations of SRA involved reports of physical
of individuals in the context of occult
or Satanic rituals
. At its most extreme definition, SRA involved
a world-wide conspiracy
the wealthy and powerful of the world elite in which children were
abducted or bred for sacrifices, pornography and
Nearly every aspect of SRA was controversial
, including its definition, the
source of the allegations, proof, testimonials of alleged victims,
court cases involving the allegations and criminal investigations.
The panic impacted how legal, therapeutic and social work
professions dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse.
Allegations initially brought together widely dissimilar groups,
including religious fundamentalists, police investigators, child
advocates, therapists and clients in psychotherapy. The movement
gradually secularized, dropping or deprecating the "satanic"
aspects of the allegations in favor of names that were less overtly
religious such as "sadistic" or simply "ritual abuse" and becoming
more associated with dissociative identity
and government conspiracy theories.
The panic was based on reports from children and adults using
therapeutic and questioning techniques now considered illegitimate,
with initial publicity generated by the discredited autobiography
sustained and popularized by the McMartin preschool trial
Testimonials, symptom lists, rumors and techniques to investigate
or uncover memories of SRA were disseminated through professional,
popular and religious conferences, as well as through the attention
of sensationalist talk shows
and spreading the moral panic further throughout the United States
and beyond. In some cases allegations resulted in criminal trials
with varying results; after seven years in court, the iconic
McMartin trial resulted in no convictions for any accused, while
other cases resulted in lengthy sentences. Scholarly interest in
the topic slowly built, eventually resulting in the conclusion that
the phenomenon was a moral panic. Official investigations produced
no evidence of conspiracies or the slaughter of thousands of babies
and children in bloody sacrifices. In the latter half of the 1990s
interest in SRA declined and skepticism
became the default position, with only a minority of believers
giving any credence to the existence of SRA.
The SRA panic repeated many of the features of historical moral
panics and conspiracy theories such as the blood libel against Jews
in the 30s AD,Nathan & Snedeker
, 1995, p. 31. Christians
in the Roman empire
, later allegations of a Jewish conspiracy
alleging the killing of Christian babies
desecration of the Eucharist
, the witch hunt
of the 16th
and 17th centuries. A more immediate precedent to the context of
the United States was the 1950s McCarthyism
. Allegations of horrific acts by
outsider groups, literally the worst imaginable including
cannibalism, child murder, torture and incestuous orgies, may have
served as a form of Othering
groups, as well scapegoating
simple explanations to complex problems in times of social
disruption. Torture and imprisonment were used by authority figures
to coerce confessions from alleged satanists, confessions that were
later used to justify their execution. Records of these older
allegations were linked by contemporary proponents in an effort to
demonstrate the contemporary satanic cults were part of an ancient
conspiracy of evil.
The underpinnings for the contemporary moral panic were found in a
rise of five factors in the years leading up to the 1980s - the
establishment of Fundamentalist
and political organization of the Moral Majority
; the rise of the Anti-cult movement
which spread ideas of
abusive and brainwashing cults
children and teens; the
appearance of the Church of Satan
and other explicitly satanic groups that added a kernel of truth to
the existence of satanic cults; the appearance of the child abuse industry
and a group of
professionals dedicated to the protection of children; and the
appearance of posttraumatic stress disorder
Michelle Remembers and the McMartin preschool
In 1980 the book, Michelle
, written by Michelle Smith and
, was published. The book, now discredited
written as an autobiography
the first known claim linking the abuse of children with satanic
rituals. It provided a model for allegations of SRA that followed.
, along with others portrayed as
survivor stories, are suspected to have influenced later
allegations of SRA and some have argued the book was a causal
factor in the later epidemic of SRA allegations. In the early 1980s,
during the implementation of mandatory reporting laws there was an
exponential increase in child protection investigations in America, Britain and other
developed countries and an increased public awareness of child abuse.
The investigation of incest
allegations in California was also changed, with cases led by
using leading and
coercive interviewing techniques avoided by police investigators,
and alterations to the prosecution of these cases that resulted in
a greater number of confessions in exchange for plea bargains
from fathers. Shortly thereafter
some children in child protection cases began making allegations of
horrific physical and sexual abuse by caregivers within organized
rituals, disclosing sexual abuse in satanic rituals and the use of
satanic iconography, garnering the label "satanic ritual abuse" in
the media and among professionals. Childhood memories of similar
abuse began to appear in the psychotherapy
sessions of adults.
charges were laid in the McMartin preschool trial, a major
case in California, which received attention throughout the United
States, and contained allegations of satanic ritual abuse.
