The Satanic Cult Scare and Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse

Jeffrey S. Victor*

ABSTRACT: The satanic cult scare is an expression of collective behavior that is defined in terms of an unplanned, relatively spontaneous pattern of persistent behavior, which is a response to underlying, shared sources of stress in a society.  This collective behavior is likely to persist, despite the lack of corroborating evidence for satanic cult ritual abuse allegations, because it has become organized into volunteer organizations and regularly held conferences and because of the media attention given to the stories.  The satanic cult scare can be seen as a form of deviant behavior which exists only in the preconceptions of a group of professionals who see what they expect to see.

The Witch Hunt for Satanists

Sometimes societies create imaginary forms of deviance needed by the social system in order to have scapegoats for deep social and political tensions (Ben-Yehuda, 1990).  Labeling theory in the sociology of deviant behavior suggests that the labels a society uses to identify deviant behavior embody collectively constructed meanings attributed to behavior and persons regarded as being deviant (Goode, 1990).  The social process whereby deviance is identified and attributed meaning always involves political struggle between groups having different moral world-views.  Moral crusades and witch hunts for deviants are part of that political struggle.

In some situations, ambiguous labels (meanings) for newly identified forms of deviance may precede the actual existence of any behavior or persons which fit those meanings.  Such was the case of the label "heretic" in the Middle Ages, and "subversive" in the 1950s.  In the 1960s, the labels "radical" and "hippie" had similarly elastic meanings, such that they could throw a wide net and envelope many different kinds of people.  The antisemitic social construction of "the Jew" as a polymorphous social deviant is another example.  Eventually, witch hunts for social deviants, such as "subversives," "heretics," and "witches" set society on a path whereby individuals are found who seem to confirm the stereotype embodied in the the deviant label (Ben-Yehuda, 1981; Currie, 1968; Schoeneman, 1975).  In other words, moral crusades may be aimed at deviance which does not exist, and may even create a social type of deviant which did not previously exist, by seeking out, apprehending and punishing some people.

Similarly, the terms "Satanism" and "satanic cult" are socially constructed labels, based upon preconceptions, rather than any direct, empirical study of what the labels presume to identify.  In actual social usage, the label "Satanism" has vague and elastic meanings.  In my collection of hundreds of small town newspaper articles, I've read the label "satanist" applied loosely to an assortment of teenage vandals and animal mutilators, teenage gang murderers and psychopathic murderers, child molesters and vicious rapists.  The label "satanic cult" is used to refer to groups such as juvenile delinquent gangs, unconventional religious groups, or an imagined Mafia-style criminal syndicate; all of which are supposedly motivated by worship of the Devil.  As far as I can determine, the attributions of "Satanism," "satanist," and "satanic cult" empirically refer only to a body of preconceptions, based only upon a culturally inherited legend, ideological propaganda, distorted perceptions of real incidents, false testimonies, and misinformation.

A note of caution is necessary, however.  This does not exclude the possibility that some people might apply the label of "satanist" to themselves, as do some teenage juvenile delinquents, and even some psychopathic murderers.  In the same way, some people in the 1960s labeled themselves "hippies" or "radicals."  The social process of self-fulfilling prophesy is also part of the social construction of a new form of deviance.

The satanic cult scare is in many ways similar to the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, in the sense that it is a witch hunt for moral "subversives" and supposed criminals engaged in a highly secretive conspiratorial network.  It is a collective overreaction to claims about crimes, which are supposedly committed by well-organized groups following a religious ideology involving worship of the Devil.  Stories, rumors, and allegations about Satanism and satanic cults arise from people's preconceptions to find Satanism in unrelated incidents and activities.

The satanic cult scare is an expression of collective behavior an unplanned, relatively spontaneous pattern of persistent behavior, which is a response to underlying, shared sources of stress in a society.  It is manifested in many different spheres of social life, including 1) claims about supposed satanic cult ritualistic crimes, such as kidnapping, serial murder, infanticide, grave robbery, church vandalism and even child pornography; 2) allegations of "ritual" sex abuse of children by satanists; 3) censorship campaigns against children's school books, heavy metal rock music and fantasy role-playing games, which are believed to have occult, criminogenic influences; 4) the harassment of individuals due to rumors about dangerous satanic cults; and 5) community-wide rumor-panics in over 40 locations in the United States, in response to stories about dangerous satanic cults.

