Burn The Witch! (If We're Wrong,
Terry L. Kern*
ABSTRACT: The belief in the existence of widespread satanic ritual
abuse and the search for those who are practicing such rituals parallels
the witch hunts in the 17th century. The basic assumptions,
indicators, and types of evidence of the earlier witch hunts and the
current concerns with satanic ritual abuse are examined and found to have
much in common.
The Value of History
We live in an age in which debate represents as much an exchange of
labels as it does ideas. In this atmosphere, the term "witch
hunt," overused as it is, serves as such a label. The term is
normally used in a pejorative sense to connote an indiscriminate search
for those accused of some malice, real or imagined, often in support of an
agenda. For most Americans, "witch hunt" brings to mind
the hearings conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Witch hunting is
more than a label, however, or an image of misapplied power. It is,
rather, a process by which the hunter creates the prey and defines the
means by which it will be hunted.
I posit that there exists within this country today a new witch hunt
under the guise of satanic ritual abuse (SRA). Several different
definitions of SRA have been given, but all have in common the alleged
performance of acts of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse upon children
while performing some act of worship to Satan usually involving a
group. The search for those who allegedly practice such rituals in
Satan's service today parallels the hunts conducted for witches believed
to act in his service in Europe and America in the 17th century. Witch hunting is as much a matter of mindset as method.
For a search for
the devil's disciples to be prosecuted, certain assumptions and beliefs must be held as
valid. Furthermore, they must be held as valid in the face of persuasive
evidence, which unless dismissed out of hand, would invalidate those
I will limit my examinations of witch hunting to what passed for
evidence and the use of that evidence by public officials in two specific
instances. The examples are meant to be illustrative and should not be
considered as universal to witch hunting.
Witch hunts have occurred the world over in many different societies
and within many diverse cultural frameworks. Witch hunts in the 17th
century were not a constant. They would appear first here, now there, as
circumstances allowed. These circumstances include social, religious, and
economic stressors and conditions. Witch hunting in England, for example,
was as different from Germany as Germany was different from witch hunting
in Spain. Even the concept of witches as persons, usually women, working
malice and mischief in fealty to Satan, was the result of an evolutionary
process. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all of the
components of that process.
Current concerns with Satanism, generally, and SRA, specifically, are
not new. There is a firm historical context for both. If history has any
useful purpose, it is that it demonstrates that few, if any,
circumstances are unique. Historian Gustav Henningsen, who has written
extensively on European witch hunting, points out that, "Unless we
understand in advance that human nature is unvarying and that only
conditions change, historical research would be meaningless" (1980, p. 26).
Such an understanding of human nature was evidenced by the Reverend
John Higginson when he wrote the following preface for A Modest Inquiry
Into The Nature of Witchcraft concerning the Salem witch trials:
I am persuaded that such a treatise as this is needful and useful ... that whatever errors or mistakes we fell into in the dark hour of
temptation that was upon us may be (upon more light) so discovered by us
that it may be a matter of warning and caution to those who come after us that they may not fall
into the like (Hansen, 1969, p.220).
Higginson regarded the witch trials and subsequent executions at Salem
as a repeatable phenomenon and wrote those words in the hope that a
mistake unrepeated would represent a calamity avoided. It is in the hope
that such a calamity may be avoided that this paper is written.
The Invisible World
Witch hunts, within the context of targeting the devil's disciples,
require a belief in the devil in some form. This may be as an essence or
as an anthropomorphic being. Even if the existence of the devil is not a
universally held belief, it must necessarily be held by some. One cannot
hold allegiance to that in which one does not believe. Those living in the
times of the European witch hunts during the 1600s believed in an
invisible world inhabited by spirits. Historian Joseph Klaits, who wrote
of European witch hunting, observed that "hardly anyone challenged
the universal opinion that supernatural forces constantly intervened in
everyday life, rewarding and punishing, blessing or cursing" (1985,
This invisible world was extraordinary in that it went beyond the five
senses through which we interpret our world and form our reality. But as
anthropologist S. F. Nadel, writing of African witchcraft observes,
"Witchcraft creates an imaginary world of cause and effect to which
the criteria of our own reality are almost inapplicable" (Nadel,
1935, p. 426). This belief in an invisible world placed the image of the
witch as one who lived in the real world but accessed the invisible.
