Abusive Behaviors Alleged in Two Samples of Likely False Allegations

Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager1

ABSTRACT: We conducted a preliminary descriptive study to examine the types of abusive behaviors described when sexual abuse allegations are likely false.  We looked at the behaviors alleged in two entirely different samples and compared the results to the types of behaviors engaged in by actual child sexual abusers.  Compared to the behaviors of actual abusers, in these samples, the behaviors alleged were of highly deviant and low base rate behaviors.  The children were much younger than in reported cases of actual abuse.  In one of the two samples, many more women were accused than has been reported in the literature.

When allegations of sexual abuse are false, the behaviors alleged often are of highly deviant abuse, such as anal or vaginal rape of toddlers, violence, sadism, and even satanic ritual abuse.  The abuse is frequently said to have begun at a very young age, even at infancy.  The accused are not just fathers, but mothers and other relatives are sometimes accused, often of acting together.

Such seemingly implausible claims are also found in the books and articles by recovered memory therapists where they are uncritically presented as actual events. Some examples:

bulletSteve believed his mother was sadistic and sexually abusive.  One of his first memories to return was of her feeding him in his highchair.  "I remember really liking what she was feeding me.  I was making pleasure sounds and kicking my feet in anticipation of each bite.  Then one bite was suddenly hideous.  It was so awful-tasting I started to gag and vomit.  Now I think she slipped a spoonful of calf feed into my mouth" (Fredrickson, 1992, pp. 4l-42).
    
bulletColleen was only three when her grandmother began to fondle her genitals whenever she slept overnight with her.  Sometimes she put things like pencils and hobby pins in Colleen's bottom and hurt her (Fredrickson, 1992, p. 58).
    
bullet(Allen, in a marathon treatment program for eating disorders, was asked if he had been abused.  He denied it but the group confronted him saying he had the signs of an abuse victim.  The staff told him that if he followed their program he would find the truth.  He then uncovered memories about his father.) "I learned/recalled my father's abuse; from the time I was an infant (four to six months) until age six my father repeatedly sexually abused me: forcing me to suck on his penis until he had an orgasm in my mouth ... and inflicting a great deal of pain on me by squeezing my testicles and by sticking his finger in my rectum, squeezing my throat, choking me, and threatening to kill me if I resisted or spoke a word" (Hunter, 1990, p. 197).
    
bulletVera was remembering being tied spread-eagled on a table with her grandfather looming over her, holding a knife in one hand and a live rat in another ...  "He cuts the rope from around my neck and starts to shove the rat in my mouth.  I am squirming, trying to get away, and he says, 'Do you want the rat or me?' Then he puts his penis in my mouth.  I hold real still because I don't want him to push the rat down my throat" (Fredrickson, 1992, pp. 113-114).
    
bulletAnnette grew up in an upper-middle-class town in the Midwest.  Her father held the same managerial job for over 30 years.  Both her parents were community leaders, active in church affairs.  Secretly they were involved with a group that performed ritualized abuse according to a satanic calendar.  Town leaders, businesspeople, and church officials were all involved in this cult.  From infancy, Annette was abused in rituals that included sexual abuse, torture, murder, pornography, and systematic brainwashing through drugs and electric shock: "I was what they called a 'breeder.' I was less than 12 years old.  They overpowered me and got me pregnant and then they took my babies.  They killed them right in front of me" (Bass & Davis, 1988, p. 417).
    
bulletThe memory had just come for a woman in Ohio.  She'd been involved in a Twelve Step ritual abuse group for about a year.  She was six years old, maybe seven.  She and some other neighborhood kids had been taken to the woods, again, for another ceremony.  Shortly after arriving there, some chains were brought out ... They picked out David, one of Pam's school friends.  David was seven too.  As his legs were being chained to the trees, the other children were told that David had betrayed the cult.  He had told one of the neighbors he had seen his mother have sex with a dog.  The children were told to watch closely, because what was about to happen to David would happen to them if they ever talked about the cult.  And, as the young child screamed in terror, his father approached him, and taking a knife, savagely cut his son's tongue out.  The boy was then slowly skinned alive while the rest of the kids were forced to watch (Ryder, 1992, p. 213).

We have consulted on dozens of cases throughout the United States and in other countries where there have been bizarre and completely improbable accounts of murders, monsters, anal and vaginal penetration of preschoolers, sex with animals, animal and human sacrifice, feces and blood, and ritual abuse and torture.  Other cases, not including satanic ritual abuse, have involved equally implausible allegations.  Although the improbability of such behaviors should have made these accusations highly suspect, investigators and therapists found the stories believable enough to conclude that sexual abuse had taken place.  There have been criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits based on such claims.

How do these stories compare to verified abuse?  This question has practical significance in evaluating the truthfulness of a sexual abuse allegation when the person accused denies the abuse and there is no corroborating evidence.  If the alleged behaviors are extremely improbable and there is no corroborating evidence it is extremely unlikely the accusation is true.

An accusation of specific behaviors can be evaluated in terms of the antecedent probability, or base rate, of that behavior.  When evaluators are unaware of the usual behavior of child molesters or do not consider base rates a factor in evaluating an allegation they may conclude that a highly improbable alleged event is true.  Because of preconceptions about what things go together, evaluators may overlook base rate data, thinking they have nothing to do with specific cases.  But doing so may result in an indeterminate but unacceptable level of false positive decisions.  The large body of decision research strongly suggests that knowledge and use of base rate information is a necessary part of increasing accuracy of decision making (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1978; Gambrill, 1990).

We have consulted on dozens of day care cases throughout the United States and in other countries where there have been bizarre and improbable accounts of murders, monsters, anal and vaginal penetration of preschoolers, sex with animals, animal and human sacrifice, feces and blood, and ritual abuse and torture.  Although the improbability of such behaviors should have made these accusations highly suspect, often investigators and therapists found the stories believable enough to conclude that sexual abuse had taken place.