The germinal satanic cult story, known as "the blood ritual myth," dates back to ancient times.  In the Middle Ages, it was used in scapegoating attacks upon Jews, and is known as the "blood libel" (Victor, 1990).  Allegations of satanic "ritual abuse" are cuylturally inherited from that long persistent legend.

It is not possible in the brief space of this article to detail all the manifestations of the satanic cult scare.  Overviews of the scare can be found in Bromley (1991), Jenkins and Maier-Katkin (1991), Carlson and LaRue (1989), and Victor (in press b).  An examination of the history of the contemporary legend underlying the scare can be found in Victor (1990).  Research on the social groups and organizations disseminating satanic cult stories, rumors and allegations can be found in Carlson and LaRue (1989), Hicks (1991), Victor (1991 b; and in press b).  A very useful collection of research on many effects of the scare is available in a book titled The Satanism Scare (Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991).  It includes chapters by sociologists, anthropologists, historians, folklorists and specialists in criminal justice.  An excellent book about the police and legal aspects is by a criminal justice analyst, Robert Hicks, titled In Pursuit of Satan (1991).

The Collective Behavior Process in Allegations of Ritual Abuse

The Role of Communication Networks

The moral crusade against ritual abuse is likely to persist for a long time to come, regardless of the lack of any corroborating evidence for satanic cult ritual abuse allegations.  The reason for its persistence is that the moral crusade has become well organized into volunteer associations and regularly held conferences.

Volunteer associations of parents, with chapters in several cities, have been organized to "educate" the general public about the dangers of ritual abuse by disseminating "information," and by lobbying helping professionals to develop a concern about it.  Believe the Children, a national organization which grew out of the McMartin Preschool case, for example, publishes a regular newsletter, provides information, and organizes support groups for parents of sexually abused children.  A variety of groups organized to fight ritual abuse now produce police training manuals, social work training videotapes, and reports about it, usually as part of a more general attack on "Satanism."

In addition, conferences on ritual abuse for police and child protection workers function as organizing agencies, which promote the conversion and recruitment of more and more professionals to the moral crusade, including social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians and police (Hicks, 1991).  These professionals then become "experts" on ritual abuse and disseminate the satanic cult legend to the local level, where they alert people to the "signs" of ritual abuse in public speeches and small town newspaper articles.  As a result, more and more "signs" are detected and allegations made.  There is now a vast communication network which disseminates elaborate assumptions about ritual abuse.

The Role of the Mass Media

Another reason for the persistence of allegations of ritual abuse is that they provide sensational "atrocity stories" for the mass media to attract readers and audiences.  Small town newspapers are particularly likely to simply report the stories of bizarre "satanic" activities, without much skepticism or critical analysis.  The McMartin Preschool case offers an excellent example of the social dynamics of media sensationalism.  The case began with proliferating allegations of hundreds of children being subjected over years to rape, anal, oral and group sexual activity, pornography sessions, naked games, animal mutilations, baby killings, cannibalism, secret tunnels, and transportation to distant places, sometimes by airplane, all done in a context of satanic rituals.  The Los Angeles Times published a detailed analysis of the media's coverage of the case, including its own reporting (Shaw, Jan.19, 1990; Shaw, Jan.20, 1990; Shaw, Jan.22, 1990).  Its conclusions apply equally well to similar cases, which arise continually in other locations and which do not receive national attention.

More than most big stories, McMartin at times exposed basic flaws in the way the contemporary news organizations function.  Pack journalism.  Laziness.  Superficiality.  Cozy relationships with prosecutors.  A competitive zeal that sends reporters off in a frantic search to be the first with the latest shocking allegation, responsible journalism be damned.  A tradition that often discourages reporters from raising key questions if they aren't first brought up by the principals in a story.  In the early months of the case in particular, reporters and editors often abandoned two of their most cherished and widely trumpeted traditions fairness and skepticism.  As most reporters now sheepishly admit and as the record clearly shows the media frequently plunged into hysteria, sensationalism and what one editor calls "a lynch mob syndrome" (Shaw, Jan.19, 1990, p. A20).

