Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil (German: Ritter, Tod und Teufel), 1513.
At the end of the 1970s and the start of the 80s, North American psychiatrists began reporting adult, mainly female, patients claiming ritual torture, sex abuse and Satanism in childhood. These people often exhibited Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), an ability to shift from one personality to another due to, some psychiatrists hypothesised, their need as victims to create ‘safe’ personalities without memory of the abuse. It was only when these memories were elicited through various forms of ‘therapy’, that the ‘facts’ came out. These ‘recovered memories’ were soon promoted to the status of ‘Repressed Memory Syndrome’.
In 1980 one of these women, a Canadian named Michelle Smith, published a book in conjunction with her therapist, a Dr Lawrence Padzer. Titled Michelle Remembers, the book documented Michelle Smith’s memories of childhood Satanic abuse, as ‘recovered’ through her therapy with Padzer. It became a best-seller in the United States and also in the United Kingdom, influencing police and social workers in both these countries, and elsewhere, including Australia. In 1981, Padzer, a fervent Christian, coined the term ‘ritual abuse’, by which time he had become a sought-after ‘authority’ and proselytiser of the subject.
In 1983, Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) allegations were first heard in the USA by Kenneth Lanning and others at the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, part of the FBI Academy in Virginia. At first, Lanning and officers involved in the investigation of child sexual abuse took these reports seriously. However, as he points out in his 1992 ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of ‘Ritual’ Child Abuse’, while there were many claiming to be victims of SRA ‘there is little or no corroborative evidence’.
In North America there were many cases involving SRA, beginning in the early 1980s. One of the best-known and notorious of these was the McMartin Pre-School Case in which many allegations were made against staff of a Californian child-care facility. Between 1983-87, the subsequent legal proceedings found no evidence against the accused. It was said then to have been longest and most expensive legal debacle in US history.
A long-running ritual child abuse case in Saskatchewan, Canada, ended in 1996 with a mixed verdict that found some sexual abuse occurred. A professor of psychology called in to analyse the interviews with the child victims described the entire investigation as ‘a witch-hunt’. The judge pointed out that the prosecution had no physical evidence of the accused being involved with ‘the Devil’s Church’.
The absence of physical evidence for allegations of SRA is a constant thread in a number of official investigations carried out around the world. In Lanning’s thorough analysis of the considerable number of cases already reported at that time, the author and other investigators were unable to substantiate even one verifiable claim of satanic murder.
Much the same results came from other studies, including one in 1994 by the United States National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect that surveyed nearly 7000 clinicians and therapists working in the field and almost 5000 agencies involved in relevant activities. In over 12000 cases of suspected SRA, only one was proven to have any organised satanic content, though some incidents involved secondary aspects of ritual abuse. Especially significant was the finding that most individual clinicians and most agencies reported only one or two alleged SRA cases, while a small percentage of individuals and agencies reported hundreds.
There was no correlation between stories told by children of alleged SRA experiences and the ‘suppressed memories’ of those who claimed SRA in their childhoods. The report speculated that therapists were creating childhood abuse memories by their therapy techniques. There was no evidence of child pornography with satanic themes in the United States, nor of other alleged satanic activities, such as generational Satanists.
The study did, however, uncover evidence of Christian ritual abuse of children, practised mainly by a few fundamentalist sects, including ‘beating the devil’ out of a child as part of an exorcism and resorting to prayer rather than seeking medical help.
In 1991 the Utah State Legislature instituted an Inquiry into allegations of SRA occurring in that state. This was in response to a newspaper’s poll finding that over 90% of Utah residents believed in SRA, allied with increasing allegations from within the Mormon Church that some of its most prominent members were involved in SRA. Two professional investigators interviewed hundreds of victims of alleged SRA, noting the details and following up all available leads. They found evidence for only one case of Satanic Ritual Abuse involving torture of children and simulated murder of infants. This case was not prosecuted because of the statute of limitations in the state of Utah.
Investigations elsewhere reached very similar conclusions. In Holland an inquiry found that there was no evidence for such activities and that they were largely in the minds of those who reported them. Whether widely promulgated or not, the findings of these professional investigations had little or no effect upon the allegations, the prosecutions and the occasional gaoling of individuals accused of such crimes.
British publication of Michelle Remembers began a gradual increase in allegations of SRA throughout the UK. These cases primarily involved social work agencies and police, many of whom were ‘trained’ by visiting American ‘experts’ in various forms of investigation methods and counselling of sexually abused children. American folklorist Bill Ellis conducted an important study of the processes by which the Satan scare reached Britain from the United States. He traced the origins of modern interest in, and influence of, satanism in the works of Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardiner and others and also notes the long, if usually submerged traditions of witchcraft and black magic in Britain. A fundamental element of Ellis’ study is the interaction between the folkloric beliefs and press, television, film and popular literature. Ellis draws a direct line between the histories, mythologies and incidents discussed in his article and the disastrous events that subsequently took place in Rochdale and the Orkney Islands.
The Orkney Islands SRA case was the best-known of the many such events. Beginning in early 1991, the Orkney’s affair involved early morning raids by social workers and the forced separation of parents and children. Medical examination of the children found no evidence of sexual abuse but this, together with widely-expressed doubts about the veracity of child testimonies, did not prevent some years of acrimonious legal and governmental debate. Although the prosecution case in this matter collapsed, the parents mounted a very large legal claim for damages against the British government.
In the wake of this and other similar debacles, including the Rochdale case (dismissed in 1991), came the findings of a report into satanic ritual abuse of children by emeritus Professor Jean La Fontaine, social anthropologist. La Fontaine was commissioned by the Department of Health and given access to the records of 84 British SRA cases going back to 1988. Her investigative team was formed at Manchester University and issued its report in 1994. In only three of these was evidence found of ritual activity combined with sexual abuse. Her conclusion regarding the remaining 81 cases was that satanic ritual abuse ‘was not happening and is not happening’.
Generally, the report observed that the interviews with children, upon which the legal cases were generally based, were poorly done, with frequent and aggressive questioning. Rumours of SRA had been spread on the basis of dubious information and some Evangelical Christians, psychologists, child-care workers, and health-care professionals were responsible for the transmission of these delusions. The report concluded that there was no SRA in Britain and that the efforts and energy being put into attempting to prove that there was only had the unhappy effect of diverting attention and resources away from those children who were genuinely suffering at the hands of real – i.e., non-Satanist – abusers.
In 2019, a documentary on this topic, titled Demonic, was the only Australian film to feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Pia Borg gave her motivation for making the film as “I feel like the Satanic panic is something that people are a little bit ashamed of … something that was swept under the rug.”
Ellis, B. (1992). Satanic Ritual Abuse and Legend Ostension. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 20(3), 274–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164719202000324
Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, University of Kentucky Press, 2000.
La Fontaine, J S. The extent and nature of organised and ritual abuse: research findings.London: HMSO, 1994.
Wikipedia entry, ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’, accessed May 2019.