WARNING: Because of the horrific nature of these reports, some of this article may be disturbing to readers. Every attempt has been made to deal with the subject objectively and with circumspect language.
A young teenage girl, impregnated during a satanic ritual, is forcibly delivered of her nearly term baby, forced to ritually kill the child and then to cannibalize its heart as cult members watch. Another girl, a small child, is sealed inside the cavity of a disemboweled animal and "rebirthed" by her cultic captors during a ceremony. A preschool class is systematically sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by part of a nationwide, nearly invincible network of satanic pedophiles and pornographers. A young girl is thrown into an electrified cage with wolves and ritually tortured to deliberately produce a "wolf personality," part of her multiple personality disorder (MPD).
These are a few of the thousands of horrifying stories circulating throughout the nation and abroad. Some true believers in this phenomenon say there are more than 100,000 "adult survivors" who have entered therapy and "remembered" these horrible abuses. Others more than double the number. These terrifying accounts are tied to the current public concern about stranger abduction of children, said by true believers to number in the thousands annually. True believers say the conspiracy is almost invincible, covers the nation (if not the world), and involves key power players in the courts, education, politics, religion, and society.
True believers provide unconditional support to alleged adult survivors whose therapeutically recovered "memories" typically indict their elderly parents for heinous crimes including murder, cannibalism, sexual torture, incest, and bestiality. Some bring their cases to law enforcement, hoping for criminal prosecution. Some obtain restraining orders barring their parents from seeing them or their grandchildren. Some cut all ties with family and disappear. Some begin new lives as television and radio talk show guests, sharing their gruesome stories coast to coast during after school television time. Almost all are in the midst of long term intensive therapeutic counseling, many are involved in dozens of psychiatric hospitalizations and almost daily therapy sessions and support group meetings. Small children are sometimes snatched from their parents' custody on the whisper of a suspicion that the parents may be involved in satanic ritual abuse (SRA).
True believers among therapists, alleged adult survivors, law enforcement, journalists, and Christian leaders unanimously call for everyone to believe the stories, to change the justice system so recovered "memories" alone can convict in criminal court, and to rise up against this nearly invincible satanic conspiracy.
If it is true, such reactions are to be expected. If it is not true then families are being destroyed, truth is being ignored, biblical standards of evidence and testimony are being thrown away, "survivors" are being trapped in long term destructive therapeutic situations, and Satan is getting more credit than he is due. In this article we move beyond the sensationalism and emotionalism to take a serious look at satanic ritual abuse (SRA) stories.
However, during the early 1980s, a variety of factors combined to produce a rich fertilizer for the growth of SRA reports.
First, cohabitation and divorce rates skyrocketed, producing fragmented family units, single parent families, "blended" families, and many families with no daytime adult supervision. This provided pressure toward dysfunctional individual family actions (neglect, abuse, incest, etc.). It also provided the setting for manipulative intrafamily actions (custody disputes, child abandonment, spouse and even child accusations, etc.).
Second, the mental health community underwent shifts in perspective and membership from that of the instructors and nurturers of society to a general feeling that mental health professionals should reflect and explain society as it was to their clients. This was a shift from intervention to reaction, leaving many mental health professionals with inadequate critical apparatus to test their clients' sometimes inaccurate perceptions of reality. The concept of counseling also broadened considerably, collecting under its opened umbrella licensed therapists, social workers, lay counselors, peer counselors, support group members and leaders, and pastoral counselors, as well as the traditionally included psychiatrists and psychologists. This diminished the minimum requirements for professional training and allowed for a wide diversity of belief and practice.
Third, increased interest in women's rights issues and in religious activism caused a greater awareness of and vigorous opposition to both pornography and physical and sexual child abuse. While women's rights advocates and activist evangelicals frequently opposed each other's goals and beliefs, on the issues of pornography and child abuse they united in a concern for protection of victims. This heightened interest generated special interest groups and experts who, usually with the best of intentions, still needed to find a depth and breadth of danger to warrant large commitments of time, legislation, and funding.