One consequence of media sensationalism is that it helps to transmit rumor stories, such as those about satanic cults, from one location to another.  Research on rumors has found that people tend to recall the most sensational aspects of news reports and forget later published denials (Kapferer, 1990).  In this way, the sensational reports provide a plausible scenario for similar rumors to pop up sometimes years later, in distant locations.  After the initial sensational reporting about the McMartin case, for example, eight other preschools in the area were identified as being centers of satanic cult activity, and in short order over 100 preschools across the country became targets of similar allegations and police investigations (Forster, 1990).

Another source of sensational stories of ritual child abuse can be found in popular culture "true crime" books (Manshel, 1990; Marron, 1988; Spencer, 1989).  These books usually pretend to be nonfiction reports about specific cases.  However, they are really another form of "atrocity stories," which provide models for later rumor-allegations.

The Role of Ideological Preconceptions

In the face of frightening claims about secret satanic cult conspiracies and allegations of ritual abuse, many people simply fall back on their ideological preconceptions and habitual modes of thinking.  This is why religious fundamentalists and feminists have been drawn together into a moral crusade against ritual abuse.  This unlikely alliance has occurred in the past, in the moral crusade against "white slavery" and in the Prohibition campaign.

Fundamentalists come from an ideological tradition which affirms the existence of secret conspiracies of evil doers, who do Satan's work.  Therefore, they are receptive to claims about secret cults, which sexually abuse children in evil rituals designed to "brainwash" these children into the pursuit of evil.

Feminists, on their part, are very much aware of the past hidden victimization of women and children, as was commonplace in cases of rape, incest and wife beating.  They are receptive to claims that children are being victimized in secretive ways, and that their painful testimony is being discredited once again by people who are insensitive to the ways in which women and children have been so often victimized (Nathan, 1991).

The History of Allegations of Ritual Abuse

Rumors of satanic cult ritual abuse of children arose from the "survivor" stories of multiple personality disorder (MPD) patients, beginning with the publication of Michelle Remembers in 1980 (Smith & Pazder, 1980).  Allegations of the sexual abuse of children by Satanists operating day care centers followed shortly thereafter, as part of the societal overreaction to public awareness of physical and sexual child abuse in the early 1980s.  By the end of the 1980s, the label "ritual abuse" had become accepted as a distinct pattern of behavior by many police, journalists, therapists, and social workers.  The prefix "satanic cult" was quickly dropped from the term "ritual abuse" in order to make the concept more acceptable to secular audiences, such as trial juries and newspaper readers, who might reject satanic cult conspiracy theories as being too bizarre to be credible.

Some researchers suspect, but cannot prove, that early satanic cult "survivor" stories of MPD patients influenced the development of later allegations of ritual child abuse.  The allegations of adult MPD patients about ritual abuse and the allegations of children about ritual abuse are commonly taken together as both arising from satanic cult, ritualistic crime, even though such an assumption is questionable (Victor, 1991a).  What is known with certainty is that the book Michelle Remembers was used by police and prosecutors in the early 1980s in preparing cases against people accused of sexually molesting children in day care centers (Charlier & Downing, 1988).  It is also known that Michelle Smith and several other "survivors" met with the parents and children involved in the McMartin case after the case was reported in the press (Nathan, 1991).  The initial prosecutor in the McMartin case, Glenn F. Stevens, believes that Michelle Smith and other counselors influenced the children's testimony against the accused (Carlson & LaRue, 1989).

