Satanic Ritual Abuse

views updated Jun 08 2018

Satanic Ritual Abuse

Satanic ritual abuse is narrowly defined as an assault (either psychological, physical, or sexual) that takes place on an individual as part of a liturgy or ordered pattern incorporated into a ceremony of worship aimed at Satan, the Christian devil. As such, ritual abuse is one type of occult-related crime but different from other types of occult crimes such as the adoption of Satanic symbols and language by a serial killer or Satanic ceremonies that include only legal and voluntary activities.

The idea of Satanic ritual abuse was brought to the fore in the 1980s with the publication of a book, Michelle Remembers, which recounted the reputed memories/experiences of Michelle Smith (the pseudonym of Michelle Pazder, the wife of Lawrence Pazder, a psychiatrist and author of the book). The book recounted the story of Michelle's teen years in which she was forced into a Satanic cult, abused, and forced to forget her traumatic experiences. Her memory of the experience only reemerged 20 years later when she underwent psychiatric treatment. It would be followed later in the decade by a growing number of reports of Satanic abuse following the pattern of and expanding upon Michelle's story. These reports were accompanied by additional accounts of contemporary abuse of children by parents in Satanic cults. Graphic accounts of Satanic ritual abuse were supplied in books such as Lauren Stafford's Satan's Underground (1988) and Rebecca Brown's He Came to Set the Captives Free (1993). By the end of the decade, it was apparent that a major wave of concern focused upon the belief in widespread Satanic abuse had emerged. Several cities established agencies to handle the problem.

The belief in Satanic abuse was greatly aided by the McMartin case, in which the teachers and employees of a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were accused of sexually and otherwise abusing the children left in their care. The case began with a letter by the Manhattan Beach police chief to the parents of children who had attended or were currently attending the preschool seeking confirmation that Ray Buckley, who worked at the school, had molested some children. When the letter became public, panic followed. Literally hundreds of children were interviewed at the Children's Institute International, a research facility that specialized in problems of child abuse, and by 1984 the doctors in charge had concluded that some 360 children had been abused over the years. Their report built upon a 1978 paper by Dr. Roland Summit who had argued that children's reports of sexual abuse were almost always factual. The accounts derived from the interviews included incidents of Satanic rituals complete with animal sacrifice and the drinking of blood.

The McMartin case lasted for six years. It was placed in the hands of prosecutor Marcia Clark (later to lose the equally high-profile O. J. Simpson case). The McMartin case fell apart when the videos of the interviews of the children revealed the manner in which interviewers planted the story of abuse in the minds of the children and in some of the factually unsubstantiated statements made by the children. Most important of the unsubstantiated claims from the interviews were the descriptions of an extensive set of tunnels under the school building. No such tunnels were ever found, in spite of the building being dismantled and the lot dug up in several different searches.

The multiplying accounts of ritual abuse began to coalesce into a very new picture of Satanism. They described an extensive Satanic network that had been in place for many decades. This picture contradicted all of the previous work that had basically described Satanism at best as a very small phenomenon on the cultural fringe. This network was seen to be responsible for thousands of kidnappings of infants and children who were then abused or killed. Adult members of these groups would give up infants for sacrifice in a black mass or allow their older children to become the object of rape by the cult. These children would otherwise seemingly lead a normal life, their trauma undetected by their friends and schoolmates, and later assume a normal role in society as an adult. They would only remember the childhood trauma years later under hypnosis or similar techniques used during psychotherapy. As the veracity of the accounts of Satanic ritual abuse was called into question, stories adopted more extreme elements to account for an increasing number of inconsistencies.

In the early 1990s, the expansive hysteria over Satanism was called into question in books by FBI agent Robert Hicks and several sociologists such as James V. Richardson and David Bromley, who specialized in the study of new religious movements. Many psychologists who reviewed these reports along with other similar cases accusing parents of sexual abuse but without the Satanic element concluded that they had been falsely diagnosed. According to the psychologists, the memories were not recovered memories, but imposed memories. These patients were not suffering from their prior abuse; they were victims of a memory disorder called the false memory syndrome. In 1992 many of these psychologists banded together to form the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Also, beginning in 1991, a series of government reports (including reports from England and other areas where abuse reports had surfaced) reached the conclusion that no evidence of the Satanic conspiracy or of widespread Satanic abuse could be found. Controversy peaked through the early 1990s with support for the idea coming mainly from individuals identified as "survivors" of ritual abuse, therapists who were specializing in counseling such survivors, and policemen who were conducting seminars on occult-related crimes. It was noted that much of the support was from therapists and police who were affiliated with conservative Christian churches.