Fourth, a significant segment of American evangelicalism developed a complex satanic end times view, combining the 1970s "deliverance" ministries with "rapture" theology. While the end times speculators of the 1970s pointed primarily at Israel as a sign of the imminent rapture, the speculators of the 1980s also emphasized the rise of destructive occult activity as a sign of the imminent rapture. In Mike Warnke's testimony of his purported former involvement with satanism, The Satan Seller, he claimed that in 1965 he led a group of 1,500 satanists in a desert area of Southern California, and that he was "part of a deep and widespread organization, operating not only in the U.S., but all over the world."
Each of these four developments, (1) family disintegration, (2) mental health community diffusion, (3) activist opposition to victimization, and (4) evangelical expectation of increasing occult activity, provided the nutrients for the development of SRA reports in the 1980s. The first publicized case was that of Michelle Smith, an emotionally dysfunctional woman who with her therapist (and later husband) discovers what they identified as previously repressed early childhood memories of horrible physical and sexual abuse in a bizarre secret satanic cult whose members included her immediate family. No corroborative evidence was obtained, said Michelle and Pazder, for a variety of reasons: (1) by its very nature, a conspiracy's activities are secret and unknown, (2) the cultists planted disinformation such as wrong dates along with the real experiences Michelle remembered, (3) the almost invincible cult destroyed the evidence, (4) some of the very people to whom Michelle could turn for help were involved in the conspiracy. Nevertheless, Michelle and Pazder say that his therapeutic expertise is able to determine that Michelle's story is true. Almost all of the subsequent SRA stories have followed the same pattern sparked by The Satan Seller and developed in Smith and Pazder's book, Michelle Remembers.
The Victims. The common adult victim is a white woman between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five with a previous history of non-specific psychological problems, often a history of suicide attempts, and who is either intensely religious (usually evangelical or charismatic Protestant), or who comes from an intensely religious background or exposure. The typical adult victim is highly suggestible, intelligent, creative, and well-learned if not well educated. The victim first seeks counseling help for a seemingly unrelated problem. From our own conversations with dozens of alleged adult survivors, we feel comfortable in affirming that the vast majority of them sincerely believe their stories, although sincerity cannot determine a story's veracity.
Child victims are much less clearly identifiable, although most are well motivated to please adults, intelligent, and loyal to the supportive parent. Perhaps this is because children's disclosures of SRA almost always follow questioning by worried parents or mental health workers. It is interesting to note that often the supportive parent has characteristics in common with the typical adult victim. If the child is disclosing SRA caused by an immediate family member, it is typically in a divorce or separation situation where the accused is the non-supportive parent or one of the non-supportive parent's relatives.
The Victimizers. Typically the victim's immediate family members are the perpetrators (even if the victim may see his or her family as former victims who have turned to victimization because of their own trauma). When the immediate family is not involved (as in many of the children's stories but almost none of the alleged adult survivor stories), caregivers in regular custody of the victim are the perpetrators (preschool teachers, day care workers, parents in divorce situations, etc.). The hypothetical psychological profile of the SRA perpetrator contradicts the most common features of known physical and sexual abusers, psychotics, sociopaths, pornographers, and serial killers, leading one to doubt that such an abuser exists.
SRA Abuse. The abuse includes emotional (terrifying threats, deliberate heightening of fear, etc.), physical (beating, cutting, etc.), sexual (incest, mutilation of sexual organs, etc.), and spiritual (threats that God won't forgive, Jesus is defeated, etc.).
The ritual elements of the abuse are always satanic or occultic. Common features of satanic ceremony folklore such as the black mass, human sacrifice, drinking of blood, and satanic symbols are common, although victims typically cannot reproduce the intricacies of occult ritual beyond what is commonly available in general bookstores or what they have heard from other victims or therapists.
SRA Disclosure. Usually adult SRA stories are disclosed in a therapeutic setting. The adult victim generally begins therapy for a seemingly unrelated problem such as a sleep or eating disorder, depression, or marital difficulties. During the course of treatment either the therapist or the client will raise the possibility of repressed memories of SRA. With sensationalistic reports of SRA scattered throughout the media, there is hardly a client or therapist who has not heard of SRA and its horrors.
