Satanic Ritual Abuse: How Real?
Terry L. Kern*
ABSTRACT: Claims of ritual satanic abuse are examined from the
perspective of law enforcement. The Law enforcement profession has
neither validated SRA as a widespread condition nor found evidence to
support the claims of a national satanic conspiracy. The
acceptance of such accusations is supported only by the mental health professionals
who believe them without corroborating evidence. This belief in
the face of the absence of evidence reverses the burden of proof and has
serious implications for the mental health professions and the people
they attempt to help.
I am not a mental health professional. I don't even play one on
television. Rather, I'm a police officer with concerns about the
current issue of satanic ritual abuse (SRA). Some members of the
mental health profession, as well as my own, have constructed a model of
criminal conduct based on the stories of patients in therapy; stories
allegedly supported by anecdotal incidents which either involve, or
appear to involve, satanic beliefs.
Survivor stories form the bedrock and the basis of current concerns,
fears, and claims about SRA. Without survivors, such incidents as
church desecrations and cemetery vandalism might be seen for the
relatively minor incidents they are instead of an affirmation of an
alleged murderous mega-cult.
This mega-cult is allegedly multi-generational in nature involving
family members in child abuse, human sacrifice, kidnapping, sexual
violence, narcotics abuse and distribution, and child pornography.
Alleged participants include public officials, police, judges, lawyers,
and physicians (Hicks, 1991). This model is often used by police
officers in public as well as professional presentations and is relied
upon by some in the mental health community as factually established.
However, the fact is that such an organized conspiracy is grounded
only in survivor stories and has no more validity than the stories
themselves. And a story, no matter how often or convincingly told,
has no more validity than the evidence that supports it.
Furthermore, a story or allegation without support carries no more
weight, in an evidentiary sense, than a denial made in refutation of the
The burden of proof always rests with the claims-maker. The
degree of certainty necessary to meet that burden may vary.
However, to a profession such as law enforcement, whose standards of
evidence include proof beyond reasonable doubt, probable cause, and
reasonable suspicion, survivors' claims are neither beyond reasonable
doubt nor are they particularly probable.
I posit that the lack of evidence in support of survivor claims has
far-reaching implications for the mental health profession currently,
its future efficacy, and to the persons it seeks to help. I
believe that those who act under the assumption that SRA allegations
made in therapy represent a stand-alone objective body of evidence
operate under the false premise that the objective reality of widespread
satanic ritual abuse has been established and that survivor stories are
sufficient in themselves to establish that reality.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. In the
summer of 1991, I spoke with a young woman who was in therapy in a
Wisconsin institution specializing in SRA treatment. She told me
she had memories of her father, a satanist, and others she could not
name, sacrificing a child. She knew the general area of the city
where she claimed it occurred. She felt it happened in 1975 or 1976, and the child was unknown to
her. She recalled that the child's body was buried at the place of
I told her we had no report to verify a child still missing from that
time. Neither did we have any evidence of a cult existing in the city,
either then or now. The area where the child was allegedly buried has
been developed, and there were no reports of human bones being found.
She said she doubted that her memory was real, but her therapist
encouraged her to believe because, "we know these cults exist for a
fact, and we know how they operate."
I told her that this particular instance wasn't a fact, and that I
would gladly speak to her therapist. I never heard from the therapist or
the woman again.
If this young woman came to believe, as a fact, that her father is a
murderer, in the face of her own doubts, because her therapist believes
the existence of such cults is an established fact, then one may see my
The degree of certainty espoused by some in the mental health
profession that SRA and the cults that practice it actually exist amazes
me. For example, D. Corydon Hammond (1992), a Utah based psychologist
and an ardent supporter of a satanic criminal conspiracy; maintains that
"people who say it isn't real are either naive, like the people who
didn't want to believe the holocaust, or they're dirty."