Research on the Behavior of Child Sexual Abusers

There is information about the behavior of actual sexual abusers, although the studies vary as to the behaviors reported.  This is not surprising since the studies differ in terms of the sample studied (community, college, clinical, prison, hospital, etc.), whether victims or offenders are sampled, the method of obtaining the data (interviews, questionnaires, hospital records, etc.), the sex of the victim, the definition of terms, the specificity of the description of the behavior, whether the abuse is intrafamilial or extrafamilial, and the adequacy of the verification of the abusive acts.

The prison-based samples will underrepresent offenses such as exhibitionism, since these may be considered misdemeanors and the offenders unlikely to be sentenced to prison.  The community-based samples are likely to include more behaviors that are less serious.  Samples that depend upon retrospective data are subject to the criticisms of all such studies concerning the unreliability of retrospective data and interview data (Bradburn, Rips, & Shevell, 1987; Brewin, Andrews, & Gotlib, 1993; Briere, 1992; Dawes, 1994; Halverson, 1988; Raphael, Cloitre, & Dohrenwend, 1991; Roy-Byrne, Geraci, & Uhde, 1987).  Despite this, the literature does give useful information about the type of abusive behavior engaged in by actual child molesters.

Tollison and Adams

Tollison and Adams (1979) describe the general behaviors engaged in by the pedophile:

Pedophiliac behavior may involve caressing a child's body, manipulating a child's genitals, or inducing a child to manipulate an adult's genitals.  Occasionally, the behaviors also include penile penetration (partial or complete-vaginal or anal), oral sex, and any practice utilizing the sexual parts or organs of a child so as to bring the person in contact with the child's body in any sexual manner.  Pedophiliac acts may be homosexual or heterosexual in nature and may include touching, caressing, masturbation, oral-genital contact, and intercourse, as well as pedophiliac exhibitionism, voyeurism, rape, sadism, and masochism ... Physical violence to the child occurs in only 2 percent of instances ... (p.326).

Tollison and Adams report that most pedophilia victims are girls, at a ratio of two to one, and that most heterosexual victims are between the ages of 6 and 12, peaking between the ages of 8 and 11.  Homosexual pedophilia victims increase in numbers into puberty, the result being a statistical overlap with adult homosexuality victims, but the peak ages are between 12 and 15.  They report that only a minority of heterosexual pedophiles engage in penetration and intravaginal coitus with their victims, and then mainly with the age group over 14 and with their permission.  In homosexual pedophilia, the most common contact is masturbation done to rather than by, the boy followed by fellatio.

The Kinsey Studies

The Kinsey report (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953) gives information about the preadolescent sexual contacts with adult males in their sample of 4441 females.  This was a retrospective study which depended upon the recollections of incidents that occurred years earlier when the women were children.  There is no way to substantiate the reports.  Kinsey et al. defined an adult male as one who was at least 15 years old and at least 5 years older than the female, and obtained data as to the incidence, frequency, and nature of the sexual contacts.

Kinsey et al. found that although 24% of their sample reported some type of sexual contact with an adult male, nearly two-thirds of these contacts were verbal approaches or genital exhibitionism.  They report that in only one case was appreciable physical injury done to the child.  The types of approaches and contacts reported in their sample are in Table 1.

Table 1
Nature of Sexual Contact Preadolescent Females
Reported with Adult Males in the Kinsey Study

Nature of Contact

Percent

Approach only
Exhibition, male genitalia
Exhibition, female genitalia
Fondling, no genital contact
Manipulation of female genitalia
Manipulation of male genitalia
Oral contact, female genitalia
Oral contact, male genitalia
Coitus
9
52
1
31
22
5
1
1
3
From Kinsey et al. (1953), N = 1075

Another type of data involves information from the offender rather than the victim.  In an early study, the Kinsey Institute (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy & Christenson, 1965) collected information on the sexual behavior of sex offenders during the offense.  The sample consisted of 1356 white males who had been convicted for one or more sex offenses, 888 white males who had never been convicted for a sex offense, but who had been convicted for some other misdemeanor or felony, and 477 white males who had never been convicted for anything beyond traffic violations.

Offenders were separately analyzed depending upon whether the offenses were heterosexual or homosexual, whether they were against adults, minors (age 12 to 16), or children (under 12), whether the sexual contact was accompanied by force or threat, and whether the victim was a daughter or stepdaughter.  In the offenses against unrelated children, both heterosexual and homosexual, where no force was used, anal and vaginal penetration was very rare.  In the great majority of cases with girls, the sexual behavior consisted of petting and fondling.  Anal penetration did not occur.  Mouth-genital contact occurred in about one-sixth of the cases.  The ages ranged from 3 through 11; the average age was 8.  In the cases with boys, the most common behavior was masturbation (45%) followed by fellatio (38%).  Anal coitus only occurred in 4% of the cases.  The average age of the boys was 10.

In the incestuous offenses, coitus was performed in 9% of the cases and attempted in another 9%.  A large number (42%) used genital masturbation and mouth-genital contact (39%).  The average girl was age 9 to 10; there was a definite tendency for the offenders to prefer their older daughters.

The men who used force with children constituted only a small percentage (6.6%) of the total offenses against children.  When force was used, the percentages of coitus (23%) and attempted coitus (23%) were much higher than in the cases where no force was used.  Only 3% of their victims were under 5 years of age and more than half were age 9 to 11.  The group using force consisted entirely of heterosexual offenses.

The proportion of offenses in which coitus was reported became greater as the child became older.  This held true among the nonaggression and aggression cases as well as among the father-daughter incest offenses.

Erickson, Walbek, and Seely

Erickson, Walbek, and Seely (1988) examined data from 229 verified and admitted child sex offenders from a locked prison-diversion treatment program that also provides presentence evaluations for courts in Minnesota.  They corroborated self-report information during clinical evaluations by police records, family interviews, previous evaluations, and victim statements.  When there were discrepancies, the offenders were confronted during clinical evaluations.  This verification process is important since offenders often minimize the extent of their abusive behavior (Hindman, 1988).