Further, this view aided the belief that since witches were extraordinary
people, extraordinary means may be required to identify them. The five
senses, would, therefore, be ineffective.
Today's witch hunters also see themselves as seeking persons living in
the visible world who draw upon the invisible. Lieutenant Larry Jones of
the Boise, Idaho police, and very much a believer in the existence of a
Satanic cult conspiracy, advises:
When confronting those criminals who are led or controlled by
supernatural evil beings, philosophies or motivations, traditional
police tools are not effective (Smith & Watalad, 1989, p. 100).
There are criminals of this world, according to Jones, who are so aided
by supernatural beings of the invisible world that traditional police
tools, even if previously proven effective, will not be effective against
This line of thinking seriously undermines public confidence in the
ability of public authorities to investigate and ultimately solve crimes
with Satanic overtones. Furthermore, it opens the door for employment of
unproven or questionable methods in the search for the devil's own. The
danger lies in that one finds what one seeks. The "success" of
extraordinary or questionable methods to unmask previously unidentified
servants of Satan helps explain the "failure" of more
traditional methods to do so. This has the additional effect of
legitimizing the methods employed.
It is difficult for mortal beings to directly confront the supernatural
beings of the invisible world but not so difficult to confront their human
agents, providing they can be identified. Such agents personalize both the
malice done and the responsibility for such malice. Furthermore, the
existence of these human agents presents a convenient remedy
Before any action can be taken against a witch, the witch must first be
identified. Although not universally employed, some of the 17th century
witch hunters used behavioral checklists. The belief was that a witch
would exhibit some verbal or physical behavior which would betray them.
For example, H. C. Erik Midelfort writes of a list of proposed questions
used by the prosecutor in the Southwestern German territory of Ellwangen
in the early 1600s. The list began by "asking if the accused could
say the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria, the Creed, or the Ten
Commandments" (1972, p.105). The belief among those employing the
lists of verbal indicators was that prayers were of God and no person who
was of Satan could say them.
At about this same time, Henri Boquet, a witch-hunting prosecutor in the
Bergundian Franche-Conte, proposed a similar list of indicators. Physical
indicators included an expression of fear on the face of the accused and the
inability to shed tears. Blasphemous language constituted a verbal
indicator while the failure to seek redress for a previous accusation of
witchcraft was considered a guilty behavior (Klaits, 1985, p.142).
Positive indicators of witchcraft justified the application of torture,
the use of which soon produced a confession and the identity of a
"confirmed" witch. These "witches" then denounced
others who did likewise until, taken together, these
"confessions" validated the belief in witches in league with the
devil. Torture was not universally used in the witch hunts, and
confessions were obtained without it. But where it was used, the success
it brought in obtaining confessions legitimized both its use and the
indicators of guilt used to sanction it.
Alternate explanations for "guilty" behaviors were neither
sought nor accepted with any frequency, although such explanations
existed. For example, a person is apt to display an expression of fear
because the prospect of execution by fire is terrifying. And certainly,
one might forego redress for a witchcraft accusation when there is no
reasonable prospect of obtaining it. But seemingly innocuous behaviors
were viewed in the worst possible light.