The case caused tremendous polarization in how to interpret the
evidence that was available and shortly after more than a hundred
preschools across the country had similar sensationalist
allegations eagerly and uncritically reported by the press.
Throughout the trial the media coverage against the defendants
(Peggy McMartin and Ray Buckey) was unrelentingly negative,
focusing only on statements by the prosecution and continuing
throughout the trial. Smith and other alleged survivors met with
parents involved in the trial and it is believed that they
influenced testimony against the accused.
, a social worker
employed by the Children's Institute
, developed a new way to interrogate children with
anatomically correct dolls
and tested their use in assisting disclosures of abuse with the
McMartin children. With the dolls and leading questions she
diagnosed sexual abuse in virtually all McMartin children, and
coerced disclosures using lengthy interviews which rewarded
discussions of abuse and punished denials; testimony during the
trial was often contradictory and vague on all details except for
the assertion that the abuse had occurred. Though the initial
charges featured bizarre allegations of satanic abuse, these
features were dropped relatively early in the trial and prosecution
continued only for non-ritual allegations of child abuse. After
three years of testimony, McMartin and Buckey were acquitted on 52
of 65 counts, and the jury was deadlocked on the remaining 13
charges against Buckey with eleven of thirteen jurors choosing not
guilty. Buckey was re-charged and two years later released without
In 1984 MacFarlane warned a congressional committee of scatological
behavior and animals being
slaughtered in bizarre rituals which children were forced to
watch.Shortly after the United
doubled its budget for child-protection
programs. Psychiatrist Roland Summit delivered conferences in the
wake of the McMartin trial and depicted the phenomenon as a
, suggesting that
people skeptical of SRA were part of the conspiracy.Nathan & Snedeker
, 1995, p. 102-3. By 1986
Carol Darling, a social worker, argued in a grand jury
that the conspiracy reached the
government. Brad Darling, her husband, gave conferences about a
satanic conspiracy of great antiquity, now permeating American
communities. By the late 1980s therapists or patients who believed
someone had suffered from SRA could suggest solutions that included
Christian psychotherapy, exorcism
self-identified as "anti-Satanic warriors." Federal funding was
increased for research on child abuse, with large portions of the
funding going towards child sexual abuse. Funding was also provided
for conferences supporting the idea of SRA, adding a veneer of
respectability to the idea as well as offering an opportunity for
prosecutors to exchange advice on how to best secure convictions
(with tactics including the destruction of notes, refusing to tape
interviews with children and destroying or refusing to share
evidence with the defense). Had proof been found, SRA would have
represented the first occasion where an organized and secret
criminal activity had been discovered by mental health
professionals. In 1987, Geraldo
produced a national television special on the alleged
secret cults, claiming "Estimates are that there are over one
million Satanists in [the United States and they are] linked in a
highly organized, secretive network." Tapings of this and similar
talk show episodes were subsequently used by religious fundamentalists
, social workers
and police to promote the idea
that a conspiracy of satanic cults existed and were involved in
Religious roots and secularization
Initial accusations were made in the context of conservative Christianity
religious fundamentalists were enthusiastic in promoting rumors of
SRA. Psychotherapists who were actively Christian began advocating
for the diagnosis of dissociative identity
(DID) and soon after accounts similar to Michelle
began to appear, with some therapists believing the
alters of some patients were the result of demonic possession
. Protestantism was
instrumental in starting, spreading and maintaining rumours through
sermons about the dangers of SRA, lectures by purported experts and
prayer sessions, including showings of the 1987 Geraldo Rivera
television special. Secular proponents began to appear, and child
protection workers became significantly involved. As the
explanations for SRA were distanced from evangelical
Christianity and into the realm
of "survivor" groups, the motivations ascribed to purported
satanists shifted from combating a religious nemesis to mind
control and abuse as an end to itself. Clinicians, psychotherapists
and social workers documented clients alleging histories of SRA
though the claims of therapists were unsubstantiated beyond the
testimonies of their clients.