A significant aspect of Satanic ritual abuse was the large number of court cases that arose (as opposed to the UFO abductee cases) in which parents were tried for abusing their children. Convictions were handed down in early cases, but through the 1990s those convictions tended to be reversed and not only were accused parents found not guilty, but civil cases were launched against therapists who testified to the truth of recovered memories of ritual child abuse.

In the midst of the controversy, a series of exposés occurred demonstrating that many prominent exponents of Satanic ritual abuse were in fact lying to an extent that called their entire story into question. These hoaxes included the books by Michelle Smith, Lauren Stafford, Rebecca Brown, and selfconfessed Satanic priest Mike Warnke. While these fictionalized stories did not discredit the large number of reports by survivors who have come to be seen as victims of the false memory syndrome, they did much to quiet the support of the Christian community in the widespread panic over Satanism.

The scholarly attack upon the idea of ritual abuse, the government reports on the lack of evidence for such occurrences, and the court cases directed against exponents of Satanic ritual abuse combined in the late 1990s to destroy the popular wave of interest in Satanic ritual abuse, though for many reasons, religious and otherwise, many believers remain.


Hicks, Robert. In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Nathan, Debbie, and Michael Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Richardson, James V., et al, eds. The Satanism Scare. New York: Alsdine de Gruyter, 1991.

Ross, Colin. Satanic Ritual Abuse: Principles of Treatment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Victor, Jeffrey. Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Chicago: Open Court, 1993.

Satanic Ritual Abuse

views updated May 18 2018

Satanic ritual abuse

Activities such as cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child sexual abuse that are assumed to be carried out by organized underground cults.

In 1984, Newsweek printed a feature article on an "epidemic" of child abuse in day-care settings. During the next 10 years or so, numerous newspaper and magazine articles described criminal trials in which reference was made to sexual abuse , torture, and ritual worship of one kind or another. For example, in 1988 Kelly Michaels was charged with sexually abusing children in her care at a nursery school in New Jersey. On the basis of children's testimony, she was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 different children. In Manhattan Beach, California, seven teachers were accused of abusing hundreds of preschool children over a 10-year period. The case was one of the longest and most expensive trials in California history. There have been numerous cases like these in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. All have involved accusations by children that they had been terrorized, abused, and tortured during strange ceremonies with satanic, ritualistic overtones. Some professional child care workers assumed that the accused perpetrators were members of an organized network of child predators.

What evidence is there to support the belief in an organization of child abusers? One study in Great Britain investigated 84 cases of reported ritualistic abuse involving sexual abuse, murder, bestiality, and torture. In only 3 of the 84 cases was there any material evidence to support the allegations, and none of them entailed witchcraft or Satanism. In the United States, a nationwide study identified more than 12,000 accusations of cult-like, satanic, ritual abuse. None of the allegations were substantiated, and neither the police nor the FBI have ever uncovered any evidence of child-abusing satanic cults . In the McMartin Preschool case, none of the accused teachers was ever convicted of a crime. Kelly Michaels was released from jail when the Appeals Court of New Jersey reversed her conviction.

There is no dispute that children are often abused, and that the consequences can be devastating. Raising questions about the (assumed) existence of organized, satanic, child-abusing cults is not the same as doubting the existence of actual child abuse, nor to question its wrongfulness. If organized ritualistic abuse does not occur, then how can we explain the widespread belief in it? Contributing factors include adults who have been persuaded by their therapists that they were abused as children, children who have been interviewed in aggressive and manipulative ways by investigators who believe the worst, and uncritical and sensationalized media accounts of satanic sexual abuse.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Bottoms, B.L., and S.L. Davis. "The Creation of Satanic Ritual Abuse." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 16 (1997): 112-32.

Nathan, D., and M. Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.