I assume that if one is "dirty" then one is a member of
Statements such as Hammond's certainly limit the debate. But Hammond
is not alone. Dan Sexton (1989) Director of the National Child Abuse
Hotline, stated at the 1989 National Conference on Child Abuse and
I'm not a law enforcement person, thank God! I'm a psychology
person, so I don't need the evidence. I come from a very different
place. I don't need to see evidence to believe ... I don't care what
law enforcement's perspective is, that's not my perspective. I'm a
mental health professional. I need to find a way to help survivors
heal the trauma that they had as children and to help other clinicians
who are trying to help survivors and victims of this kind of crime.
It is somewhat difficult to speak of crime and victims of crime while
at the same time dismissing the law enforcement perspectives. After all, the detection, solution, and
prevention of crime, as well as crime victim assistance, are major law
enforcement concerns. But Sexton (1989) limits the debate further
I don't want more survivors going into clinicians' offices feeling
again that they are being reabused by the mental health profession.
you do not believe that this could possibly happen, do not work with
this issue, we don't want you a part of this because it is simply
going to make the issue be more confounded and more difficult.
Now, even the perspectives of those in Sexton's own profession, if
they differ from his own, are dismissed. Sexton doesn't need evidence to
believe. So why should they? To ask for or seek out some form of
corroboration is to reabuse a patient who may or may not have been
abused in the first place. That the abuse did or did not occur may be
objectively verifiable with a little inquiry. But that inquiry might
imply doubt, doubt might reabuse the patient, and we have a vicious
cycle. Besides, those who doubt run a real risk of being labeled
What Passes for Evidence
What passes for evidence is as wide open as the debate is limited.
For example, Roland Summit (1987) maintains:
Because we see it clinically, we see something we believe is real,
clinically; and whether or not our colleagues, or the press, or
scientists at large, or politicians, or local law enforcement agencies
agree that this is real, most of us have some sort of personal sense
that it is; at least speaking as a bias of one and for the members of
What I am hearing is the proposition that the concerns and doubts of
a great many must yield to "some sort of personal sense" that SRA
and satanic cults are real. How does one quantify a "personal
sense?" Precisely how is one sort of "personal" sense
more valid than another?
A clinical mode of criminal activity has been constructed describing
"the behaviors and practices of a network of cults that no one but
the alleged victim has ever seen" (Mulhern, 1991, p.146). People
who do not care about the perspectives of others, who do not need to see evidence to believe, or who have some personal sense
of cult reality, have undertaken to maintain the viability of the model
on their say-so alone. I submit that this is insufficient evidence.
If survivor claims were objectively real, there would be objective
evidence to support them. If the satanic conspiracy were objectively
real, so too would the evidence to support it. One cannot prove a
negative and one doesn't need to. The claims-makers carry the burden of
proof and they carry it on a case-by-case basis. If Jane Doe alleges
that her baby was sacrificed, then Jane's case is investigated on its
own merits. That Suzy Q claims her baby was sacrificed neither confirms
Jane's story nor relieves the need to investigate Suzy's case on its
merits. Claims of abuse, unverified, cannot vicariously validate still
other unverified claims.
There are crimes committed, up to and including murder, with satanic
overtones. Some of the perpetrators have maintained that they acted in
fealty to satan. Among these are Scott Waterhouse, Sean Sellers, Ricky
Saso, and Richard Ramirez. These cases, notorious as they may be, are
anecdotal in nature and are separated from each other by time and
distance. There is no evidence that these persons conspired with, or
even know, each other. Each acted upon his own motivations. There is no
reason to doubt that almost certainly other individuals will act upon
similar motivations. This, however, does nothing to advance the
It is the claims as to the actions of the alleged conspirators and
the scale of the alleged conspiracy that render survivor stories most
suspect. David O'Reilly (1993), writing for Knight-Ridder
gives the following examples:
These figures are unverified and impossible to defend. According to
the FBI's Statistical Analysis Section (personal communication, June 24, 1993) there were 9,960
homicides reported to the FBI in 1965. By 1975, the number had risen to
20,510, and had fallen in 1985 to 18,980. At present, the annual average
is approximately 25,000 reported homicides. Presumably, some, but quite
obviously not all, of these alleged sacrifices are included in these
reported homicides. If they are, their existence must be established on
a case-by-case basis. The claims-makers must demonstrate which homicides
constitute sacrifices, and why.