In 1987 a list of 'indicators' was published by Catherine Gould,
featuring a broad array of vague symptoms that were ultimately
common, non-specific and subjective, capable of diagnosing SRA in
most young children. By the late 1980s allegations began to appear
throughout the world (including Canada, Australia, the United
Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Scandinavia), in part
enabled by English as a common international language and in at
least the United Kingdom assisted by Gould's list of
- In 1986, the largest symposia on child abuse in history was
held in Australia, with vocal SRA advocates Kee MacFarlane, Roland
Summit, Astrid Heppenstall
Heger and David Finkelhor
invited to give addresses.
- In 1987 writings on the phenomenon appeared in the United
Kingdom along with incidents featuring broadly similar accusations
such as the Cleveland
child abuse scandal; allegations of
SRA in Nottingham resulted in the 'British McMartin', advised
in part by the British journalist Tim Tate's sensationalist work on
the subject. Along with the list of indicators, American conference
speakers, pamphlets, source materials, consultants, vocabulary
regarding SRA and allegedly funding were imported, which promoted
in the identification and counseling of British SRA allegations.
The Nottingham investigation resulted in criminal charges of severe
child abuse that ultimately had nothing to do with satanic rituals,
and was criticized for focusing on the irrelevant and non-existent
satanic aspects of the allegations at the expense of the severe
conventional abuse endured by the children.
- In 1989, San Francisco police detective Sandi Gallant gave an
interview with a newspaper in the United Kingdom. At the same time,
several other therapists toured the country giving talks on SRA,
and shortly thereafter SRA cases occurred in Orkney, Rochdale, London and Nottingham.
- In 1992 charges were laid in the Martensville satanic sex
scandal; charges were overturned in 1995 on the grounds of
improper interviewing of the children.
- A wave of SRA accusations appeared in New Zealand in 1991, and
in Norway in 1992.
- In 1998 Jean LaFontaine produced a book indicating allegations
of SRA in the United Kingdom were sparked by investigations
supervised by social workers who had taken SRA seminars in the
Skepticism, rejection and contemporary existence
Media coverage of SRA began to turn negative by 1987, and the
"panic" ended between 1992 and 1995. By 2003 allegations of ritual
abuse were met with great skepticism and belief in SRA is no longer
considered mainstream in professional circles.
critics of the SRA diagnoses
maintained that, in the course of attempting to purge society of
evil, the panic of the 1980s and 1990s obscured real child abuse
issues, a concern echoed by Gary Clapton. In England the SRA panic
diverted resources and attention from proven cases of abuse and
resulted in a hierarchy of abuse in which SRA was the most serious
form of abuse with physical and sexual abuse being minimized,
marginalized and "mere" physical abuse no longer worthy of
intervention. In addition, as attention towards SRA turned
negative, the focus by social workers on SRA resulted in a large
loss of credibility to the profession. SRA, with its sensational
makeup of many victims abused by many victimizers, ended up robbing
the far more common and proven issue of incest
of much of its larger significance to society.
The National Center for Abuse and Neglect devised the term religious abuse
to describe exorcisms
drownings of children in non-satanic religious settings in order to
avoid confusion with SRA. A small number of individuals still
believe there is credence to allegations of SRA and continue to
discuss the topic.
Publications by Cathy O'Brien
SRA were the result of government programs (specifically the
's Project MKULTRA
-style mind control
young children were picked up by conspiracy theorists
, linking belief in
SRA with claims of government conspiracies.
The term "satanic ritual abuse" is used to describe different
behaviors, actions and allegations that lie between extremes of
definitions. In 1988, a nation wide study of sexual abuse
in U.S. day care agencies, led by David
Finkelhor, put forth a three-fold typology to describe "ritual
abuse" — cult-based ritualism in which the abuse had a spiritual or
social goal for the perpetrators, pseudo-ritualism in which the
goal was sexual gratification and the rituals were used to frighten
or intimidate victims, and psychopathological ritualism in which the
rituals were due to mental
Subsequent investigators have expanded on
these definitions and also pointed to a fourth alleged type of
satanic ritual abuse, in which petty crimes with ambiguous meaning
(such as graffiti
) generally committed by teenagers were
attributed to the actions of satanic cults.