Erickson et al. (1988) reported that 70% of the victims were female, 26% were male, and only 4% of the offenders molested children of both sexes. Approximately one-fourth of the victims of both sexes were less than 6 years old, one-fourth were between 6 and 10, and half were between the ages of 11 and 13. The frequency of abusive behaviors is shown in Table 2:

Table 2

Frequency of Behaviors described in Cases of
Child Molesting in the Erickson et al. Study

Nature of Con tact

Percent

Males
(N=63)

Females
(N=166)

Vaginal contact

Anal contact

Offender oral

Victim oral

Offender fondle

Victim fondle

Other

0.0

33.3

41.2

28.8

42.8

7.9

7.9

41.5

9.6

19.2

17.4

54.2

7.2

9.6

From Erickson et al. (1988), N = 229

Erickson et al. (1988) observe that vaginal and anal penetration was very rare in young children; penile rectal or vaginal contact for this age group usually consisted of touching the rectal or vaginal opening with the penis and rubbing the penis between the legs.  Attempted insertion of offender's fingers into victims' vaginas was fairly common, but insertion of fingers into the rectums was quite uncommon.  It was very rare for the offender to insert objects into the rectum or the vagina.  Descriptions of the pain of forceful anal penetration were graphic and when it occurred the victims had to be held forcibly and their cries muffled.

Bribery was more common than threat and incestuous sexual contacts were often repetitive, with gradual progression from touch to penetration.  Although the wives of the incest offenders had a varying amount of knowledge about what was going on, none participated directly and none of the extrafamilial offenders had a female collaborator.  Erickson et al. note that the severity of the offense in their sample is somewhere between a community-based sample and an incarcerated sample and misdemeanor behaviors such as exhibitionism are clearly under-represented.  There were no reports in their sample of elaborate sexual experiences involving urination and defecation, sadistic and bizarre assaults, people in costumes and robes, or ritual sacrifice, torture, and murder.

Kendall-Tackett and Simon

Kendall-Tackett and Simon (1987) studied 365 adults who entered a child abuse treatment program between 1984 and 1985.  Data on the type of sexual molestation was available from 278 of the subjects.  This sample differs from the Kinsey et al. (1953) study because it uses a clinical sample.  It differs from the Erickson et al. (1988) study because the sample was of victims rather than offenders.  The authors note that there is no way to substantiate the reports given by the respondents.

Kendall-Tackett and Simon report that the average age of both male and female victims at the onset of the abuse was 7.5 and that 97% of the perpetrators were men.  The frequency of abusive behaviors is shown in Table 3:

Table 3
Nature of Sexual Contact Reported with
Adult Females in the Kendall-Tackett & Simon Study

Nature of Contact

Percent

Fondling from the waist up
Fondling from the waist down
Oral sex
Attempted intercourse
Simulated intercourse
Intercourse
Anal Intercourse
64
92
48
19
10
44
9
From Kendall-Tackett & Simon (1987), N = 278

The authors note that the percentage of intercourse is much higher than that reported in a study by Finkelhor (1979), who found 4% (which is similar to the 3% reported by Kinsey et al., [1953]).  The reason for this difference is most likely that Kendall-Tackett and Simon used a clinical population, whereas Finkelhor et al. and Kinsey et al. used community-based samples.  Erickson, et al. (1988), whose sample was verified and admitted offenders, reported a proportion (41.5%) similar to Kendall-Tackett and Simon.

There is no discussion of violent or bizarre abuse or satanic ritual abuse in the Kendall-Tackett and Simon study.

Other Studies and General Conclusions

Despite the variability in the different research studies, some generalizations can be made.  Child sexual abusers are overwhelmingly male and most child victims of sexual abuse are girls.  The average age of female victims is around ages 6 to 12; some studies report that male victims are somewhat older.  Most victims know the offender.  Most sexual behavior consists of fondling, exhibitionism, masturbation, and oral or genital contact.  Anal and vaginal penetration of very young children is rare.  Males are more likely to be victims of attempted or actual anal penetration than are females.  Penetration becomes more likely with an older child.  Vaginal penetration is more common in clinical samples compared to community samples.  It is rare for an offender to have a partner who participates in the abuse or to molest children in groups.

Aggression and violence are not usually part of the behavior, although Lang and Langevin (1991) state that the literature suggests at least one in five child victims are subjected to force or "gratuitous physical violence" as part of the abusive act.  In incest, a grooming process is generally involved (Christiansen & Blake, 1990; Erickson et al., 1988; Farber, Showers, Johnson, Joseph, & Oshins, 1984; Gebhard et al. 1965; Groth, Burgess, Birnbaum, & Gary, 1978 Kendall-Tackett & Simon, 1987, 1992; Kinsey et al. 1953; Mohr, 1981; Peters, 1976; Rimsza & Niggemann, 1982; Swenson & Grimes, 1958).

Erickson (1985) observes that vaginal and anal penetration are extremely rare in young children: "All but the most hardened of child sexual abusers tend to avoid anal intercourse with prepubertal children because it is painful and some strategy must be utilized to muffle the child's cries.  It is impossible to accomplish without the use of lubricants or with any degree of impotence."

Sadistic, bizarre or homicidal forms of child sexual abuse can occur but are extremely rare.  Gebhard et al. (1965) report that out of their total of 18,000 interviews, no man or woman reported being victimized as a child by a sadist.  Langevin (1983) states that sadistic behaviors in general are very rare and Tollison and Adams (1979) report that coprophilia (sexual interest in feces) and urophilia (sexual interest in urine) are quite rare and generally associated with other deviant behaviors.