Most of these sacrifices, however, would have to be over and above
the annual reported figures. That means that if Frattanela's figures are
correct, the annual homicide rate is 20% higher than reported. Should
Jones be correct, a human sacrifice would occur somewhere in the United
States, on average, six times every hour. Worse still, if Warnke should
be correct, more Americans are killed by satanists in a year than were
killed in World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam combined. And this goes on
under our noses, behind our backs, over our heads, under our feet, and
everywhere else but before our eyes.
The housekeeping required to hide that kind of carnage cannot be
verified, but it is often described. According to survivors, bodies are
burned in crematoriums operated by mortician members of the cult, or
involve a portable crematorium. The fact is that I have found no record
of any mortician being indicted for disposing of a body or explaining
how morticians routinely dispose of cult victims. Moreover, law
enforcement has never seized a portable crematorium in any cult case.
There are, of course, unidentified bodies located every year. In
1992, there were 1,331, of which 1,183 were later identified (Federal
Bureau of Investigation, 1993). Additionally, not every reported
homicide is solved. Larry Jones believes very much in the cult's
existence. He states:
Any detective knows there are unsolved murders in every
jurisdiction around the country. People disappear and never come home,
or they disappear and ten years later we find a decomposed body (Bennets,
1993, p. 62).
There's a peculiar logic at work here. We are told by survivors that
cults kill "runaways and transients" (Berg, 1988). However, it
does not follow, ipso facto, that every unsolved homicide or
unidentified body is cult related. Each case must be examined in light
of the evidence, particularly so because other possible motives
(robbery, rape, etc.) must be eliminated. Additionally, 1,331 bodies are
nowhere near 50,000.
Jacquie Baladois, a self professed cult survivor, maintains that her
cult "did a lot of child sacrifice" and they either kidnapped
or bred the intended victim (Berg, 1988). Child abduction attributed to
the cult heightens parental fears and adds a particularly vicious edge
to the cult. Yet honest numbers don't support the slaughter.
between 3,200 and 4,600 classic child abductions annually (U.S.
Department of Justice, 1990). A classic abduction involves a non-family
member who either: (1) takes the child overnight; (2) kills the child;
(3) transports the child 50 miles or more; (4) ransoms the child; or (5)
shows evidence of keeping the child. The number of children kidnapped
and killed by strangers is between 52 and 158 a year (U.S. Department of
Justice, 1989). Of the 3,200 to 4,600 children abducted, 95% percent are released.
been sexually assaulted, and others not, prior to their release. The
children killed are numbered among the 5% not released (Kenneth Lanning,
personal communication). This means that between 160 and 180 children
simply vanish every year as a result of stranger abduction.
I am not attempting to trivialize the death and abductions of
children. My point is that the numbers don't support claims.
case must be examined on its own merits. One cannot use the validated
fact that some children are abducted and killed to support unconfirmed
assertions that satanists are responsible.
David Bromley (1991), a professor of sociology at Virginia
Commonwealth University, observes that "despite the alleged
existence of an elaborate organizational network, no organizational
apparatus-correspondence, membership lists, phone logs, travel records,
bank accounts, buildings or meeting places, ritual implements,
crematoriums, pornographic filming equipment or films produced, have
ever been discovered" (p. 62).
After nearly ten years of active investigation, American law
enforcement has found no evidence to support survivor claims. There is
simply no proof of the existence of such a satanic criminal conspiracy.
And this is significant in view of the fact that law enforcement has a
thorough understanding of how conspiracies function and a record of
success in investigating them. The FBI that maintains that there is no
evidence of a satanic criminal conspiracy is the same FBI that
penetrated a conspiracy to bomb the United Nations building.
Conspiracies are not monolithic in nature. There is no precedent for
a satanic conspiracy whose members act in perfect harmony and commit
murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and other such acts of violence
without experiencing defection on ideological grounds. Conspiracies are
rather fragile in nature and are often unhinged by applying the acronym
MICE Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego (Barren, 1983, p.