Rumors that satanists were sexually molesting children in day care centers first attained national attention in the McMartin Preschool case, which began in 1983 in Manhattan Beach, California.  It went on to become the longest and most expensive trial in American history, with a cost of 15 million dollars (New York Times, Jan. 24, 1990).  The initial allegations linked sexual child abuse in the day care center to rituals of a "Devil worship" cult.  The allegations led to the arrest of 62-year-bId Peggy McMartin Buckey, her son, Raymond Buckey, and five other child care workers.  They were accused of victimizing 360 children in extremely bizarre sexual acts, carried out over a period of five years.  Unfortunately, the process of the trial did nothing to clarify the facts of the case.  In January, 1990, the only two remaining defendants, Peggy and Raymond Buckey, were found innocent of most of the charges against them.  Later that year, several remaining charges against Raymond Buckey were dropped by the prosecution (New York Times, Feb. 1,1991; & July 28, 1991).

The McMartin case was particularly important, because it gave rise to volunteer organizations of parents and child protection advocates which were committed to alerting the general public to the hidden dangers of ritual child abuse (Nathan, 1991).  The largest of these organizations, with several chapters around the country, is called Believe the Children.

Soon after the McMartin case attracted national attention, a host of other similar accusations of ritual sexual abuse swept across the country.  In some cases, allegations of satanic cult activity were made public during trials.  In Kern County, California, during 1984 and 1985, a local satanic cult rumor-panic resulted in investigations of 77 people, who local police believed were involved in a criminal satanic cult.  In several panic driven trials, dozens of people were convicted and sent to the state prison (Snedeker, 1988).  In one of those cases, for example, seven people were convicted and imprisoned for sexually molesting children as part of a satanic cult.  The only direct evidence against them came from the testimony of children, who claimed that they had been injected with drugs and forced to drink urine and to engage in bizarre sexual acts with adults, as well as with other children, while the activities were being filmed.  The children also accused the defendants of murdering at least 20 babies, using their blood in rituals, and engaging in cannibalism.  Some of the children later recanted their stories (Washington Post, May 31, 1989).  Then, in 1990, the convictions were overturned after being appealed.

In most cases, however, allegations about satanic cult activities are not brought into court proceedings, but circulate in local rumors.  Many prosecutors in these cases worry that some jurors might be unable to believe children's more fantastic claims about bizarre rituals, torture, orgies, and infant sacrifices.  Instead, satanic cult activity is merely implied through the use of the euphemistic term "ritual child abuse" during police investigations and legal proceedings (Richardson, 1991).  The term "ritual abuse" has now become a buzz word for people who believe in the existence of secret satanic cults.

As these cases continued, passions ran high and almost anyone who cautioned against presuming the guilt of those accused became a "suspect" in the eyes of the outraged parents in a community.  In a case in Jordan, Minnesota, for example, a policeman who vouched for the character of an accused person was soon charged with the same crimes against the children who made the accusations (Charlier & Downing, 1988).  In another case in Chicago, two women who publicly expressed support for an accused person shortly thereafter found their names on a list of child molesters being circulated by a concerned parent's group (Charlier & Downing, 1988).

The Ambiguous Meaning of Ritual Abuse

The concept of "ritual abuse" is now at the center of heated controversy in law enforcement and in the helping professions.  Before adequate behavioral science research can be done and before any reliable police investigation can be conducted, the concept of "ritual abuse" needs to be clearly defined.  Unfortunately, the term is ambiguous.  It is unclear exactly what behavior we need to find in scientific research or in police investigations.  There are many meanings given to the term "ritual abuse" and these meanings are usually burdened with unspoken connotations about satanism.  A California state criminal justice report on "occult crime," for example, defines ritualistic abuse as "repeated physical, sexual, psychological and/or spiritual abuse which utilizes rituals (California Office of Criminal Justice Planning, 1989, p.33).  Certainly, when we start talking about "spiritual abuse," we are on very shaky ground If we need to specify acts which might be illegal and scientifically verifiable in careful research.  More elaborate definitions appear in some recent articles in professional journals.  For example, Susan Kelley, a psychiatric nurse, defines ritual abuse as follows:

Ritualistic abuse refers to the systematic and repetitive sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of children by adults engaged in cult worship.  The purpose of ritualistic abuse is to induce a religious or mystical experience for adult participants.  Perpetrators of ritualistic abuse involve children in group religious practices and ceremonies that often include the ingestion of human excrement, semen, or blood; witnessing the mutilation of animals; threats with supernatural or magical powers; ingestion of drugs; and use of songs or chants.  The child victims are threatened with supernatural powers and physical harm to prevent disclosure of the ritualistic activities.  For example, children may be threatened that the devil or demons will harm them (Kelley, 1990, p. 25).