Dietz, Hazelwood, and Warren (1990) reported a sample of 30 sexually sadistic criminals that included 43% who victimized one or more children.  Sexual sadists are sexually aroused by controlling, terrorizing, injuring, torturing, and sometimes murdering their victims.  Dietz et al. report that most victims were strangers to the offenders.  This is different from other forms of child sexual abuse where the offender is more likely to be related to or to know the victim.  Dietz et al. observe that cases of criminal sexual sadism occur so infrequently in a given jurisdiction that it is difficult for researchers to observe enough cases to make observations about them.

Difficulties with Some Research Samples

Researchers often observe that, despite their efforts, a nonabused group may include subjects who were actually abused.  But the reverse is also true and false allegations may contaminate samples of abused subjects.  When reading research reports, the criteria used for verifying samples as abused or nonabused must be carefully noted.

We suspect that some widely cited research on child sexual abuse is contaminated by false cases.  This research will therefore give a misleading picture about the characteristics of child sexual abuse, including the type of abusive behaviors.  An example of this is the report by Finkelhor and his colleagues (Finkelhor, Williams, & Burns, 1988; Finkelhor, Williams, Burns, & Kalinowski, 1988) on 270 day care cases.  Finkelhor et al. report that 40% of the perpetrators were intelligent, educated, highly regarded women who had no histories of known deviant behavior.  These women were accused of extremely deviant behaviors such as oral-genital penetration, urolagia and coprophagia, and ritualistic mass abuse.

There are serious difficulties with the Finkelhor et al. day care study.  Although the authors required the abuse to be "substantiated," their definition of substantiation was if any one of the people assigned to investigate the report believed that abuse was real, despite whoever else may have thought it was false.  Their sample includes an indeterminate number of cases which ended in dismissals or acquittals, or convictions that were later reversed.  For example, the McMartin case in California and the Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey are included.  No conclusions whatsoever can be drawn about the abusive behaviors alleged to have occurred in this study.

Another instance in which researchers have included likely false cases of abuse in their sample is found in the 1993 book, Behind the Playground WaIls (Hardcover), by Waterman, Kelly, Oliveri, and McCord.  The book describes an ambitious research project on the effects of alleged sexual abuse in two preschools compared to a control group of preschool children who had not been abused.  One of the abused groups was said to have experienced ritualistic sexual abuse and these children were reported to have suffered much more distress than the nonritualistically abused children.

However, the ritualistic abuse group is comprised of subjects in preschool cases, mainly McMartin, where there were no convictions and where there is a serious question as to whether the children were actually abused.  Therefore, the book is useless for describing anything other than the probable effects on children who become involved in these cases and may come to believe they were victims of ritualistic abuse (see Schultz & Wakefield, 1993, for a discussion of this book).

These studies then find their way into review articles where generalizations are made.  For example, Kendall-Tackett, Williams, and Finkelhor (1993) reviewed and synthesized recent research on the impact of sexual abuse, including the characteristics of the abusive behavior, and included the above two studies in their review with no cautions or caveats.  Their review was published in the Psychological Bulletin, a major APA journal.  This contamination of the literature on sexual abuse with uncorroborated cases of improbable and bizarre abuse is a significant problem.

Our Study

We conducted a preliminary descriptive study to examine the kinds of behaviors alleged when the abuse allegations were most likely false.  We looked at the behaviors alleged in two entirely different samples and compared the results to the types of behaviors engaged in by actual child molesters as is described above.  We hypothesized that the behaviors alleged in these two samples would differ from those found in cases of actual child sexual abuse.

False Memory Syndrome Foundation Sample

Sample

This sample was taken from a questionnaire project from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). In this project, lengthy questionnaires were sent to people whose adult children have accused them of recovered memories of repressed childhood sexual abuse.  Subjects are people who responded to newspaper articles or other media presentations in several cities about the FMSF, a tax-exempt research and educational institution formed in early 1992 that in two years had over 12,000 members.  Questionnaires were sent to samples of callers who reported that their adult child had recently recovered a memory of repressed sexual abuse that the caller denies.

The sample of questionnaires used in the present study are 398 surveys that were mailed out at various times beginning in February, 1992 and were returned as of July, 1993.  All of the families deny that the abuse happened.  There has been no effort to make an independent determination of the veracity of the denial.  (See Wakefield & Underwager, 1992b, 1992c and 1994 for a further description of the FMSF questionnaire project).

Procedure

The questionnaires gathered a wide range of information including family socioeconomic status, educational level of the family and adult child) psychiatric history, personality characteristics of the adult child now and as a child (as reported by the parents), current stresses or problems in the life of the adult child predating the allegations, presence or absence of civil lawsuits, nature of the abuse allegations, the number of people accused, the age of the child when the alleged abuse began, the progression of the allegations across time, the nature of the disclosure, the years the memory was repressed, whether the allegations arose in therapy, the nature of the therapy provided, the effects of the allegations on the families, etc.  There have been refinements of the questionnaires between mailings but the basic information requested has remained the same.

For the present study the portions of the questionnaire that were used were whether the accusing child was male or female, the age of the accusing child during the period of the alleged abuse, and whether the allegations were against mother, father, both mother and father, siblings, grandparents, or other (if "other" the respondent was asked to explain).  The respondents were asked to describe the abuse allegations that had been made.  The respondents were also asked specifically if the allegations included satanic cult or ritualistic abuse.

The open-ended question asking for the specific accusations was coded according to the abusive behaviors described.  Three researchers and two assistants went through the cases and discussed the definitions and criteria until this question could be coded reliably.

Results

Of the adult children making the allegations, 93% were females.  Table 4 indicates the age the accusing adult child maintains the abuse began.  In 84 of the questionnaires the respondent did not know or respond or gave a nonspecific response such as "very young," so the 314 cases with a specific response were used to calculate the percentages.

The abuse typically was said to have begun at a very young age.  For 29% (92) of the cases, the alleged events began at under age 2.  For 55% (169), the alleged events began from age 2 to 6.  Only in 16% (53) did the alleged events first happen at age 6 or older.  The median age for the age the accusing child claims the abuse began is between age 3 and 4.