At first the client may deny a past history of SRA, or may not remember anything, or may have fragments of almost meaningless images of SRA. After long term, intensive therapy with a therapist committed to believing the client no matter what the client discloses, the alleged adult survivor will gradually piece together a complex personal SRA history. Usually the therapist decides that the repression was facilitated by a dissociative state, multiple personality disorder (MPD). After more long term, intensive therapy and support group involvement, including "abreacting," or "reliving" each of the traumatic "memories," the client may become emotionally well.
The child who discloses an SRA story almost always does so at the prompting of a parent or mental health professional. Most frequently such disclosure comes after frequent, prolonged questioning. Most often the perpetrator is identified by the child as a non-family member regular care giver, such as a day care worker. When family members are accused, they are most likely grandparents of the spouse other than the one reporting the abuse, or a parent or step-parent estranged from the family.
Accusations against public officials, entertainment personalities, neighbors, or other more distant adults usually come only after the case has been sensationalized and the child has been questioned incessantly about "the others." Children are much less likely to be diagnosed with MPD. The common presumption is that they are terrified to tell, not they have repressed their memories of SRA.
Those who suspect they are victims of SRA, or suspect their children may be victims, are urged by true believers to seek support and affirmation from therapists, friends, support groups, and family members who believe them unconditionally. Whether the stories are true or not, this reinforcement and isolation from critical thinking intensifies the victims' beliefs concerning SRA.
The SRA Conspiracy. The common SRA story includes strong commitment to a conspiracy theory of history. That is, the victimization is not seen as the isolated depraved action of a psychotic or sociopathic individual. Instead, the victimization is part of a widespread, multi-generational, nearly omnipotent satanic conspiracy involving thousands or even millions of people, many in the very highest levels of society, government, law enforcement, religion, and even mental health institutions. We have heard SRA stories accusing famous televangelists, police chiefs, FBI agents, the Pope, CIA leaders, U.N. members, millionaires, philanthropists, pastors, teachers, school principals, psychiatrists, and others. Such a conspiracy theory accomplishes two very important objectives: (1) it accounts for the absolute lack of corroborative evidence of SRA; and (2) it allows for commonly accepted assumptions to be adduced in support of its existence.
Supervisory Special Agent Kenneth Lanning, of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, has investigated over 300 SRA reports and has yet to find corroborative evidence. While still affirming his willingness to look for and find such hypothetical evidence, Lanning points out the problems inherent in the SRA conspiracy theory:
Any professional evaluating victims' allegations of ritualistic abuse cannot ignore the lack of physical evidence (no bodies or physical evidence left by violent murders), the difficulty in successfully committing a large-scale conspiracy crime (the more people involved in any crime conspiracy, the harder it is to get away with it), and human nature (intragroup conflicts resulting in individual self-serving disclosures are likely to occur in any group involved in organized kidnapping, baby breeding, and human sacrifice).Corroborative evidence: what it isn't. True believers, as we already stated, offer four main "proofs" for SRA: (1) all conspiracies are secret and unknown; (2) evidence against a story is evidence that a satanist planted false evidence; (3) only a conspiracy such as true believers describe has the capability of destroying all the evidence; and (4) the very people who should be fighting this are part of it. To this can be added (5) the firm belief that only therapists can tell that victims are telling the truth; (6) children (whether physiologically children or the fractured child personalities of an MPD client) don't lie about such horrible things and no one would make up these horrific tales; (7) accused perpetrators' refusal to confess show the depths of depravity to which they have descended; (8) non-determinative evidence validates the conspiracy (what a true believer calls an abuse scar a skeptic calls an appendix operation scar); (9) individual occult-related criminal acts validate the whole conspiracy; and (10) the conspiracy explains the abduction of thousands of children each year.