Checklists are still very much in vogue today. Daniel Ryder, a licensed
social worker and counselor, lists these behaviors as indicators of
satanic ritual abuse: fear of being in a circle; vague memories of
childhood; fear of being the center of attention; problems with sex;
exaggerated codependency characteristics; lack of trust; problems with
relationships; fear of abandonment; compulsivity; use or avoidance of
alcohol and other drugs; survivor guilt; extreme scrupulosity; phobia
about snakes; an extremely passive nature with an inordinate fear of
violence, guns, and knives; and dreams with reoccurring images of blood,
rogue figures, etc. (1992, pp. 1-8). According to Ryder, these may be
indicators of hidden trauma evidenced by adult "survivors" of
satanic ritual abuse experienced as a child. For example, Ryder tells us
that during cult ceremonies, human circles are formed and that the child
to be abused even killed is placed in the center of the circle
(p. 2). Once the memory of the abuse is recalled by the conscious mind, the reason
for the fear is understood. There are alternate explanations for all of
these, of course. Nightmares occur for a variety of reasons and many
persons who have never been abused fear being the center of attention.
These behaviors may be found in some abuse victims but they are not
exclusive to abuse.
The use of checklists in the 17th century and today are different in
that today's lists do not attribute behaviors to those who do malice but,
rather, to those who have had it done to them. Through them, the devil's
own are identified and denounced. The checklists are similar in that each
item may be considered as a pass-fail test with the failure of such a test
constituting evidence of the devil's hand. These checklists share the same
basic danger checklists are seductively simple and open to many
During the European witch craze of the early 1600s, two men, Pierre de
Lancre of France and Alonzo de Salazar of Spain, were presented with the
confessions of accused witches, the denunciation of others as witches by
the confessed, and ointments and concoctions said to be poisonous. Each
examined similar evidence but drew far different conclusions with equally
different consequences (see Klaits, 1985; Henningsen, 1980).
Pierre de Lancre was counselor in the Parliament of Bordeaux. He was
commissioned by King Henry W as prosecutor in the Basque region of the
Labourd in southern France. He was vested with the extraordinary authority
to interrogate under torture and pronounce summary death sentences. This
authority was granted because of the belief that the number of sorcerers
had increased dramatically.
In 1609, de Lancre had 80 women executed for witchcraft. In 1612, he
published his demonological work Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais
anges et demons (Description of the inconsistency of evil angels and
demons). In this work, he set out a description of the witches' sabbat
which helped transform the image of a witch from a solitary threat to a
communal being. His description was based upon the confessions of accused
witches and 500 informants most children who claimed to have viewed the
Dc Lancre depicts the sabbat as an altogether lurid and lubricious
affair attended by numerous witches who came from various distances.
These witches allegedly flew atop
diverse accoutrements and appliances not normally associated with aviation, such as pitchforks, broomsticks, shovels, spits, horses, and
cattle. Most sabbats were attended by a dozen or so witches, but some were
said to involve more than 12,000 (a figure which should have given rise to
some skepticism). The devil, for his part, might take the form of a goat,
bull, or similar creature. No matter what his form, few accounts fail to
mention the size of his genitals, which were used frequently and
indiscriminately throughout the proceedings. This was in keeping with the
sexual overtones of the sabbat which was described by Klaits as follows:
A festive air prevailed, reminiscent of the wedding or court
celebration. Generally, the proceedings began with the witches kissing
their master's rear. Then each witch reported what malfice she had
carried out since the last sabbat. Those with nothing to report were
whipped. The business meeting concluded, a work session followed, during
which the women industriously concocted poisons and ointments out of
black bread and the rendered fat of murdered infants. Having built up an
appetite, they next banqueted on babies' limbs and toads, foods
variously reviewed as succulent or awful tasting. Then the devil
presided over a parody of the Mass. Finally, the social hour: the naked
witches danced lasciviously back to back until the dancing turned into a
sexual orgy that continued to the dawn. Incest and homosexual
intercourse were encouraged. Often the devil would climax the
proceedings painfully it was generally reported with every man, woman,
and child in attendance, as mothers yielded to Satan before their
daughter's eyes and initiated them into the sexual service of their
diabolic master (1985, p 2).