99). One or
all of these elements can, and often do, lead members of a conspiracy to
defect. I served on a strike force directed at several conspiracies
whose members engaged in arson, mail fraud, interstate transportation of
stolen property, public corruption, and other such offenses. We employed
MICE with great success.
When claims of cult activity are investigated, they fail either in
the face of no supporting evidence or other explanations. Cynthia Kisser
(199211993), executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, recently
cited an alleged plot by satanic cults in Iowa and Texas to kidnap a
Catholic nun. She claims that only intervention by law enforcement
prevented "what clearly could have developed into criminal
activity" ( p.55). I investigated this case and offer it as an
example of a sensational claim found to be without foundation.
In October of 1989, I received a telephone call from a young woman
who claimed to have important information. She said that she was
associated with a satanic cult. A friend of hers was an actual member,
but she would sometimes participate in rituals whenever they were one
short of the required thirteen persons. She described the rituals as
involving animal sacrifice, the consuming of the animal's blood, the use
of hallucinogenic drugs, and sex.
While she was at her friend's house, she overheard a conversation,
allegedly between cult members, to kidnap, rape, and kill a nun. This
was to take place on Halloween night at the Carmelite convent in Sioux
City. These cult members had a diagram of the grounds showing the
locations of the outer wall, gates, garden area, a storage shed, and
their relationships to the convent building. They also had a diagram of
the convent which depicted sliding doors on the outside of the intended
victim's room. There was an "X" to mark that room and the name
"Alice" (pseudonym). The girl told me she had contacted an
organization in Chicago specializing in this area with her information.
I assume that it was CAN as the Iowa Department of Criminal
Investigation was contacted by CAN with this same information.
The girl identified herself as Kalista and promised to keep in touch
with me with any other information. Because she was so concerned about
the safety of the nun, I promised I would remove her. This became
significant since I never had to keep the promise and I never made the
statement to anyone but this Kalista.
At first, the information seemed extremely accurate. The diagram was
correct in every detail. Although there was no "Sister Alice"
occupying the targeted room, the occupant had only recently taken her
vows. Her given name was Alice. But this was as close to reality as this
report would ever get.
The sisters had been corresponding with a girl by the name of Kalista
from Houston, Texas. This person had claimed to be a former cult member
who witnessed infant sacrifices. She claimed to have been raped five
times during a ritual, which her mother presided over, to initiate her
into the cult. In other letters, she claimed to have been an incest
victim and she described how her little brother died of leukemia. The
nuns felt sorry for her, of course, and they were happy to hear that she
wished to put her past behind her and become one of them.
So they sent her what could be described as recruiting material which
included a scale diagram of the premises. This was meant to
demonstrate how they lived. The person who sent the material was Alice,
who marked the location of her room on the diagram and signed the
letter. The mystery of the diagram was solved.
I decided not to remove Alice from the premises when I observed that
they already had "police" protection. Two German Shepherds
that had been retired from the K-9 Unit had been given to the nuns.
Although they were no longer "working" dogs, they would defend
both the nuns and the property. I also had doubts about Kalista.
Those doubts were confirmed when three days later, Kalista walked
into a Houston convent with wounds on both forearms that resembled knife
cuts. She told those nuns her story and claimed the cult tortured her
when they found out that Alice had been moved. Since Alice had never
moved, only Kalista would have had a reason to believe she was.
I used the address that the nuns had used in corresponding with the
girl when I contacted the Houston police. They located the young woman
who was a college student. She was an only child. There never were other
children to die of leukemia. She was also a patient in therapy.
was no cult conspiracy beyond that which existed in this young woman's
This was a report of cult conspiracy and not an actual case. Law
enforcement did not intervene in this matter as intervention was never
needed. We investigated and determined the matter to be unfounded.
is not atypical of what law enforcement agencies find when investigating
such claims. Nor is it atypical of an unsupported claim being published
as a verified fact to further misinform the public.
From his position within the FBI, Ken Lanning, a supervisory agent in
the Behavioral Science
Section, has access to the reports and
investigations of American law enforcement in general. This access
provides him with a unique vantage point from which to survey SRA
allegations from a law enforcement perspective. There is weight to his
words when he observes:
For at least eight years American law enforcement has been
aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritual abuse.