Trying to disprove a negative. In addition to these ten methods of support for SRA conspiracy theories, true believers often demand that doubters disprove their theory. That is, the investigator is required to adduce overwhelming, unequivocal evidence that the conspiracy can't possibly be happening or else the true believer will consider his own view vindicated. This matches the absurdity of a man, charged at random, having to prove he didn't kill a murder victim last January 24. Fortunately, our justice system is based on the premise that one is innocent until proven guilty. In the same manner, the more reasonable theory should be adopted unless there is overwhelming evidence in favor of the more sensationalistic. The "evidence" in favor of SRA conspiracies is negligible, not overwhelming.
Contrary evidence. There are several problems with the second "proof." Evidence against a story, if gathered professionally and examined objectively, is just that: evidence against a story, not evidence for the story. Offering only one explanation for contrary evidence is committing an either/or (disjunctive) fallacy. For example, if an alleged adult survivor's story of being an only child is contradicted by proof that her older sister lived with her until she was a teenager, the true believer would have us believe the contrary evidence can only be explained as evidence for victimization -- perhaps the victim was so traumatized she repressed memory of her sister, or perhaps the satanists deliberately manipulated her memory. The true believer totally ignores the much more likely alternative that the SRA conspiracy scenario is as untrue as the only child memory. Without evidence, suspicions of tampering with the evidence are groundless.
Missing evidence. The third argument, a variation on the second, falls into the same either/or fallacy: the true believer admits only one possible reason there is no evidence -- obviously, only a conspiracy as big as the SRA stories could destroy everything. However, in reality there are at least two possible reasons there is no evidence, and one is that the theory is not true. The facts of the case do not change, one's presupposition determines how he will interpret the non-evidence. This is not a proof, and certainly not evidence. It is a subjective belief.
Paranoia. The fourth argument, accusing those who disagree as co-conspirators, stretches the true believers' credibility, and without some warrant for such charges, it dwindles to paranoid name calling. Lanning described this vulnerability well, saying,
Paranoid belief systems are characterized by the gradual development of intricate, complex, and elaborate systems of thinking based on and often proceeding logically from misinterpretation of actual events. It typically involves hypervigilance over the perceived threat, the belief that danger is around every corner, and the willingness to take up the challenge and do something about it. Another very important aspect of this paranoia is the belief that those who do not recognize the threat are evil and corrupt. In this extreme view, you are either with them or against them. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.Ph.Deities. The fifth way true believers attempt to support the SRA conspiracy theory betrays a niave and inappropriate trust in authority, if not self-aggrandizement on the part of true believer therapists. Therapists do not have some sort of omnipotent visionary power to determine who is recounting reality and who is ascribing reality to fantasy. As one forensic psychologist joked to us, "they sound more like Ph.Deities than therapists!" It amazes us that Christians like Hal Lindsey and Johanna Michaelsen, who previously gave strong support to Christian psychotherapy critics like Dave Hunt, now tell us Christians can't necessarily discern truth regarding Satan, but secular psychotherapists using directive therapy can. Psychologists Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield point out the danger in placing blind trust in the discernment of therapists:
The believers in the satanic conspiracy who . . . see themselves as having the special power to discern abuse and reach into children and adults who deny being abused to discover the truth are, in fact, claiming a special, magical power and knowledge not available to the rest of us. The claim to esoteric knowledge not available to ordinary folk has been the hallmark of magical claims and cultic righteousness since the days of the Greek mystery religions and the early Christian heresy of Gnosticism.Children do not always tell the truth. The sixth claim, that children (or childlike MPD manifestations) don't lie about abuse gained popularity during the early 1980s as part of the child protection movement. This belief is heavily promoted by many of the most vocal child protection advocates, even though some, such as UCLA psychiatrist Roland Summit, admit that there are no controlled studies to validate this.