De Lancre's account of the sabbat ran some 200 detailed pages. He came
to believe that the entire Basque region was rife with witches and
considered the witches' description of the sabbat as proof that the army
of Satan really did exist. This belief was strengthened by the similarity
in the stories told. However, attempts to verify or corroborate the
specific details of the witches' stories were not made. It was enough for
de Lancre to accept the broad motifs.
Accounts of the sabbats were communicated across the Pyrenees from
southern France to northern Spain by 1611. As in France, witches were
sought and found. The Inquisitional Court at Navarre tried 53 persons for
witchcraft and 29 of them were found guilty. Prison conditions killed five
of them, six died at the stake, and five were flogged. The remainder
received various lighter sentences (Hansen, 1969, p.224-225). But these sentences did not stem
the tide of witchcraft accusations, and one of the inquisitors from the
court at Navarre was commissioned to investigate the claims of witchcraft.
Father Alonzo de Salazar determined to examine these accounts for
detail by interviewing confessed witches separately, secretly, and at the
scene of the supposed sabbat. The confessed witches were questioned on the
specific details of their accounts such as where the devil sat, how the
witch traveled to the sabbat, how the others arrived, how they got into
the house, how they got out, what they ate, where they danced, and whether
they heard clocks or bells in the area. The confessed witches contradicted
each other in answering nearly all of those questions. As to the ointments
or poisons prepared by the witches, de Salazar tested them by feeding them
to livestock without harm to the animals. Confronted with this, the
witches admitted that these concoctions were pork fat not baby fat
with chimney soot and water. The witches had turned the materials over to
the prosecutor to satisfy the judge's belief that they were harmful.
led de Salazar to suspect that such counterfeit substances had been
received as evidence at Navarre.
De Lancre had considered the similarities in the stories told by the
confessed witches as compelling evidence of widespread witch cults. De
Salazar examined similar accounts of the sabbats including women flying
broomsticks, dancing with the devil, and making poison ointments. But de
Salazar did not find that evidence convincing and applied a more
"traditional tool" of seeking corroboration. From this, de
I have not found a single proof nor even the slightest indication
from which to infer that one act of witchcraft has actually taken place
... Rather I have found what I already had begun to suspect in these
cases before my experiences during the visitation; that the testimony of
accomplices alone even if they had not been submitted to violence and
compulsion without further support from external facts substantiated by
persons who are not witches is insufficient to warrant even an arrest (Henningsen, 1980, p. 304).
Contagion and Contamination Through Communication
De Salazar came to the conclusion that the consistency in the broad
strokes of the witches' stories was due to communication between the witches.
In fact, de Salazar
himself overheard two accused witches comparing stories while in prison.
That which would justify death at the stake in France would not justify an
arrest in Spain. In 1614, the year de Salazar completed his investigation,
Imperial Spain stretched from the Pyrenees to Peru and from that time on,
as a result of de Salazar's work, no person could be executed for
witchcraft in Spanish territory. De Salazar accomplished this by denying
neither the existence of his God nor of the devil; only the existence of
The graphic and lurid accounts depicted in the sabbat of orgiastic sex,
cannibalism, and incest are strikingly similar to accounts told by alleged
survivors of satanic ritual abuse. Today, as in the 17th century, people
who have never met tell similar stories of abuse at the hands of the
devil. And the similarity in stories is considered evidence of the work of
Satan's servants by some. Lt. Larry Jones observes that the
"statements by victims from different parts of the country tally with
each other" (Larsen, 1989, p.122). To evangelist Bob Larsen, these
"common elements combined to form a framework of evil" (1989, p.
11). However, when de Salazar's method of examining details is applied,
instead of the acceptance of the broad strokes, a similar result is seen.
As Robert Hicks, a criminal justice analyst who advises Virginia law
enforcement agencies, points out:
Survivor stories are not comparable when details are matched. Survivors, in fact, do not tell the same stories; their stories merely
exhibit the same dozen or so primary motifs.
For example, one primary motif concerns the wearing of robes for
satanic ceremonies. If one believes the literal truth of a survivor's
claims, one stops there: the other details do not take on importance.