However, Kenneth Lanning, head of the F.B.I.'s Behavioral Science Unit, points out the inherent ambiguities in attempts to construct a new category of harm done to children which focuses upon ritualistic activity.  Lanning suggests that police investigation and scientific research needs to focus upon concrete acts of physical, sexual, or emotional harm, rather than shift focus to the social context of those acts (e.g. rituals).

The author has been unable to precisely define ritualistic abuse and prefers not to use the term.  It is confusing, misleading and counterproductive.  When a victim describes and investigation corroborates what sounds like ritualistic activity, several possibilities must be considered.  The ritualistic activity may be part of the excessive religiosity of a mentally ill, psychotic offender.  It may be a misunderstood part of sexual ritualism.  The ritualistic activity may be incidental to any real abuse.  The offender may be involved in ritualistic activity with a child and also may be abusing a child, but one may have little or nothing to do with the other (Lanning, 1989a, p. 69-70).

The Extent of Ritual Abuse Allegations

An estimate of the extent of ritual abuse allegations can be found in research studies which attempt to determine the national incidence of child sexual abuse.  The best known and most commonly cited study of this kind is one done by sociologist David Finkelhor and published in a book titled Nursery Crimes (Finkelhor, Williams & Burns, 1988).  The study focuses upon allegations of sexual abuse in day care centers across the country from 1983 to 1985.  It collected information, mainly from child protection services, about 270 cases which these agencies regarded as being "substantiated," meaning that these agencies considered the allegations to be "true."  This, of course, did not mean that any legal charges were necessarily filed in court.  Actually, fewer than a third of the cases were prosecuted, and less than a tenth resulted in guilty pleas or convictions.  (The McMartin case, for example, was one of the cases included.)  It is unfortunate that the Finkelhor study is often misunderstood and cited as being a study of the actual incidence of sexual abuse in child care centers.

The Finkelhor study identified 36 cases of alleged ritual abuse in day care centers.  (These constituted 13% of the total cases of sexual abuse.)  Significantly, women were accused of sexual abuse in all 36 of these ritual abuse cases.  In some of the cases, women alone, without male associates, were the accused perpetrators.  This finding that as many women have been accused of ritual sex abuse throws doubt on the validity of most, if not all, ritual abuse allegations.  It stands in contradiction to scientific research about women's sexuality (Victor, 1980).

Research on sexual behavior has found that it is extremely rare for women to sexually molest very young children, particularly without the coercive influence of male accomplices and in public locations like child care centers (Faller, 1987; Matthews, Mathews & Speltz, 1991).  It is especially rare for women to sexually molest children outside of the home, and particularly rare for women to sexually molest children of both sexes indiscriminately.  In 1988, reporters Tom Charlier and Shirley Downing of the Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal, published a careful study of 36 cases of accused ritual sexual abuse of children.  In these cases, only about one-fourth of those people arrested were eventually convicted and most of the convictions had little to do with any kind of ritual sexual abuse.  Charlier and Downing concluded:

Allegations of satanism of rites involving mutilation, infant sacrifice and devil worship have since emerged in more than 100 child sex abuse cases across the country. ... In four years, though, investigators have found no evidence to support fears that cults are preying on the nation's children.  The Commercial Appeal studied ritual sexual abuse allegations in 36 cases and found instead that many of the stories labeled "satanic" or "ritual" have the hallmarks of urban legends (Charlier & Downing, 1988).

There is some evidence that, more recently, the satanic cult scare has led to an increasing number of allegations of "ritual abuse."  The American Bar Association is conducting a survey of local prosecutors to obtain an estimate of the national incidence of different types of cases of child abuse.  The survey is not yet finished, but as of early 1991 the preliminary data indicate that about one-third of local prosecutors have handled cases involving "ritualistic or satanic abuse" (Goretsky, personal letter).  If these preliminary findings are representative of the eventual survey conclusion, that would mean that the courts across the country are now dealing with a great number of allegations of ritual abuse.