Table 4

FMSF Questionnaire Sample:
Age the Accusing Adult Child Claims Abuse Started

Age Range

N = 314

0 > age < 1

1 > age < 2

2 > age < 3

3 > age < 4

4 > age < 5

5 > age < 6

6 > age < 7

7 > age < 8

8 > age < 9

9 > age < 10

10 and above                 

41

51

56

50

33

30

16

7

10

4

16

(13%)

(16%)

(18%)

(16%)

(11%)

(10%)

(5%)

(2%)

(3%)

(1%)

(5%)

Table 5 indicates the person accused.

Table 5

FMSF Questionnaire Sample: Person Accused

Person Accused

N = 398

Father only
Mother only
Both Mother and Father
Siblings
Grandparents
Others

244
6
113
50
33
89

(61%)
(3%)
(28%)
(10%)
(15%)
(22%)

Although fathers were usually the ones accused, mothers were often accused along with the fathers.  In one-third of the cases, a variety of other persons were accused, most often along with the parents.  In a few cases, neither parent was accused and the accused was an uncle or other relative.  But in most of the cases, others were accused along with the parents.  This was especially likely in the cases where ritualistic cults were alleged.

Over half (203) of the respondents appeared to have little idea concerning just what it was they were alleged to have done and gave vague responses such as "molesting," "sexual abuse," or we have never been told."  But in the 195 cases where this information was known, the allegations included a very high pro-portion of extremely deviant and intrusive behaviors.  Violence was alleged in 41% of the cases, rape in 44%, and witnesses to the abuse in 42%.  There were 67 cases involving allegations of satanic ritual abuse, which is 34% of the 203 cases where the respondents knew the nature of the allegations.2

The percentage of behaviors alleged for the 203 cases is shown in Table 6.

Table 6

FMSF Questionnaire Sample: Behaviors Alleged
N = 398

Vague, Don't Know, Not answered, "Sexual Abuse," or "Molesting"

203 (51%)

Mentioned Specific Behaviors

195 (49%)

Behaviors Alleged in the 195 Cases
That Mentioned Specific Behaviors

Fondling
Masturbation and/or exposure
Digital penetration
Oral sex
Vaginal penetration
Anal penetration
Rape
Forced abortions by parent
Violence involved
Murder
Witnesses or others involved
Satanic ritual abuse
Highly deviant behaviors

50
16
10
104
40
31
86
8
80
16
81
67
83

(26%)
(8%)
(5%)
(53%)
(21%)
(16%)
(44%)
(4%)
(41%)
(8%)
(42%)
(34%)
(43%)

Examples of the types of behaviors classified as highly deviant are shown in Table 7.

Table 7

Examples of Behaviors Classified as Highly
Deviant in the FMSF Questionnaire Sample

  1. Mother, father, and two babysitters forced her to sacrifice adults and children.
        
  2. Incest by her father, two grandfathers, and one grandmother that included satanic rituals, murder, and child pornography.
        
  3. Both grandmother and grandfather were involved in satanic rituals and sacrifices of animals and babies.  Her father also abused her.  Her siblings and mother were aware of this but have covered it up.
        
  4. In addition to anal, oral, and vaginal intercourse, objects, such as knives, umbrellas, keys, and marbles, were inserted in her vagina.
        
  5. Satanic ritualistic abuse by adults including mother, father, and maternal grandmother.  Mother is the head cult priestess in the state.  Her brother is the Anti-Christ.  She was raped by Satan and had a child by Satan.
        
  6. Satanic ritual abuse by her grandmother which was observed by her mother.
        
  7. Mother put her on a table under a light and stuck things in her genitals while her father held her down.  Her father raped her and knocked her unconscious when she tried to stop him from raping her sister.  Parents cut up animals and held the children's hands in the blood.
        
  8. Father abused her from infancy while mother watched.  Raped by older brother, uncles, and grandfather.  Satanically abused by grandmother.  Father and uncle were involved in pornography, murder, and prostitution.
        
  9. Abused in satanic abuse where she was tied up, raped orally, rectally, and vaginally, and strangled until she lost consciousness.
        
  10. Father, mother, and grandparents abused her in satanic rituals while wearing hooded black robes.  Forced to drink urine and blood.  Raped by grandfather while grandmothers and mother watched. Hung by her heels.  Abused with a hot poker, freezer, and washer wringer.
        
  11. Group sex with father and stepmother and siblings.  Beat with bow and arrow and razors.  Father attempted to drown her.
        
  12. Murdered and dismembered young boys and buried the bodies in the State park.
        
  13. Forced to have sex with a neighbor's dog and subsequently had a baby that was half dog.
        
  14. Forced to have sex with her uncle and a dog.  Head put in vice and when she screamed, a penis was put in her mouth.  Raped by someone wearing a mask.
        
  15. Beaten, raped, burned with cigarettes, thrown outside naked, given pills by her father and mother in an attempt to murder her.
        
  16. Raped by father and uncle.  Father performed an abortion on her in the coal bin with her two brothers helping.
        
  17. Repeated episodes of rape, oral sex, beatings, hands tied to bed, torture with a coca cola bottle, and clothespins put on her breasts and clitoris.
        
  18. Older sister held her down, blindfolded her, while father ejaculated into her mouth.
        
  19. Father anally raped her and then rubbed her feces on her back.  After he got her pregnant he performed a home abortion on her while laughing at her pain.  Aunt, mother, and friend abused her.  Father tried to drown her.  The doctor, who reported that he found no abortion scars, was involved in a conspiracy to discredit her.
        
  20. Mother tied her to the kitchen table, threatened with a knife, and forced her to perform oral sex on her.
        
  21. Father forced him to eat semen from a rusty pipe.
        
  22. Father tied her, while naked, spread-eagled to an iron bed and placed a dead squirrel on her chest.
        
  23. Raped by father, mother approved.  Gang raped by older brother while younger brother watched and laughed.  Molested by pastor.  Raped by grandfather.
        