But to a folklorist, the other details are important, and to an
anthropologist, even more so. What color robes were worn? Precisely,
what did the robes look like (length; type of fastenings; hooded or
non-hooded, and so on)? Any difference between robes worn by men or
women? At what point in the ceremony did participants don robes?
them? Were the robes decorated by any symbols? What kind of symbols?
participants wear robes of specific colors and symbols depending on the
longevity of their membership in the cult, of their status, of their
sex, or their specific functions at rituals? Or did robe colors and
symbolism reflect mastery of the ritual trade; that is, did journeymen
Satanists wear one color, apprentice Satanists another; what rules
govern the storage and safe keeping of robes and how? Of what material?
On the level of such details, the stories don't compare (1991, p. 166).
Like the sabbats of de Lancre, survivors' stories deal only with the
sexually sadistic or bizarre. Belief in the stories gave the sabbats
subjective credibility, not validation. In the same way today, it is the
uncritical belief in survivors' stories that gives them credibility, and
then only to the believers. The cult described by survivors and its
rituals have not been validated by evidence.
That people who have never met each other say the same things can be
explained by communication and contagion. We have observed how stories of
the sabbat were spread from France to Spain. In the same way, therapists
who treat alleged survivors network with other therapists, and patients
with other patients. Sherrill Mulhern, an anthropologist at the University
of Paris who has studied therapeutic practices and alleged survivors,
Since the beginning of the satanic panic this networking has
intensified. There are many instances where cult therapists, often
former patients with recovered cult memories, are treating groups of
patients still in therapy attempting to uncover similar memories. Newly
"cultified" patients attend these sessions absolutely
convinced that the survivor-therapist really knows what They do and
"whatever They did to her, They did to me" (1991, p.157).
Television tabloids frequently feature survivors providing the same
stories to people who they have never met but with whom they are,
nevertheless, communicating. It is therefore little wonder that survivors
say the same things. But their stories do not constitute a stand-alone
body of evidence.
Perhaps one of the strongest parallels between early witch hunts and
today can be drawn from the Court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem in 1692
and its use of spectral evidence. Spectral evidence concerned evidence of
the specter or apparition of the accused rather than the bodily person.
Only the accuser could see the specter of the accused and this was called
spectral sight. During the trails, the afflicted demonstrated fits or
seizures which they attributed to the action of the accused's specters.
The accused themselves never moved from where they stood. The judges,
who were "specter blind," could only accept the word of the accusers that they were being tormented by the specters of the
These fits, more than any other "evidence" presented, helped
send 20 persons to their deaths. First, Betty Parris and then Anne Putnam
Jr. and Abigail Williams began acting in an unusual manner. This included
contorting themselves into odd positions and making strange gestures.
uttered foolish statements which nobody could understand, while at other
times they were dumb as if choked. The conventional practice of medicine
being what it was, the physician who examined them, Dr. William Grigs,
could offer no physical reason for their afflictions. Instead he said,
"They are under the evil hand." (Cotton Mather in Bun, 1914).
This was a diagnosis similar to that reached in Boston by Dr. Thomas
Oakes in 1688. There he examined the four children of John Goodwin, who had
manifested similar symptoms, and gave the opinion that "nothing but
an hellish witchcraft" could be the cause of the children's
afflictions. Interestingly, Cotton Mather, who would play a significant
role at Salem, also examined the children. Mather, who had studied medicine, described the children as having "strange fits, beyond
those that attend an epilepsy or a catalepsy" (Hansen, 1969, p. 127).
Clearly, the violence of the fits were impressive and frightening to those
who observed them. To the observer, they became evidence of the devil's
The belief in that evidence, manifested in this manner, overcame the
belief in the innocence of the accused manifested by their lives. In the
case of Rebecca Nurse, 39 of her neighbors signed a petition stating that
according to their observation "her life and conversation were
according to her profession (as a Christian) and we never had any cause or
grounds to suspect her of any such thing as she is now accused of."