Relevant Research and Analysis

The social process leading to the creation of children's false stories of ritual abuse is described in detail by psychiatrist Lee Coleman and attorney Patrick Clancy, both of whom have had considerable experience dealing with cases of child sexual molestation (Coleman & Clancy, 1990).  Coleman and Clancy examined many videotapes of the interaction between therapists and children being interviewed.  They found that poorly trained and overzealous therapists often use leading questions, cueing of desired responses, praise for desired answers, and manipulated fantasy play to implant ideas about sex and about satanic rituals in the communication process between the child and therapist (Coleman & Clancy, 1990).  Similar conclusions are reached by Wakefield and Underwager (1989), in their review of the research evidence about therapists' interviewing techniques.

Social psychologists call this process "priming" (Herr, 1986; James, 1986).  The research on priming indicates that it is most likely to happen when an authority figure questions a child who is anxious and highly suggestible.  The process isn't necessarily conscious and deliberate.  If a child protection worker inadvertently shapes the discourse around preconceptions about ritual sex abuse priming can easily occur.

Coleman and Clancy (1990) point out that child protection social workers and child therapists are not expected to be impartial investigators, searching objectively for evidence of wrong-doing.  Instead, they are expected to be concerned primarily with the needs of children, and commonly act on the presumption that children have been victimized in some way, after allegations have been made by parents, or neighbors, or even sometimes by anonymous telephone callers.

Once in the child protection system, children are caught in a contradictory "Catch 22" situation.  If the child denies being involved in sexual acts, that is taken as evidence that the child is "repressing" memories of terrifying abuse.  The child protection worker is expected to gradually and carefully "bring out" the repressed memories.  If the child expresses anxiety, the anxiety is regarded as evidence of repressed memories, even though the child's anxiety may be due to being repeatedly interrogated by unfamiliar adults (Coleman & Clancy, 1990).

It is possible for children to "remember" events which never occurred.  Much research suggests that childhood memories are largely a product of learning in conversation, and are structured by the discourse between the child and others (Lindesmith, Strauss & Denzin, 1986).  When overzealous therapists "prime" the discourse between themselves and children, they may gradually implant reconstituted memories of events, which are shaped by the verbal discourse.  These pseudomemories may then become reinforced by later conversations between the child and the parents and other children.  If these other people frequently reaffirm the pseudomemories of ritual abuse, they may become subjectively "real" events in the memory of the child.  Personal memories are, to a considerable extent, rooted in the collective memories of groups (Lindesmith et al., 1986).  For example, our memories of our early childhood experiences are commonly filtered through the memories of our parents and relatives, who recall for us incidents in our early life.

In some cases, real sexual abuse is confounded by children's stories of bizarre happenings.  Priming by poorly trained therapists is not the only source of distortion.  Several additional explanations for children's bizarre stories of ritual sexual molestation are suggested by The FBI's Kenneth Lanning, who has studied many cases of alleged ritual abuse since they emerged in 1983 (Lanning, 1989b).  In some cases, the traumatic fears of children in response to actual sexual abuse in their homes may produce elaborate fantasies about events in day care.  In other cases of actual sexual abuse, for example, child molesters may deliberately use threats of magic spells, witches, and demons in order to intimidate the children, but not as part of any commitment to a satanic ideology.  Child molesters may be familiar, as are most people today, with the satanic cult legend, and appropriate it for their own exploitive use.  The social process through which the satanic cult legend was imitated and exploited in a case of murder is the subject of research by Ellis (1989).

A Ritual Abuse Scandal in England: An Illustrative Case

In the fall and winter of 1990, a case of alleged ritual abuse created sensational newspaper stories in England, making headlines throughout that country.  The case clearly illustrates the way that the collective behavior of the satanic cult scare gives rise to witch hunts for ritual sex abusers of children.