In addition, one of the major problems with accurately discerning SRA stories is that psychological models used to understand the dynamics of regular child abuse are superimposed on alleged SRA victims without demonstrating that such a transference is valid. Another Summit maxim, the "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome," asserts that children who have been abused characteristically are reluctant to disclose and often recant their stories. Summit and other therapists even use the accommodation syndrome to determine whether or not a child has been abused. This may have limited validity in an incest situation in an intact family, where revelation of a child's victimization may cause the removal of the perpetrator from the family and recriminations from other family members. However, as Coleman notes, it is worse than useless "in cases in which the perpetrator is a non-supported outsider or a non-custodial parent accused by the custodial parent." No one wants to minimize the pain, trauma, and terror that child victims of any kind suffer, but to impose an abuse syndrome indiscriminately on children who have not been abused victimizes them rather than protects them.
It is considered more incredible that someone would "make up" or "lie" about unbelievable ritual abuse than that such abuse actually occurred. Some true believer therapists have developed variations of this idea, such as psychiatrist Bennet Braun's "rule of five": if he hears the same kind of abuse story from five different clients who have no known common association, he accepts the story as authentic. Such a fallacy of credulity, however, ignores both the complexity of possible reasons one could believe and/or tell a story that is not true and also the reality that some SRA stories have been shown to be false.
Clients who unknowingly told false stories have been reported. Causes are often broadly described as directive therapy. Often the controversial practice of hypnotism is used, sometimes with clearly false results. Several experts, including one of the nation's leading specialists in MPD, psychiatrist George Ganaway, and leading hypnosis expert, psychologist Nicholas Spanos, have linked high suggestibility (of which hypnotizability is an indicator) to MPD and alleged adult survivor SRA stories.
Sometimes inadvertent hypnosis or self-hypnosis can have tragic consequences, such as the Paul Ingram case, in which a parent accused of SRA by an adult daughter succumbed to intensive interrogation, pastoral pressure, and subtle hypnotic cues; and then through self-induced hypnosis "remembered" the SRA so he could confess and plead guilty in criminal court! Memory idiosyncracies can play a crucial part in false stories, too, as noted by leading memory expert psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and others.
Some false stories are produced with the cooperation of the client, including cases of factitious, simulated, or malingering dissociative disorders. One of the most interesting cases of factitious disorder is chronicled by Philip M. Coons in his "Factitious Disorder (Munchausen Type) Involving Allegations of Ritual Satanic Abuse." In this case, the client made a mini-career out of traveling cross-country, supported by different SRA support groups and admitted to in-patient facilities where she remained until her ruse was discovered and she moved on.
Denial does not prove guilt. The seventh reason true believers cite is a variation of the fourth reason. Accused perpetrators are given a non-lethal form of the same kind of guilt or innocence test given to suspected witches during medieval times: If the witch didn't confess once charged, that proved he or she was unrepentant and should die; if one did confess, the rightly deserved punishment was death. Today's true believers don't kill those they accuse, but they leave them with no way to affirm their innocence -- a protestation of innocence becomes a tautological "proof" of guilt.
Non-determinative evidence. True believers sometimes attempt to find corroborative evidence. Often they refer to amorphous "files full of evidence," but are unable to cite any single piece of evidence. Sometimes they refer to always unidentified "officials" who have seen their evidence and advised the victims to keep quiet or risk death from the avenging cult.
Sometimes they cite ambiguous or non-determinative evidence. Lauren Stratford impressed Johanna Michaelsen when she identified a local site as a place where she had participated in rituals, claiming no true believer had confirmed that site to her before. Such knowledge proved to Michaelsen that Stratford's SRA story was true. On the contrary, it only proved Stratford pointed it out. Perhaps she heard about it from someone else and forgot or lied about knowing; or made a lucky guess; or picked up Michaelsen's subtle body language and inadvertent verbal cues. And even if she did point out a site without prior knowledge, that doesn't validate her whole life story.
In a telephone interview with us, Dr. James Friesen, a Christian therapist and author of the popular Uncovering the Mystery of MPD, told us he had corroborative evidence to support an SRA story. A woman claimed she had been impregnated through SRA and given birth to a child later used in a human sacrifice. Her family had no knowledge of her ever giving birth. This woman's gynecologist confirmed that she had given birth at some time in the past. This only proves she gave birth, it doesn't prove the circumstances of the pregnancy or birth or the fate of her child.