By the early 1990s, the phrase "satanic ritual abuse" was featured
in media coverage of ritualistic abuse but its use decreased among
professionals in favour of more nuanced terms such as
multi-dimensional child sex rings, ritual/ritualistic abuse,
organised abuse or sadistic abuse, some of which acknowledged the
complexity of abuse cases with multiple perpetrators and victims
without projecting a religious framework onto perpetrators. The
latter in particular failed to substantively improve on or replace
"satanic" abuse as it was never used to describe any rituals except
the satanic ones that were the core of SRA allegations. Abuse
within the context of Christianity, Islam or any other religions
failed to enter the SRA discourse.
Conclusions on the origins of allegations of cult-based abuse can
include actual abuse by organized groups, pseudosatanism,
distortions and false memories, mental illness resulting in false
reporting, deliberate lying or hoaxes and in the cases of child
testimonies, allegations may be artifacts of the questioning
techniques used, and TV special broadcasts.
Allegations of cult-based abuse is the most extreme scenario of
SRA. During the initial period of interest starting in the early
80s the term was used to describe a network of Satan
-worshipping, secretive intergenerational cults
that were supposedly part of a highly organized conspiracy
engaged in criminal behaviors
such as forced prostitution
, drug distribution
. These cults were also thought to
sexually abuse and torture
children in order
to coerce them into a lifetime of Devil worship
Other allegations included bizarre sexual acts such as necrophilia
, forced ingestion of semen
liturgical parody such as pseudosacramental use of feces and urine;
, sacrificial abortions to
and human sacrifice
; satanic police officers who
covered up evidence of SRA crimes and desecration of Christian
. No evidence of any of these
claims has ever been found; the proof presented by those who
alleged the reality of cult-based abuse primarily consisted of the
memories of adults recalling childhood abuse, the testimony of
young children and extremely controversial confessions. The idea of
a murderous satanic conspiracy created a controversy dividing the
professional child abuse
the time, though no evidence has been found to support allegations
of a large number of children being killed or abused in satanic
rituals. From a law enforcement perspective, an intergenerational
conspiracy dedicated to ritual sacrifice whose members remain
completely silent, make no mistakes and leave no physical evidence
is unlikely; cases of
what the media incorrectly perceived as actual cult sacrifices
(such as the 1989 case of Adolfo
) have supported this idea.
Satanic ritual abuse is also used to describe the actions of
"pseudo-satanists" who sexually abuse
children and use the trappings of satanic rituals and claims of
magical powers to coerce and terrify victims but do not believe in
the rituals. A survey of more than 12,000 SRA allegations, which
found no substantiating evidence for an intergenerational
conspiracy, did document several examples of abuse by
Criminal and delusional satanism
A third variation of ritual abuse involves non-religious ritual
abuse in which the rituals were delusional
are incidents of extreme sadistic crimes that are committed by
individuals, loosely organized families and possibly in some
organized cults, some of which may be connected to Satanism, though
this is more likely to be related to sex ring trafficking; though
SRA may happen in families, extended families and regional groups,
it is not believed to occur in large, organized groups.
Ambiguous crimes in which actual or erroneously believed symbols of
satanism appear have also been claimed as part of the SRA
phenomenon, though in most cases the crimes cannot be linked to a
specific belief system; minor crimes such as vandalism, trespassing
and graffiti were often found to be the actions of teenagers who
were acting out.
There was never any consensus on what actually constituted satanic
ritual abuse. This lack of a single definition, as well as
confusion between the meanings of the term ritual (religious
) allowed a wide range of
allegations and evidence to be claimed as a demonstration of the
reality of SRA claims, irrespective of which "definition" the
evidence supported. Acrimonious disagreements between groups who
supported the reality of SRA allegations and those criticizing them
as unsubstantiated resulted in an extremely polarized discussion
with little middle ground. The lack of credible evidence for the
more extreme interpretations can be seen as evidence of an
effective conspiracy rather than an indication that the allegations
are unfounded. The atheistic or religious beliefs of the disputants
have also resulted in different interpretations of evidence, and as
well as accusations of those who reject the claims being
"anti-child". Both believers and skeptics have developed networks
to disseminate information on their respective positions. One of
the central themes of the discussion among English child abuse
professionals was the assertion that people should simply "believe
the children", and that the testimony of children was sufficient
proof, which ignored the fact that in many cases the testimony of
children was interpreted by professionals rather than the children
explicitly disclosing allegations of abuse. In some cases this was
simultaneously presented with the idea that it did not matter if
SRA actually existed, that the empirical truth of SRA was
irrelevant, that the testimony of children was more important than
that of doctors, social workers and the criminal justice
The evidence for SRA was primarily in the form of testimonies from
children who made allegations of SRA, and adults who claim to
remember abuse during childhood, that may have been forgotten and
recovered during therapy
With both children and adults, no corroborating evidence has been
found for anything except pseudosatanism
in which the satanic and
ritual aspects were secondary to and used as a cover for sexual
abuse. Despite this lack of objective evidence, and aided by the
competing definitions of what SRA actually was, proponents claimed
SRA was a real phenomenon throughout the peak and during the
decline of the moral panic. Despite allegations appearing in the
United States, Holland, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia, no
material evidence has been found to corroborate allegations of
organized cult-based abuse that practices human sacrifice and
For several years, a conviction list assembled by the Believe the
Children advocacy group was circulated as proof of the truth of
satanic ritual abuse allegations. though the organization itself no
longer exists and the list itself is "egregiously out of
Two investigations were carried out to assess the evidence for SRA.