There is little or no evidence for that portion of their allegations
that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and
organized Satanic conspiracies (Lanning, 1992, p.40).
Law enforcement has investigated SRA and survivor claims and has
rendered its judgment. There is no objective evidence to support such
This judgment must necessarily hold ramifications for the mental
health profession. Survivor claims and the cults they describe are
mutually supportive. If either fails, then both fail. If it has been
determined that that which "survivors" describe is not
objectively real, then it follows that survivor stories are not
objectively real. One cannot assume that a story told by a patient in
therapy simply represents another case of an authenticated fact. Conversely, one cannot assume that it is not objectively true, either
whole or in part. Each claim must be examined on its own merits, and in
light of the evidence which either supports or discredits the claim.
I recently had the opportunity to interview parents of women in
therapy who "recovered" memories of abuse. As an example of
the situations they face, I will use Bob and Jean Smith (pseudonyms).
The Smith's daughter had graduated from law school and was employed in a
major firm. Problems developed which she attributed to stress in the
work environment. She sought the services of a therapist who was neither
a psychiatrist nor a Ph.D. psychologist. As a result of the use of
hypnosis, she recalled being sexually abused from the age of nine months
to fourteen years. Her memories also included satanic rituals and the
sacrificial murder of a five-year-old child.
She wrote her parents a letter accusing them of these acts. Upon
receipt of the letter, her parents traveled a considerable distance to
speak to her. When confronted by her parents and their denials of her
allegations, she expressed some doubt as to the validity of her
memories. But the therapist, when confronted by the parents, expressed
no such doubts. She advised the Smiths, in no uncertain terms, that they
had abused their daughter and had committed murder as part of some
The therapist had no evidence to support her patient's claim. There
was neither a body nor an independent witness to confirm the
allegations. Yet the therapist strongly advised her patient to sever all
ties with her parents. Furthermore, if the siblings would not support
her, and they did not, she was advised to sever ties with them. In order
to promote her "healing," this young woman, acting on her
therapist's advice, has isolated herself from her immediate family.
has come to believe, or has been led to believe, that her parents are
murderous child abusers.
The Smiths cannot prove their innocence either. Their daughter's
therapist dismissed their protests of innocence as an expression of
"deep denial" and contended that they had suppressed their
memories of the events. Of course, she recommended that they enter
therapy with her. That recommendation was rejected.
An entire family has been estranged because the disturbing story of a
disturbed woman in therapy was taken as authenticated fact. My argument
throughout this paper has been that no allegation is factual until
proven to be so. The continued uncritical acceptance of "survivor"
stories as objectively real has created a new population of genuine
survivors. These are the families who must survive the loss of a child
through estrangement. They must survive the potential, if not the
realization, of prosecution and imprisonment for crimes they did not
commit. They must survive therapists who fail to see the ramifications
of their recommendations to patients.
When I was a less experienced officer, I decried the hoops and
hurdles of the criminal justice system. Now I recognize that those
barriers represent Constitutional protections. The burden of proof must
rest with the accuser. The accused need not prove innocence.
acceptance of accusations supported only by the mental health
professionals who believe them because of some "personal
sense" of their validity as evidence in a court of law has reversed
the burden of proof and destroyed the presumption of innocence.
The law enforcement profession has neither validated SRA as a
widespread condition nor found evidence to support the claims of a
national satanic conspiracy. In the main, law enforcement has moved to
the periphery of this issue and gone on to other things. Therapists now
occupy the role of validators. The uncritical acceptance of a patient's
claims of abuse may suit clinical purposes. But once those claims leave
that environment, a more stringent set of evidentiary standards is
required. One does not become a ''survivor'' simply by claiming abuse
any more than one becomes a "perpetrator" simply by being
Sherrill Mulhern (1992), an anthropologist specializing in the study
of the socialization and socio/cultural representation of dissociative
states, "dreads" the moment when self-righteous vested interest
groups, which today stand side by side with champions of the mental health perspective, place one hand on the Bible and point THEM
out. I contend that that dreaded day has dawned.
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