Satanic ritual abuse

From Academic Kids

Satanic ritual abuse, or SRA, refers to the belief that an organized network of Satanists engages in brainwashing and abusing victims, especially children, throughout the United States or even the world. The term Satanic Ritual Abuse is often used interchangeably with Sadistic Ritual Abuse, a broader term that refers to any and all ritualistic abuse. This is especially the case in psychology. Claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse remain controversial and law enforcement sources, criminologists, psychologists, and religious affairs commentors generally consider this belief false or at least grossly exaggerated. At present, press and media figures and much of the public treats claims of Satanic ritual abuse with great skepticism. Many sociologists class the public outcry in the 1980s concerning SRA as an example of a public moral panic. Nevertheless, claims of Satanic ritual abuse still appear and there remains a significant but unknown number of people in many countries who believe in the existence of organised communities perpetuating SRA.



Public awareness of SRA was characterised by claims that large numbers of people in the United States are ritually murdered annually. According to one widely cited figure from Utah State Prison psychologist Al Carlisle, between 40,000 and 60,000 people are victim of ritual murder annually. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) statistics list 16,504 homicides reported to law enforcement in 2003. See Crime in the United States - 2003 (

There is no generally accepted evidence of a statistically significant number of murders due to SRA. Despite widespread claims, no firm evidence of any organized network of Satanic ritual abuse has been presented in court. The panic slowly faded in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (which is a non-scholarly source) conclude: "In the early 1990s, we analyzed reports on SRA from both believers and skeptics. We tentatively concluded that the skeptics are correct; there is no international Satanic conspiracy ritually abusing and murdering children. We have been tracking the SRA movement ever since, and have not seen any hard evidence to change our conclusions." [1] (

Historical origins

The belief that certain people worship dark forces and use magic powers against others, commonly known as witchcraft, is probably as old as mankind and can today still be found in many cultures. For example the early Christian writer Epiphanius of Salamis in the 300s accused the Gnostic sect of the Borborites for extracting fetuses from pregnant women and consuming them.

The allegations of Satanic ritual abuse are more complex and allege that organised groups systematically and repeatedly torture and kill others in the context of devil worship. The earliest such claims can be found in the medieval witch-panics. For instance, in 1334 there was a trial of 63 presumed witches who were accused of worshipping Satan, eating infant flesh, engaging in sexual orgies with others and with Satan himself. Eight of them were burned and the rest imprisoned. Earlier witch panics are usually not well documented, especially when there was no official trial. Witchhunting reached a peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, when many mass trials against presumed worshippers of Satan took place.

Even though some religious fundamentalists continue to believe in the occult power of witchcraft, most religious leaders denounce these persecutions.

Some critics of the modern belief in Satanic ritual abuse believe that similar irrationalism still exists in modern society, and that the SRA scares of the last decades were in fact comparable to historical panics regarding witchcraft and devil worship.

Modern times

Following the publication of books purportedly by survivors or perpetrators, concern over SRA became more prominent, and in the 1980s a "Satanic panic" descended on some American Christian communities. According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, an "SRA industry" sprung up in this period, with self-appointed experts taking money to educate law enforcement and private citizens on the alleged threat.

During this period, evidence for SRA primarily took one of two different forms:

  • questioning of children who, according to investigators, reported being the victims of SRA.
  • "recovered memories" of adults who discover allegedly repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse, when they underwent various forms of psychotherapy.

Claims of SRA have included many different elements, but most often include shocking and disgusting behavior, inappropriate and violent sexuality, and the suggestion of imaginative cruelty:

A number of people claiming to be experts on SRA appeared on popular television programs in the 1980s and early 1990s. Wiccan investigators have pointed out that reports of the supposed procedures of Satanic abusers are inconsistent between these individuals and believe that the promoters are either lying or mentally ill. Others suspect that the promoters of SRA claims are simply very good at appealing to viewers' morbid curiosity; programs detailing SRA have often had large audiences.

In 1987, Geraldo Rivera hosted the first of a series of special reports on his primetime television program discussing alleged epidemics of Satanic ritual abuse. He stated that: "Estimates are that there are over 1 million Satanists in this country [...] The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town."

Following this series of programmes, outbreaks of SRA-based hysteria occurred in towns and cities across the United States, particularly concerning allegations of Satanic practices by teenagers, and accusations of Satanic practices at nursery schools. Rivera's programs were very important in expanding popular belief in SRA.