In the United States, evidence was reported but was based on a
flawed methodology with an overly liberal definition of a
substantiated case. In the United Kingdom, a government report
produced no evidence of SRA, but several examples of false
satanists faking rituals to frighten their victims.
investigation of child sexual abuse in daycares in the United
States, and published a report in 1988. The report found 270 cases
of sexual abuse, of which 36 were classified as substantiated cases
of ritual abuse. Mary de Young
pointed out that the report's definition of "substantiated" was
overly-liberal as it required only that one agency had decided that
abuse had occurred, even if no action were taken, no arrests made,
no operating licenses suspended. In addition, multiple agencies may have
been involved in each case (including the FBI, local police, social services agencies and
childhood protective services in many cases), with wide differences
in suspicion and confirmation, often in disagreement with each
Finkelhor, upon receiving a "confirmation", would
collect information from whoever was willing or interested to
provide it and did not independently investigate the cases,
resulting in frequent errors in their conclusions. No data is
provided beyond case studies and brief summaries. Three other cases
considered corroborating by the public —the McMartin preschool trial, a
pre-school in Country Walk, Florida and the
murders in Matamoros, by Adolfo
Constanzo— ultimately provided failed to support the existence
The primary witness in the Country Walk case
repeatedly made, then withdrew accusations against her husband amid
unusual and coercive inquiries by her lawyer and a psychologist.
The Matamoros murders produced the bodies of 12 adults who were
ritually sacrificed by a drug gang inspired by the film
, but did not
involve children or sexual abuse. The McMartin case resulted in no
convictions and was ultimately based on accusations by children
with no proof beyond their coerced testimonies. A 1996
investigation of more than 12,000 allegations of satanic, ritual
and religious abuse resulted in no cases that were considered
factual or corroborated.
A British study published in 1996 found 62 cases of alleged ritual
abuse reported to researchers by police, social and welfare
agencies from the period of 1988 to 1991, representing a tiny
proportion of extremely high profile cases compared to the total
number investigated by the agencies. Anthropologist Jean La
Fontaine spent several years researching ritual abuse cases in
Britain at the behest of the government. Producing several reports
and the 1998 book Speak of the Devil
, after reviewing
cases reported to police and children's protecitve services
throughout the country La Fontaine concluded that the only rituals
he uncovered were those invented by child abusers to frighten their
victims or justify the sexual abuse. In addition, the sexual abuse
occurred outside of the rituals, indicating the goal of the abuser
was sexual gratification rather than ritualistic or religious. In
cases involving satanic abuse, the satanic allegations by younger
children were influenced by adults, and the concerns over the
satanic aspects were found to be compelling due to cultural
attraction of the concept, but distracting from the actual harm
caused to the abuse victims.
The majority of adult testimonials occurred as a result of adults
undergoing psychotherapy, in most cases therapy designed to elicit
memories of SRA. Therapists claimed the pain expressed by the
patients, internal consistency of their stories and similarity of
allegations by different patients was evidence for SRA, but despite
this, the disclosures of patients never resulted in any
corroboration; Allegations of alleged victims that were obtained
from mental health practitioners lacked verifiable evidence, were
and involved incidents
that were years or decades old. The concern for therapists revolved
around the pain of their clients, which is for them more important
than the truth of their patients' statements. A sample of 29
patients in a medical clinic reporting SRA found no corroboration
of the claims in medical records or in discussion with family
members. and a survey of 2709 American therapists found the
majority of allegations of SRA came from only sixteen therapists,
suggesting that the determining factor in a patient making
allegations of SRA was the therapist's predisposition.