  24. All family members were in a satanic cult.  The mother was the high priestess.  Was chosen as a "breeder."  The cult engaged in murder and cannibalism.
        
  25. Was forced to watch the murder of three women, including one cut up and put through a meat grinder at an uncle's meat market.
        
  26. Satanic cult abuse including father, mother, and grandfather.  Was taken to a ritual sacrifice by a lady in a green car.  Was demon possessed and exorcised.  Father has multiple personalities.
        
  27. Abused in a satanic cult that included mother and father, father's attorney, and the cantor of the synagogue.
        
  28. Abused by mother, father, stepmother, siblings, and grandparents in a satanic cult.  Mother was a breeder.  She was forced to deliver and kill 12th child borne by mother.  Babies were kidnapped and killed.  Maternal grandmother was a witch.  Weddings to Satan.
        
  29. Abused by mother, father, and parents' friends.  Forced to defecate on religious objects and smeared with excrement.  Forced to simulate copulation with dead and dying babies and siblings.  Forced to strap on a dildo and have intercourse with mother and female guests while men sat her on their penises.  When she became pregnant by her father, she was forcibly aborted and the baby was stabbed to death.
        
  30. Abused by mother, father, grandparents, brother, teacher, and father's business associates.  Taken to witches' house where people in cages were eaten.  Tortured by electric shock, thumb screws, and made to walk on hot coals and glass.  A man was shot and an old lady hanged.
        
  31. Abused by mother, father, strangers, blind uncle, nursery school teacher, and others.  Abuse included violent rape, rape with scissors, killing babies, worshiping Satan, eating ears and other organs, and being sold into child prostitution.
        
  32. Abused by father, mother, grandparents, brother, and brother's friends.  The abuse included torture, guns, knives, electrodes, carrots, chicken pants and water hoses in bath by mother, anal and vaginal rape and fish hooks in vagina by father.  Raped by brother and his friends.  Impregnated and forced to have 4 abortions.  Placed in small boxes with dog feces and semen.
        
  33. Satanic cult included parents and family friends who are also members of the KKK.  Six adults molested 13 children.  Killed cats and made them drink blood.  Tied hands and legs and beat her and put crochet hooks in her vagina.  Also abused grandchildren.

Divorce and Custody Archival Sample

Sample

The sample in this group was from 216 cases involving sexual abuse allegations during divorce and custody we had seen in our forensic practice from 1984 through 1991.  The purpose of this archival research project was to examine the characteristics of these cases.

We analyzed 216 cases of sexual abuse allegations involving 325 children.  We classified the cases into three groups — "abuse likely true," "no abuse probable," and "cannot determine on the basis of our judgment after reviewing the file.  In the "abuse likely true" group, in addition to our judgment, either the accused admitted the abuse or the justice system determined the abuse was real.

The "no abuse likely" group was further subdivided according to the determination of the justice system.  The group used for analysis here was the sample of 134 cases where we classified the group as "no abuse probable" and where the justice system resulted in either no conviction in criminal court or a determination of no abuse in family court.  Although in research in this area there is always the question of purity of groups, we believed this stringent criteria would result in a relatively pure group where the allegations were most likely to be false.

This sample is not random, since it came from cases where we were asked by attorneys to evaluate and consult on the case.  We are therefore unlikely to see cases where the accused admits the abuse since such cases are apt to result in a guilty plea without the retention of experts.  We are also less likely to see cases where the allegation is retracted or determined to be unfounded by child protection.

Procedure

HW reviewed the material available in the case files and recorded the information using forms developed by both of us.  We examined variables such as the sex and age of the child, the origin and timing of the disclosure, the type of any reported physical evidence, the nature of the investigation, the type and quality of the evidence used by investigators, the personality characteristics and behavior of the parties involved, the nature of the allegations, and the characteristics of the interviews and of the child's statement.  In addition, we rated the skill of the attorney who handled the case.  The information was then entered into a computer for tabulation.

For this particular study, we looked at the sex and age of the child at the time the abuse was said to have occurred, who was accused, and the nature of the sexually abusive behaviors alleged.

Results

There were a total of 196 children involved in the 134 cases classified as no abuse probable.  Of these 72% were girls and 28% were boys.

Table 8 indicates the age of the child at the time the abuse was alleged to have first occurred.

The abuse was said to have begun at a very young age, although not as young as in the FMSF recovered memory sample.  For 5% (10) of the cases, the alleged events began at under age 2.  For 67% (131), the alleged events began from age 2 to 6.  Only in 28% (55) did the alleged events first happen at age 6 or older.  The median age for the age the abuse was said to have begun is 4.6.

Most of the accused were the fathers or stepfathers of the children, although 6 women were also accused (5 mothers and 1 stepmother).  There were also 2 grandparents and 4 boyfriends.  Of the total accused, only 4% were females, which is consistent with what is known about actual sexual abuse, where the offenders are overwhelmingly male.

Table 8

Divorce and Custody No Abuse Probable Sample:
Age the Abuse was Alleged to Have Occurred

Age Range

N = 196

0 > age < 2

2 > age < 3

3 > age < 4

4 > age < 5

5 > age < 6

6 > age < 7

7 > age < 8

8 > age < 9

9 > age < 10

10 and above                 

10

27

39

40

25

17

9

9

4

16

(5%)

(14%)

(20%)

(20%)

(13%)

(9%)

(5%)

(5%)

(2%)

(8%)

Table 9 indicates the types of behaviors alleged.