Individual occult related crime. True believers almost invariably point to sensationalistic crimes of great tragedy and violence as though they prove the SRA conspiracy. Loner self-styled satanist Richard Ramirez does not fit the SRA profile at all, but true believers mention him along with Sean Sellers, a self- styled teen satanist who killed his parents; Ricky Kasso, a teen drug dealer and self-styled satanist who killed a friend and then committed suicide, and the Matamoros drug ring murders committed within an African-Caribbean occultism, Palo Mayombe. None of them fit the SRA pattern in any way. During our telephone interview with Jim Friesen, he said he would send us news clippings citing evidence in support of his SRA theories. The clippings, none of which substantiated SRA claims, included crimes like these.
Missing statistics for missing children. The last support most true believers use is some variation on the idea that the SRA conspiracy explains a number of socially accepted ideas, signified here with the example of the commonly held assumption that there are thousands of missing children each year. The SRA conspiracy theory accounts for this phenomenon: the children are sacrificed in satanic rituals! Dr. Al Carlise estimates 40,000 - 60,000 people are killed in satanic rituals yearly. Other true believers cite smaller numbers, but still in the tens of thousands. And yet, when statistical studies are done concerning missing children, we find the truth does not fit the SRA conspiracy model. In fact, the vast majority of children reported missing each year are accounted for within a twelve month period, leaving fewer than 300 unaccounted for after one year. The majority of missing children either are taken by non-custodial parents in custody disputes or are runaways. Debbie Nathan summarizes,
Research into claims about mass kidnappings likewise deflates the hype: A recently released Justice Department study finds that almost all missing children are teenage runaways or throwaways. The typical kidnapping is committed by a divorced parent who has lost custody. As for stranger-abductions, the Washington D. C.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children currently lists about 240 children missing in the entire country. Still, much of the American public is convinced that molesters, sadists, kidnappers, and pornographers are major threats to our kids.Certainly to a parent whose child is missing, the size of the problem is immaterial, the grief is real, and the suffering is deep. But it is wrong to confuse compassion for an individual with a blind acceptance of false statistics in a futile effort to support an SRA conspiracy theory.
At least as damaging are the increasingly common false reports of child sexual abuse, sometimes fueled and supported by inadequate test methods, over zealous medical and mental health professionals, and needlessly concerned parents. Drs. Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield summarize the tragedy of false reports concerning children and SRA:
To treat a child as if satanic abuse were real is to teach that child that the world is filled with evil, that powerful forces can hurt us and destroy us and we cannot stop it. It is to train a child to distrust others, to believe in the most macabre, disgusting, and horrifying events. It is to train a child to live in an irrational world in an irrational manner and so steal from the child the ability to live a life of reason and logical coping skills. It is to reify a child's most terrifying fantasies and force a child to grow into an adult whose world remains at the level of a constant night terror. It is to run the risk of training a child to be psychotic, not able to distinguish between reality and unreality. It is to irrevocably and likely irretrievably damage a child and induce a lifelong experience of emotional distress.
The Bible tells us we serve the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16). Paul tells us to test everything, clinging only to what is good (2 Thessalonians 5:21-22). He commends the Bereans for testing what he taught by God's Word, what was known to be true (Acts 17:11). Peter warns us by example not to be seduced by cunningly devised myths (2 Peter 1:16). God commands us not to bear false witness against another (Deuteronomy 5:20). Matthew 18:15-19 warns us not to bring any accusation of sin against a fellow Christian without evidence and witnesses. God's judgment against those who do evil is according to truth (Romans 2:2). Should our judgment be based on fallacies, non-evidence, subjectivism, and worldly wisdom? Let us be committed to compassion for victims and biblical judgment for victimizers, but let us not become victimizers by faulty judgment and false accusations. With sound wisdom and biblically based discernment, we need have no fear of a monolithic satanic conspiracy:
You will walk safely in your way,
And your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
Yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.
Do not be afraid of sudden terror,
Nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes;
For the Lord will be your confidence,
And will keep your foot from being caught.