In cases where patients made claims that were physically
impossible, or evidence found by police was contradictory, the
details reported will often change. If patients pointed to a spot
where a body was buried, but no body was found and no earth was
disturbed, therapists resort to special
, saying the patient was hypnotically programmed to
direct investigators to the wrong location, or that they were
fooled by the cult into believing a crime was not committed. If
alleged bodies were cremated and police point out ordinary fires
are inadequate to completely destroy a body, stories include
special industrial furnaces. The patients' allegations change and
creatively find "solutions" to objections.
The second group to make allegations of SRA were young children.
During the 'satanic panic' of the 1980s, the techniques used by
investigators to gather evidence from witnesses, particularly young
children, evolved to become very leading, coercive and suggestive,
pressuring young children to provide testimony and refusing to
accept denials while offering inducements that encouraged false
disclosures. The interviewing techniques used were the factors
believed to have led to the construction of the bizarre disclosures
of SRA by the children.
As a moral panic
SRA has been described as a moral panic
and compared to the blood libel
of historical Europe
, and McCarthyism
the United States during the 20th century. The initial
investigations of SRA were performed by anthropologists and
sociologists, who failed to find evidence of SRA actually
occurring; instead they concluded that SRA was a result of rumors
and folk legends
that were spread by "media
hype, Christian fundamentalism, mental health and law enforcement
professionals and child abuse advocates." Sociologists and
journalists noted the vigorous nature with which some evangelical
activists and groups were using claims of SRA to further their
religious and political goals. Other commentators suggested that
the entire phenomenon may be evidence of a moral panic over
Satanism and child abuse. Skeptical explanations for allegations of
SRA have included an attempt by "radical feminists"
to undermine the
, a backlash against
working women, homophobic attacks on gay childcare workers, a
universal need to believe in evil, fear of alternative
spiritualities, "end of the millennium" anxieties, or a transient
form of temporal lobe epilepsy.
Victor points out that in the United States the groups most likely
to believe rumours of SRA are rural, poorly educated religiously
conservative Protestant blue-collar
families with an
unquestioning belief in American values
significant anxieties over job loss, economic decline and family
disintegration. He considers rumours of SRA a symptom of a moral
crisis and form of scapegoating
economic and social ills.
Origins of the rumors
Information about SRA claims spread through conferences presented
to religious groups, churches and professionals such as police
forces and therapists as well as parents. These conferences and
presentations served to organize agencies and foster communication
between groups, maintaining and spreading disproven or exaggerated
stories as fact. Members of local police forces organized into
loose networks focused on cult crimes, some of whom billed
themselves as "experts" and were paid to speak at conferences
throughout the United States. Religious revivalists also took
advantage of the rumours and preached about the dangers of Satanism
to youth and presenting at paid engagements as secular experts. At
the height of the panic, the highly emotional accusations and
circumstances of SRA allegations made it difficult to investigate
the claims, with the accused being assumed as guilty and skeptics
becoming co-accused during trials, and trials moving forward based
solely on the testimony of very young children without
corroborating evidence. No forensic
or corroborating evidence has
ever been found for religiously-based cannibalistic or murderous
SRA, despite extensive investigations. The concern and reaction
expressed by various groups regarding the seriousness or threat of
SRA has been considered out of proportion to the actual threat by
satanically-motivated crimes, and the rare crime that exists that
may be labeled "satanic" does not justify the existence of a
conspiracy or network of religiously-motivated child abusers.
Jeffrey Victor reviewed 67 rumours about SRA in the United States
and Canada reported in newspapers or television, and found no
evidence supporting the existence of murderous satanic cults.
states that cases of alleged SRA investigated in the United Kingdom were reviewed in detail and the majority were
unsubstantiated; three were found to involve sexual abuse of
children in the context of rituals, but none involved the Witches' Sabbath or devil-worship that are
characteristic of allegations of SRA.