Table 9

Divorce and Custody No Abuse Probable Sample:
Abusive Behaviors Alleged
N = 119*

Behaviors Alleged in the 119 Cases

Fondling only

Fondling included

Masturbation and/or exposure

Made child touch adult's genitals

Touched child's genitals with penis

Digital penetration

Oral sex, either to or by child
(Oral sex to child)
(Made child perform oral sex)

Vaginal penetration

Anal penetration

Objects paced in vagina or anus

Other people included

Violence involved

Satanic ritual abuse

Highly deviant behaviors

22

57

7

4

34

39
29
19

21

20

11

13

26

5

23

(18%)

(48%)

(6%)

(7%)

(3%)

(29%)

(33%)
(22%)
(16%)

(18%)

(17%)

(9%)

(11%)

(22%)

(4%)

(19%)

* In 15 of the total 134 cases in this category, the behavior alleged was unknown so this analysis is only for the 119 cases where the specific behavior alleged was available.

The allegations included a very high proportion of extremely deviant and intrusive behaviors compared to cases of actual abuse.  Violence was alleged in 22% of the cases, others involved or witnesses to the abuse in 11%, and highly deviant behaviors in 18%, including 5 cases of satanic ritual abuse allegations.  Although fondling was alleged in almost half of the cases, in only 18% was this all that was alleged.

Examples of the types of behaviors classified as highly deviant in the divorce and custody sample are shown in Table 10.

Table 10

Examples of Behaviors Classified as Highly
Deviant in the Divorce and Custody Sample

  1. The father brutally raped and beat the girl four nights in a row, the brother (on a separate occasion) put his entire fist up her vagina while wearing a mask and a Raggedy Ann costume.
        
  2. The father put toys into the child's vagina.
        
  3. The father put objects in the child's vagina, threatened to burn her on the stove, and engaged in sexual activities Involving a dog.
        
  4. The father pushed a shovel into the child's private parts.
        
  5. The father pushed a spoon handle into the two girls' vaginas, put Q-tips down their noses and throats, hit and bit them, and defecated on them. The father wore the mother's blue nightgown, held the children upside down naked and made them walk on their hands while blindfolded outside in the back yard.
        
  6. The children were orally and anally abused in a hot tub with several people while photographs were taken.
        
  7. A knife was inserted into the child's genitals.
        
  8. The father made the child lick his genitals clean, knocked her off the bed, made her climb trees, and poked her with a stick that looked like a sword.
        
  9. The father stuck marbles and sticks in the child's vagina, licked her pee pee and then cut it up and threw it away.
        
  10. The father and his girlfriend were in a satanic ritualistic cult. One night the father and his girlfriend entered the children's house while the mother slept downstairs.  The father had a knife and forced the children to drink his urine and to drink blood while the girlfriend defecated on the floor.  Urine was then poured in their hair and they were forced to eat the feces.  The father and girlfriend then left the house without awakening the mother.
        
  11. The father defecated on the child.
        
  12. Cats were involved in the sexual activities that included anal and vaginal penetration.
        
  13. The child's penis was removed from his body, put in the father's mouth, and then superglued back on.
        
  14. The child was abused in satanic rituals.  The father took him through the woods to a Halloween dance with naked men.  A robot bear ripped off the legs and arms of a man and all of the boys had to eat human flesh.  Photographs were taken during this.
        
  15. The father dug up dead bodies and dismembered them with a chain saw.
        
  16. The father, wearing blue earrings, a pink dress, and a wig, scratched the child's pee pee while wearing pink press-on fingernails.  The grandmother was in the house during this time.  The abuse took place in the bathroom which had a secret passage.
        
  17. The father called the children names and struck and laughed at them during the abuse.  He put a dog collar and chain around one girl's neck and a wooden spoon up her crotch.  A woman and the children's grandfather were involved in the abuse.  One girl was forced to bite the other girl's crotch.
        
  18. The child was anally raped by the father while the father's girlfriend held her down.  Then, he urinated on her and they placed a lighted candle into her vagina.
        
  19. Two children were subjected to an ritual orgy with 5 people, including the elderly grandparents.  The children were urinated on during the abuse, and were forced to drink urine out of a baby bottle and to eat poopy sandwiches.
        
  20. The father regularly subjected his two girls to ritual abuse.  The children were tied to specially constructed "chain boards" and then abused by the father and the father's girlfriend.  The father kept extra chain boards at different locations.  Photographs were taken.  They attended a satanic church where the adults wore devil costumes and the children were forced to eat mouse stew during a satanic feast.
        
  21. The mother took the child to satanic rituals involving several adults.  During the abuse, the adults wore blue diapers into which they urinated.  Photographs were taken.
        
  22. The father pulled one child's hair, locked the children in the freezer, put guns to their heads, put his penis into their mouths, urinated on them, forced them to have sex with each other, swung the boy by his penis, put a child's head in the toilet, gave the children drugs, put sticks up their anus, and threatened them with a gun.  This was sometimes done with others present.
        
  23. The father rubbed a magic pink lotion on the child and then hit her with a hammer and attacked her with pliers.

Discussion

There are substantial differences between both of our samples and the sexual behaviors reported by researchers in cases where the abuse is most likely true.

In both the divorce and custody and in the FMSF samples, the abuse is said to have begun at a much younger age than is found in cases of actual abuse.  Although some very young children are abused, most victims are not preschoolers.  The literature indicates the average age is between ages 6 and 12.  But in the divorce and custody sample the median age the abuse was alleged to begin was between 4 and 5 and only in 28% was it at age 6 and older.  In the FMSF sample, 29% claimed to have first been abused at under age 2 and only 16% said the abuse began at age 6 and older.  The median age was between 3 and 4.

Given the information on infantile amnesia, it is highly unlikely that actual events from such young ages would be accurately recalled.  Adults and older children do not usually remember incidents from their lives that happen prior to age 3 or 4 (Eisenberg, 1985; Fivush & Hamond, 1990; Howe & Courage, 1993; Loftus, 1993; Nelson, 1993; Nelson & Ross, 1980; Pillemer & White, 1989; Wetzler & Sweeney, 1986).  Although Usher and Neisser (1993) recently reported that some events can be remembered from age 2, there is no indication that people can remember from birth to 2, as was alleged in 29% of the FMSF sample.  This inability to recall events from an early age is a function of the normal process of growth and development.  The phenomenon of infantile or childhood amnesia means that claims of remembering abuse that occurred at a very early age are suspect.