One of the signers was Jonathan Putnam, who with Edward Putnam, swore out
the original complaint against her but who had since changed his mind
(Cotton Mather, in Bun, 1914). On July 19, 1692, Rebecca Nurse went to the
gallows at Salem. She bid her family a tearful and public farewell
protesting her innocence in the name of God, before whom she would soon be
judged. She forgave those who condemned her and prayed for the pardon of
all for their sins. By these public actions, she had behaved in a manner which was contrary to that expected of a witch.
evidence could not be overcome and she was hanged.
George Burroughs, a minister, was hanged for witchcraft on August 19th.
Before his death, he did what no witch was supposed to be capable of
doing; he recited the Lord's Prayer. What's more, he said it publicly and
perfectly with great sincerity. Persons within the assembled crowd
expressed doubt as to Burroughs' guilt as it was the common belief that no
witch was capable of reciting the Lord's Prayer. Only the intervention of
Cotton Mather allowed the hanging to proceed. Mather rode forward on his
horse and addressed the crowd saying "that the devil has often been
transformed into an angel of light." (Hansen, 1969. p.148).
Mather was caught in a bind. Had he accepted Burroughs' prayers as
evidence of innocence, spectral evidence would no longer be considered
evidence of guilt. And if it was not evidence of Burroughs' guilt, it
surely wasn't evidence of Rebecca Nurse's guilt. So, instead, Mather
allowed that the devil might permit his subjects to say the Lord's Prayer
after all, thereby negating an indicator long held to be evidence of
witchcraft. This demonstrates how difficult it was to prove one's innocence
of witchcraft (Hansen, 1969).
Even at Salem, there was contagion. Joseph Ballard of Andover sent for
some of the afflicted girls at Salem to examine his wife. Their spectral
sight produced results and soon Andover had its very own population of
afflicted persons, and more than 50 people were complained of. Even dogs
were put to death on the word of the afflicted (Hansen, 1969).
However, at Andover, something quite different happened when the
accusers pointed out "a certain gentleman of Boston" as one of
their tormentors. He responded with "a writ to arrest those accusers
in a thousand pound action for defamation" (Hansen, 1969, p. 156).
This tactic had not been previously employed by any of the accused. The
novelty of it alone would attract attention, but a thousand pounds
substantial sum in those days added to the effect. A suit of this
magnitude caused a rethinking of the evidence. Both the public and other
ministers began to doubt the validity of spectral evidence. Within a few
years, its use as evidence would no longer be permitted. At Andover,
it wasn't just a suit that ended the accusations. Rather, it was the belief that spectral
evidence would prove an ineffective defense to such a suit that helped to
bring an end to the accusations. One would now be required to produce
tangible evidence or face the consequences of a failed accusation.
The New Spectral Evidence
Spectral evidence is still in vogue today. The survivors are the only
ones who have seen the work of Satan's servants, and often that sight
involves recovered memory, often through hypnosis. This involves an
abreaction, which is a re-experiencing in an altered state of
consciousness of traumatic material in a secure therapeutic environment,
where the memory's disturbing content can be processed and ultimately
reintegrated into the unified conscious memory (Mulhern, 1991, p. 147)
Therapists diagnosing satanic ritual abuse report that these patients
are actively recovering and abreacting memories of childhood sexual
victimization before any satanic material emerges. When allegations of
Satanism emerge, the disclosure usually begins when a patient reports
experiencing an intrusive image (such as people wearing robes, a knife
slashing, or a bonfire), which is subsequently flushed out over several
therapy sessions into a description of a ritual; or when a patient
recognizes a ritual scene described by the therapist during a hypnotic
interview (Mulhern, 1991). During these abreactions, the patient
experiences the images as real. Therapists point to the violence of the
abreaction of the recovered memories and images as evidence for the
historic reality of the patient's victimization. That the experience is
true and real for the patient does not mean that it is historically
correct. Conspicuous by its absence among evidence for the reality of
satanic abuse is independent corroboration. Without corroboration,
patient/survivor stories have validity only to the patient and those who
choose to believe the patient.