Specific cases

The first case of alleged SRA occurred in Kern County, California in 1982. Initially, two couples were accused of having formed a sex ring to abuse their children; in the end some 60 children testified to the truth of various bizarre allegations. Long prison sentences resulted, all of them being overturned on appeal, largely because the children had been subjected to suggestive interrogation techniques, many had later recanted, and there was no physical evidence. The two couples spent 12 years in prison before being released; two defendants in a similar Kern County case had to wait 20 years for their release. See Kern county child abuse cases for the details.

One famous false case of SRA involved a large number of children at McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California in 1983. Under interrogation techniques such as the Reid technique, which was originally designed to trick adults into confessing, small children told police they had been sexually abused, forced to murder infants, and drink blood (see blood libel). They also recalled being flushed down the toilet and abused in sewers, taken into an underground cavern beneath the school, flying through the air, and seeing giraffes and lions. The original accuser appears to have been a paranoid, alcoholic schizophrenic whose claims derived from her mental illness. Eventually the case collapsed under its own weight, but several completely innocent people were ruined financially and socially by association with the case. See the article on McMartin preschool for the details.

Beginning in 1983, a series of abuse claims were made in the small town of Jordan, Minnesota. Twenty-four adults were charged, but ultimately exonerated. The case was popularized in part by Big Black's song, "Jordan, Minnesota."

About forty similar incidents have occurred elsewhere, mainly in the United States, but also in Martensville, Saskatchewan. Several "mass child abuse" scares took place in Germany (in Coesfeld, Worms and Nordhorn), where violent rituals and underground tunnel networks were sometimes alleged; all the accused were later acquitted.

Three widely publicised cases in the United Kingdom were in Rochdale, the Orkneys, and Nottingham. In the Nottingham case, social services investigations into a Broxtowe family with multigenerational child sexual abuse and neglect became sidetracked into a wild goose chase looking for Satanic cults, with wilder and wilder allegations being investigated. Nottingham council organised an inquiry into the events of this case, which cast so poor a light on the competence of the social services that the council unsuccessfully tried to block distribution of the final report (

The case of the West Memphis Three is another case.

In 2004, the legal defense team of Scott Peterson, charged in the murder of his wife Laci Peterson, alleged that the real killers may have been members of a Satanic cult. They never produced any evidence to support these claims and Peterson was found guilty of the crime.

Questioning children

The key problem in cases of SRA relying on children's testimony is the methodology by which such testimony is obtained. Children are very suggestible and will generally try to please the adult who interacts with them. On the other hand, social workers and therapists working with children believed that children would not openly talk about the abuse they suffered because of shame, or that they might even have repressed the memories of the abuse and that these memories would have to be recovered. In general, investigators worked under the assumption that the abuse had happened and needed to be discovered through aggressive questioning over a prolonged period of time. Investigators also sometimes relied on "diaries" where children were supposed to relate their experiences, or on the interpretation of drawings and of doll play. All these techniques are now regarded as highly problematic as they rely strongly on the interpretation of the investigator and encourage the child to mix fantasy and reality.

The questions asked were typically yes/no questions: "Did person X touch you there?" Even if the child answered no, the next question might be something like "When he touched you, did you like it?" No matter what the child answered to the second question, it was taken as evidence that the abuse had happened. Negative answers, on the other hand, were interpreted as "denial" (in the Freudian sense of a defense mechanism) and had to be penetrated. As such, the children's testimony was in reality very much based on the adults' world view. This type of questioning is based on the Reid technique.

Some perpetrators of the SRA panic were themselves mentally ill. Diana Napolis, an outspoken SRA advocate online (under the pseudonym "Curio") and personally involved in several SRA investigations as a social worker, was committed to a mental institution in 2003 for harassing and threatening Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Love Hewitt and claiming that she was controlled through "psychotronic weaponry."

Hypnosis and false memories

Beyond the Satanic ritual abuse scares which were directly based on questioning children, a large number of adults came forward in the 1980s and 1990s and claimed to have recovered memories of severe, often Satanic ritual abuse in their childhood. Later investigators diagnosed many of these adults as mentally ill. While criminal charges were rarely pressed because of the long time that had passed since the alleged abuse, media coverage of these adult testimonies nevertheless contributed to the belief that Satanic abuse was, in fact, a widespread phenomenon.