Whereas real abuse almost always takes place in secret with no witnesses or accomplices, both of these samples included a large proportion where others were alleged to have either witnessed or participated in the abuse.  This was true for two-fifths of the FMSF sample and one-tenth of the divorce and custody sample.

The behaviors alleged in both the divorce and custody sample and the FMSF sample differ in substantial ways from what has been reported about the behavior of actual abusers.  The behaviors described in both of these groups are much more unusual, intrusive, and deviant than has been found in cases of verified abuse.  One in five cases in the divorce and custody sample and two in five in the FMSF sample included such behaviors.  Many of the purported behaviors are impossible or completely unbelievable and others have such low base rates that the probability of their actually occurring in a given instance becomes extremely small.

Allegations of satanic ritual abuse were found in 5 (4%) of the divorce and custody sample and in 67 (34%) of the FMSF sample.  The large proportion of satanic ritual abuse allegations reflects the media attention to such allegations and has been seen in allegations in day care and other cases.  Preliminary data from a survey by the American Bar Association indicated that approximately one-fourth of local prosecutors have handled cases involving "ritualistic or satanic abuse" (Victor, 1993).

The allegations in claims of ritual satanic abuse have not been independently verified.  Despite hundreds of investigations by the FBI and police, there is no independent evidence of ritual abuse, animal and human sacrifice, murder, and cannibalism of hundreds of children by a conspiracy of apparently normal adults who are functional and organized enough to leave no trace of their activities (Hicks, 1991; Lanning, 1991, 1992; Putnam, 1991; Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991; Underwager & Wakefield, 1991; Victor, 1991a, 1991b, 1993; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c, 1994).  But this knowledge does not dissuade those who believe in their existence.

In only half of the FMSF sample had the accused parents been given any details about what they were supposed to have done and the percentages were calculated only on the half that reported specific information.  It may be that the questionnaires where the response was too vague to code (i.e., "We've never been told just what we were supposed to have done," "You sexually abused me from ages 2 to 8," "You molested me.") include a high proportion of less deviant and extreme behaviors.  But even if this were to prove to be the case, the proportions of highly improbable and bizarre allegations in this sample would still be much greater than has been reported in cases of actual abuse.

There has been much publicity concerning adults who claim to have recovered memories of "repressed" childhood sexual abuse.  The alleged abuse is often severe, is said to happen repeatedly across long periods of time, and often involves bizarre ritual satanic abuse.  Some of these cases end up in court when the adult "survivor" sues the alleged abuser.  There is seldom any corroboration of the alleged abusive acts.  However, therapists involved in uncovering the abuse stress the importance of believing in the reality of the abuse as a therapeutic act, even when the patient is uncertain.

Such recovered memories are likely to be generated by therapists who unwittingly influence a suggestible and troubled client to construct memories of childhood abuse.  Often the alleged abuse is not remembered until the adult sees a therapist who uses techniques such as survivors' groups, dream interpretation, hypnotherapy, and self-help books, such as The Courage to Heal (Paperback)(Audio Cassette) (Bass & Davis, 1988).  The "memories" often grow and become more elaborate across time (see Wakefield & Underwager, 1994, for an analysis of recovered memory therapy).

Therapists involved in such cases appear to lack understanding of important concepts in psychology.  They are apt to misunderstand concepts such as repression, dissociation, traumatic amnesia, and memory, to fail to accurately understand what takes place in hypnosis, and to fail to appreciate the power of suggestibility and social influence.  They also do not understand the importance of considering base rates when evaluating the likelihood of a hypothesized event.

Conclusions

The evaluation of sexual abuse allegations is difficult.  In divorce and custody disputes the cases are complicated by the young age of the children involved, possible motivations of adults, and the need to protect the rights, interests, and welfare of both the child and of the accused parent.  It is important to assess the type of behavior alleged in light of the base rates for that behavior.  If the allegations do not fit what is known about actual cases of abuse or if they include bizarre, improbable behaviors they appear more likely to be false.  Although there is no easy way to assess sexual abuse cases, this information is an essential factor to consider.

In therapy with adults, therapists must not become convinced that a client who reports no childhood abuse must nevertheless have been abused because of the nature of the presenting symptoms.  Therapists making such assumptions run the risk of inadvertently suggesting and reinforcing memories of childhood abuse that are false.  If the client initiates the claims of abuse in the course of therapy, knowledge of what is likely or unlikely will help the therapist respond more appropriately.  It is not therapeutic to reinforce or encourage false beliefs about abuse.

The results of the analyses provide important information for the mental health professionals, therapists, and investigators who deal with such cases.  Many people appear to be unaware of the behavior of actual sexual abusers.  When professionals fail to consider baseline probabilities, they are likely to inadvertently encourage false allegations and even help create memories for events that never occurred.

References

  

1  Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager are psychologists at the Institute for Psychological Therapies, 5263 130th Street East, Northfield, MN 55057-4880.

This article is adapted with permission of the publisher from Return of the Furies: An Investigation Into Recovered Memory Therapy (Paperback), 1994, Open Court Publishing Company, 332 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 2000, Chicago, Illinois 60604.

This research was first presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, Chicago, Illinois, November 6, 1993.  [Back]

2 This is a higher percentage than has been reported elsewhere on this research (Wakefield and Underwager, 1 992b, 1992c).  The reason is that in this analysis, the percentages were calculated only on the 195 questionnaires where the respondents were able to give specific information about the nature of the allegations. If the percentage is calculated using the entire sample of 398 questionnaires, it will be 17%.  [Back]

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