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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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,
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
May 31, 1989). Then, in 1990, the convictions were overturned after being
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.
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.
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.
ritualistic activity may be part of the excessive religiosity of a mentally ill,
psychotic offender. It may be a misunderstood part of sexual ritualism.
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.
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.
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,
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
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 &
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.
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
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.
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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