The case began on June 14, 1990 in Rochdale, a suburb of Manchester, when 17 children were suddenly taken away from their parents by police and social workers.  An initial complaint came from the teachers of one 6-year-old boy, whom they said was telling bizarre stories of black magic and the killing of babies.  The children were made wards of the court and put in foster care, without parental visits allowed, while child protection workers questioned the children for weeks.  After lengthy questioning, the social workers charged that the children were all victims of a secret satanic cult which had abused them in sexual rituals.  At first, the charges against the parents created the usual furor of sensational news reports, emphasizing allegations of sex, sadism and occult religion.

However, after some more thorough investigative reporting, the attitude of the news reports and that of law enforcement agencies shifted toward concern about the parents and their children taken from them, perhaps unjustly by bureaucratic agents of government (Waterhouse, Sept.16, 1990; Sept. 23, 1990; Sept. 30, 1990; Oct. 7, 1990).  A judicial inquiry was commissioned to investigate the charges and the practices of the social workers as well.  The judge heading the official inquiry rendered his decision on March 8, 1991 to return the children back to their parents.  He severely criticized the practices of the local police and social workers for needlessly traumatizing the children by removing them from their parents (Sage, March 10, 1991).  Rochdale's director of social services resigned immediately in disgrace, and an official government investigation of the handling of the case began.

The thorough investigative reporting of several newspapers, particularly The Independent, revealed the social dynamics which led to the creation of allegations of ritual abuse in Rochdale (Waterhouse, Sept.16, 1990; Sept. 23, 1990; Sept 30, 1990; Oct. 7, 1990).  Initially, in 1988, several social workers with a Christian fundamentalist charity became concerned about ritual abuse after reading some American materials about the so-called "signs" of ritual abuse.  Some of them went to the United States for training in how to identify ritual abuse.  Later, back in England, they organized several conferences on the topic, which helped to popularize the satanic cult conspiracy theory of ritual abuse.  American "experts" in ritual abuse were brought in as guest speakers, because the English social workers felt that the Americans were more informed about how to uncover these crimes.  The social workers then went about "uncovering" cases of ritual abuse in England by interrogating the children of Rochdale and priming them with their preconceptions about satanism and sexual abuse.

A report in The Independent summarized the origins of the satanic cult ritual abuse scare in England:

The panic spread to Britain early in 1988 through several channels including the evangelical Christian movement, in books and testimonials of survivors and "Deliverance" ministries, and through "experts" from the U.S. who spread the message here, in newspapers and on conference circuits.  Once here, the stories have been spread by Christian organizations such as the Association of Christian Psychiatrists and the Social Workers of the Christian Fellowship, by churches, anti-occult campaigners and by born-again "survivors" of Satanic abuse (Oct. 7, 1990).


The victims of this rush to judgment include children who are traumatized by the mass hysteria and repeated interrogations by well meaning child protection workers, children who are taken away from parents who have been falsely accused, and parents who are imprisoned and often held with exorbitantly high bail for months before going to trial.

A ritual child abuse case in Edenton, North Carolina, featured on a PBS Frontline television documentary, broadcast on May 7, 1991, illustrated these tragic results of the satanic cult scare (Washington Post, May 5, 1991).  Twenty-nine children claimed to have been sexually molested in a day care center.  The married couple who owned the day care center, three of their employees, and two other residents of the town were arrested and charged with child molestation.  The bail was set so high that most of the defendants could not afford to pay it and spent months in prison awaiting trial.  Two of the employees were young mothers, whose incarceration in prison took them away from their children.  The first trial is scheduled for summer, 1991.)

A crucial bit of information, but one neglected in the Frontline broadcast, is that at least one of the therapists, who interviewed many of the children to seek evidence of ritual abuse, lectured at satanic crime and ritual abuse seminars around North Carolina (Nathan, 1990).  The Frontline program also didn't bring out the connection between the Edenton case and many similar cases, which are part of the satanic cult scare.

In conclusion, ritual abuse is a social creation of a late 20th century witch hunt.  There is no verifiable evidence for the satanic cult ritual abuse conspiracy theory.  However, there is abundant evidence that more and more professionals are creating a form of deviant behavior, which exists only in their preconceptions to see what they expect to see.


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* Jeffrey S. Victor is Professor of Sociology at Jamestown Community College, 525 Falconer Street, Jamestown, New York 14701.   [Back]


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