Lafontaine also states
that no material evidence has been forthcoming in allegations of
SRA, no bones, bodies or blood, in either the United States or
Kenneth Lanning, an expert in the investigation of child sexual
abuse, has stated that pseudo-satanism may exist but there is no
proof for vast conspiracies and human sacrifices.
There are many possible alternative answers to the
question of why victims are alleging things that don't seem to be
true....I believe that there is a middle ground — a continuum of
Some of what the victims allege may be true and
accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be
screened or symbolic, and some may be "contaminated" or
The problem and challenge, especially for law
enforcement, is to determine which is which.
This can only be done through active
I believe that the majority of victims alleging
"ritual" abuse are in fact
victims of some form of abuse or trauma.
Lanning produced a monograph
in 1994 on
SRA aimed at child protection authorities, which contained his
opinion that despite hundreds of investigations no corroboration of
SRA had been found. Following this report, several convictions
based on SRA allegations were overturned and the defendants
Reported cases of SRA involve bizarre activities, some of which are
impossible (like people flying), that makes the credibility of
victims of child sexual abuse questionable. In cases where SRA is
alleged to occur, Lanning describes common dynamics of the use of
fear to control multiple young victims, the presence of multiple
perpetrators and strange or ritualized behaviors, though
allegations of crimes such as human sacrifice and cannibalism do
not seem to be true. Lanning also suggests several reasons why
adult victims may make allegations of SRA, including "pathological
distortion, traumatic memory, normal childhood fears and fantasies,
misperception, and confusion".
Allegations of SRA have appeared throughout the world. The failure
of certain high-profile legal cases generated worldwide media
attention, and came to play a central feature in the growing
controversies over child abuse, memory and the law.
In one analysis of 36 court cases involving sexual abuse of
children within rituals, only one quarter resulted in convictions
and the convictions had little to do with ritual sex abuse. In a
1994 survey of more than 11,000 psychiatric and police workers
throughout the US, conducted for the National Center on Child Abuse
and Neglect, researchers investigated approximately 12,000
accusations of group cult sexual abuse based on satanic ritual. The
survey found no substantiated reports of well-organized satanic
rings of people who sexually abuse children, but did find incidents
in which the ritualistic aspects were secondary to the abuse and
were used to intimidate victims. Victor reviewed 21 court cases
alleging SRA between 1983 and 1987 in which no prosecutions were
obtained for ritual abuse.
During the early 1980s, some courts attempted ad hoc
accommodations to address the anxieties
of child witnesses in relation to testifying before defendants.
Screens or CCTV
are a common feature of child sexual assault trials today; children
in the early 1980s were typically forced into direct visual contact
with the accused abuser while in court. SRA allegations in the
courts catalyzed a broad agenda of research into the nature of
children's testimony and the reliability of their oral evidence in
court. Ultimately in SRA cases, the coercive techniques used by
believing district attorneys, therapists and police officers were
critical in establishing, and often resolving, SRA cases. In
courts, when juries were able to see recordings or transcripts of
interviews with children, the alleged abusers were acquitted. The
reaction by successful prosecutors, spread throughout conventions
and conferences on SRA, was to destroy, or fail to take notes of
the interviews in the first place. One group of researchers
concluded that children usually lack the sufficient amount of
"explicit knowledge" of satanic ritual abuse to fabricate all of
the details of an SRA claim on their own. However, the same
researchers also concluded that children usually have the
sufficient amount of general knowledge of "violence and the occult"
to "serve as a starting point from which ritual claims could
Dissociative identity disorder
SRA has been linked to dissociative identity
(DID, formerly referred to as multiple personality
disorder or MPD), with many DID patients also alleging cult abuse.
Many DID patients report memories that they allege are forms of
ritual abuse though most are undocumented. The first person to
publish a survivor story about SRA was Michelle Smith, co-author of
Smith was diagnosed by her therapist and later husband Lawrence Pazder
A survey investigating 12,000 cases of alleged SRA found that most
were diagnosed with DID as well as post-traumatic stress
. The level of dissociation
in a sample of women
alleging SRA was found to be higher than a comparable sample of
non-SRA peers, approaching the levels shown by patients diagnosed
with DID. A sample of patients diagnosed with DID and reporting
childhood SRA also present other symptoms including "dissociative
states with satanic overtones, severe post-traumatic stress
disorder, survivor guilt, bizarre self
, unusual fears, sexualization of sadistic impulses,
indoctrinated beliefs, and substance abuse". Commenting on the
study, Philip Coons stated that patients were held together in a
ward dedicated to dissociative disorders with ample opportunity to
socialize, that the memories were recovered through the use of
hypnosis (which he considers questionable). No cases were referred
to law enforcement for verification, nor was verification attempted
through family members,. Coons also pointed out that existing
injuries could have been self-inflicted, that the experiences
reported were "strikingly similar" and that "many of the SRA
reports developed while patients were hospitalized". The
reliability of memories of DID clients who alleged SRA in treatment
has been questioned and a point of contention in the popular media
and with clinicians; many of the allegations made are fundamentally
impossible and alleged surivors lack the physical scars that would
result were their allegations true.