Many of the women who reported such memories had previously seen therapists specialized in child sexual abuse, or read books like The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, which encouraged them to "recover" their allegedly existing memories of severe abuse in their childhood. At the time, some child abuse therapists used a controversial technique known as recovered memory therapy (RMT), which worked from the presumption that the patients were so severely abused that their memories of it were "repressed" in childhood and could only be recovered by a specialist. This approach often called for hypnosis and drugs to stimulate the recovery of memories of abuse.

Critics of recovered memory therapy, like Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters. False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria), view this practice as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:

  • Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed"—they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
  • The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
  • The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient denies this, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy.
  • During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that the abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.

According to these critics, RMT techniques used for "reincarnation therapy" or "alien abduction therapy" are comparable to the techniques used in Satanic ritual abuse therapy. To verify the false memory hypothesis, researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have successfully produced false memories of various childhood incidents in test subjects. This is viewed as further evidence that comprehensive false memories can be produced in therapy.

RMT critics also point to the bizarre nature of Satanic ritual abuse stories and claim that, in many cases, such stories are provably untrue. They believe that all or most SRA memories are produced by the therapists through extensive suggestive questioning. Some of them also believe that multiple personality disorder is primarily or exclusively a product of that therapy or self-suggestion. RMT practitioners generally deny such claims, or hold that they are only true in a minority of cases, and believe that their work is sound when practiced properly. However, critics respond that the failure of mental health professionals to distinguish false memories from real ones abnegates this entire line of therapy.

Popular culture

The SRA panic also targeted role-playing games, especially Dungeons & Dragons, as a cause of ritual abuse. Patricia Pulling, a private investigator who claimed that her son killed himself because he played Dungeons & Dragons, had stated that these games are secret instructions for suicide and Satanic abuse, or a "back door to Satanism." Mrs. Pulling died in 1997. Science fiction writer Michael Stackpole has written an extensive report about this movement. [2] (


The first survivor account of ritual Satanic torture was the book Michelle Remembers, written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist (and later husband) Lawrence Pazder and published in 1980. It was accompanied by features in People magazine and the National Enquirer, as well as numerous radio and television appearances. Smith claims to have memories of seeing ritual human sacrifice, various forms of torture, and contact with supernatural beings. She has not produced corroborating evidence of these allegations, and both of Michelle's sisters and her father have denied everything in her book.

This book was followed in 1987 by Nightmare: uncovering the strange 56 personalities of Nancy Lynn Gooch authored in collaboration by Gooch, Emily Peterson and Lucy Freeman; and in 1989 by Suffer the Child by psychologist Judith Spencer, who described a patient with similar memories. Both of these books were best-sellers.

Lauren Stratford's 1988 supposedly autobiographical novel Satan's Underground, which detailed her supposed childhood Satanic abuse, was the first book (aside from the 1965 novel Rosemary's Baby) to describe in detail allegations that cultists force young women to serve as "breeders" of babies raised for sacrificial purposes.

Stratford's account is one of the more thoroughly investigated claims of such abuse. Lauren claimed to have given birth to three children in her teens and early twenties. Yet, none of her friends, relatives, or teachers recalled these births or ever seeing her pregnant. However, they did recall her engaging in self-mutilation, while Lauren claimed that her scars were the product of her torture at the hands of Satanists. The year of her father's death was also inconsistently reported: Stratford claimed it was 1983 while the official record and all other testimony claimed it was 1965. The team of journalists who discovered these inconsistencies published them as Satan's Sideshow in 1990. Satan's Underground was subsequently withdrawn from print by its publishers.

In her widely read book Ghost Girl, child psychologist Torey Hayden writes about a girl named Jadie who claims she was subjected to satanic ritual abuse. The book's focus is not ritual abuse, but rather about the difficulty professionals have in interpreting maladjusted behavior.

The German book Vier Jahre Hölle und zurück (Four years of Hell and back), by an author pseudonymed "Lukas", describes first-hand experiences of a teenager who inadvertently becomes member of a Satanist sect, is subjected to various forms of torture and forced to commit crimes, finally escaping the Satanists and ultimately writing the book.

Many other personal accounts of Satanic ritual abuse exist, some of which allege the existence of an SRA conspiracy. With the rise of the Internet, stories of Satanic abuse can be found online. Many of these accounts are extremely graphic and disturbing.

External links


  • Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn: an account of the centuries-old legend of secret, inhuman, baby-sacrificing cults.

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