This is particularly true given the questionable ability of hypnosis to
produce historically accurate memory. The popular conception that human
memory works in the same manner as a video camera which can be replayed to
produce an historically accurate record of events is a misconception.
Martin T. Orne, a professor of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has made a number of
significant contributions to the understanding and use of hypnosis. Orne
It appears that the criminal justice system's traditional use of a
jury as a trier of fact, of the adversarial process, and of cross examination has served as the best available means of defining
"truth." However, this process can be subverted by a technique,
such as hypnosis, that greatly facilitates the reconstruction of history,
that allows an individual to be influenced unwittingly, and it may
catalyze beliefs into "memories." The result in testimony may
then be presented under oath by an honest individual who is convinced of
the accuracy of what may well be pseudomemories. Paradoxically, then, the
same attributes of hypnosis that make it a useful adjunct to psychotherapy
also creates the greatest obstacle to its use in the forensic domain.
the present stage of scientific knowledge, we cannot distinguish between
veridical recall and pseudomemories elicited during hypnosis without prior
knowledge or truly independent proof (Orne, Whitehouse, Dinges, &
Orne, 1988, p.55).
Just as at Andover during the time of the Salem witch trials, the
courts have become involved. Today, the accusers have had first action at
the bar of justice. States, such as Illinois, have enacted legislation
specifying particular penalties for ritualistic crimes. Other states, such
as Iowa, have extended civil statutes of limitations to specifically
facilitate recovered memory accusation: the new spectral sight. This
legislation has permitted individuals who recover memories of abuse, often
through hypnosis, to sue their parents whom they accuse of abusing them.
Some have been successful.
In May, the Napa County California Superior Court jury found two
therapists had damaged Gary Ramona's life by planting false memories of
child abuse in his daughter and returned a verdict in favor of Ramona for
$500,000. One week later, members of the Deborah David family filed a
lawsuit against three Sacramento, California therapists, accusing them of
implanting false memories of satanic ritual abuse that ruined their lives.
As the public and other mental health professionals begin to doubt and
finally disregard the new spectral sight, there will be a great many
"gentlemen from Boston."
Few issues, including this one, are so simple as to be a mere matter of
heroes and villains. Satanic ritual abuse is a virtual livery stable providing fresh mounts for a variety
of posses. Although each ride is in pursuit of its own agenda, each is
convinced of the rightness of its cause. Today's witch hunters, like their
historical counterparts, are hard pressed to square motive with method.
Just as the witch hunters of old engaged in the dichotomous behavior of
serving a merciful god by the most savage and unmerciful actions taken in
his name, so too are today's witch hunters caught in the bind of
"helping" survivors by savaging the innocent. Some therapists
and clinicians are as mystified and frightened by the violent abreactions
of their patients as the court at Salem was by the fits of the accusers.
Each has placed its faith in things invisible. What Cotton Mather called
"this wonderful affliction" sent 20 people to their deaths at
Salem. Today it pits child against parent, brother against sister, and
neighbor against neighbor in cases of recovered memories of abuse.
"After a century of witchcraft scholarship, it is at last becoming
apparent that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of
devil-worshipping witch cults and that the relatively few individuals who
believe themselves to be devotees of Satan typically acquired such beliefs
from suggestions from preachers or prosecutors" (Klaits, 1985, p.
12). Likewise, after 10 years of investigation, law enforcement has been
unable to validate claims of a satanic mega-cult involved in ritualistic
murder, sexual abuse, or cannibalism (Lanning, 1992). Delusion lay behind
the earlier witch hunts with suggestions made to the suggestible who told
the unbelievable to the believers who in turn suggested it to others.
History suggests that we are again in the grip of such madness. One wonders if the only
reason that people are not burned at the stake today is because it is a
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