Many women claiming to be SRA survivors have been diagnosed as
sufferers of DID, and it is unclear if their claims of childhood
abuse are accurate or a manifestation of their diagnosis. A
sampling of 29 patients who presented with SRA, 22 were diagnosed
with dissociative disorders including DID. The authors noted that
58% of the SRA claims appeared in the years following the Geraldo
Rivera special on SRA and a further 34% following a workshop on SRA
presented in the area; in only two patients were the memories
elicited without the use of "questionable therapeutic practices for
memory retrieval." Claims of SRA by DID patients have been called
"...often nothing more than fantastic pseudomemories implanted or
reinforced in psychotherapy" and SRA as a cultural script of the
perception of DID. Some believe that memories of SRA are solely
implanted memories from
though this has been criticized by Daniel Brown, Alan Scheflin and
Corydon Hammond for what they argue as over-reaching the scientific
data that supports an iatrogenic theory. Others have criticized
Hammond specifically for using therapeutic techniques to gather
information from clients that rely solely on information fed by the
therapist in a manner that highly suggests iatrogenesis. Skeptics
claimed that the increase in DID diagnosis on the 1980s and 1990s
and its association with memories of SRA is evidence of malpractice
by treating professionals.
Much of the body of literature on the treatment of ritually abused
patients focuses on dissociative disorders.
Some "survivors" have re-evaluated their own allegations of SRA,
believing the memories of satanic ritual abuse were the result
attempt to deal with actual abuse using dissociative processes that
produced false memories.
One explanation for the SRA allegations is that they were based
upon false memories caused by the over-use of hypnosis and other
suggestive techniques by therapists underestimating the
suggestibility of their clients. Advocates of false memory syndrome
controversial term promoted by the False Memory Syndrome
, claim that the purported "memories" of ritual abuse
are actually false memories, created iatrogenically
through suggestion or coercion.
The FMSF has used the idea of ritual abuse as a strategy to
illustrate their position that most allegations of sexual abuse
uncovered by the suggestive techniques used during recovered memory
therapy are false "memories" of events that never happened.
According to Kathleen Faller this has contributed to the
sensationalization of the ritual abuse cases in the media.
Paul R. McHugh
, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University
in his book Try to Remember
the developments that led to
the creation of false memories in the SRA moral panic and the
formation of the FMSF as an effort to bring contemporary scientific
research and political action to the polarizing struggle about
false memories within the mental health disciplines. According to
McHugh, there is no coherent scientific basis for the core belief
of one side of the struggle, that sexual abuse can cause massive
systemic repression of memories that can only be accessed through
hypnosis, coercive interviews and other dubious techniques. The
group of psychiatrists who promoted these ideas, whom McHugh terms
followed a deductive approach
diagnosis in which the theory and causal explanation of symptoms
was assumed to be childhood sexual abuse leading to dissociation,
followed by a set of unproven and unreliable treatments with a
produced the allegations and causes that were assumed to be there.
The treatment approach involved isolation of the patient from
friends and family within psychiatric wards dedicated to the
treatment of dissociation, filled with other patients who were
treated by the same doctors with the same flawed methods and staff
members who also coherently and universally ascribed to the same
set of beliefs. These methods began in the 1980s and continued for
several decades until a series of court cases and medical malpractice
lawsuits resulted in
hospitals failing to support the approach. In cases where the
dissociative symptoms were ignored, the coercive treatment
approached ceased and the patients were removed from dedicated
wards, allegations of satanic rape and abuse normally ceased,
"recovered" memories were identified as fabrications and
conventional treatments for presenting symptoms were generally
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