“As an undergraduate student in psychology, I was taught that multiple personalities were a very rare and bizarre disorder. That is all that I was taught on ... It soon became apparent that what I had been taught was simply not true. Not only was I meeting people with multiplicity; these individuals entering my life were normal human beings with much to offer. They were simply people who had endured more than their share of pain in this life and were struggling to make sense of it.”
― Deborah Bray Haddock, The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook
Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) is described as severe physical, sexual, and psychological abuse associated with Satanic cults and ritual worship; extreme violence and torture; child abuse of multiple victims by multiple adult perpetrators who may themselves by victims; and deliberate and sophisticated indoctrination and brainwashing (Becker & Coleman, 1999)1. Reports of SRA have involved secret multigenerational Satanic cults that form an international network; illicit drugs; ritual sacrifice and murder; Satanic symbols; the observance of Satanic holidays; forced impregnation; and the involvement of high-ranking members of society (Ross, 1995)2. SRA is often associated with dissociative identity disorder (DID) (Becker & Coleman, 1999; Ross, 1995; Robinson, 2009)1,2,3 by those who believe that SRA is a widespread social ill, by those who believe that SRA is the most blatant proof of the danger of so-called "False Memory Syndrome," and by those whose opinion lies somewhere in-between.
The Satanic ritual abuse panic describes a period in the 1980s and early 1990s during which reports of SRA were epidemic and many social workers, therapists, police officers, and conservative Christians were taken in by these claims. While the panic began in America, similar claims started originating from other English speaking countries such as Canada, England, and Australia as well (Robinson, 2009)3. Claims grew until it was eventually said that tens of thousands of people were involved in SRA in North America alone and that thousands of ritual human sacrifices were occurring per year (Ross, 1995)2. The sheer impossibility of and lack of tangible support for such claims led to a change in public and professional opinion by the early 2000s, and many professionals in the field of trauma and dissociation were vocalizing doubts as early as 1990. Many individuals who were once convinced that they had survived SRA have since sued their therapists for giving them these beliefs (Robinson, 2009)3.
Now, SRA claims are rarely taken at face value, and it is widely accepted that many individuals who claimed to have experienced SRA were at best misreporting key details of their experiences. On a societal level, explanations for the SRA panic include prejudice against minority religious groups, urban legends and panic over rumors with Satanic themes, and hysteria spread by Christian fundamentalists and the media. SRA offers an appealing explanation and excuse for sexual abuse, putting the focus on abuse by strange Satanic "others," simplifying abusers to all-bad and victims to all-good, and allowing communities to avoid facing that anyone could be an abuser (Coons, 1997; Kluft, 1997; Lanning, 1992; Robinson, 2009; Ross, 1995)2-6. As well, it has been suggested that it was financially profitable for some individuals to push the SRA narrative. Kenneth Lanning, an FBI expert on the sexual victimization of children, concludes that "Satanic and occult crime and ritual abuse of children has become a growth industry. Speaking fees, books, video and audio tapes, prevention material, television and radio appearances all bring egoistic and financial rewards" (Lanning, 1992)4.
Suggestive or otherwise questionable therapies -- including hypnosis for the purpose of memory recovery or interpreting dreams as literal portrayals of one's past -- are often highlighted as a reason why individual adults misreported experiences of SRA. Psychosis, delusions, or drug induced hallucinations may also have made some adults more vulnerable to false memories and trauma reports. Others may have been influenced by hearing or reading about similar accounts happening to someone that the individual emotionally identified with or seeing such accounts through film or television. SRA claims sometimes swept through inpatient facilities or clinics for severely mentally ill adults, including those presenting with DID. In some cases, individuals may have been deliberately lying due to factitious disorder and/or malingering. This not only would have provided an opportunity for sympathy, attention, and potentially financial gain at the time of the report but may have allowed similar benefits after public opinion reversed on SRA claims and the individual had the opportunity to turn around and sue their treating professional for "causing" their "false memories" (Coons, 1997; Kluft, 1997; Lanning, 1992; Robinson, 2009; Ross, 1995)2-6. The reasons that children may have falsely reported SRA are also varied. In some cases, reports may have been primarily the result of normal childhood fears and fantasy or suggestive child interrogation techniques that are no longer acceptable (Lanning, 1992; Ross, 1995)2,4.
When "corroboration" of ritual abuse is possible, this is primarily corroboration of sexual abuse combined with evidence of basic ritual objects such as candles or costumes, and it is often present in abuse cases with only a single independent perpetrator. Evidence of more extreme elements, such as forced pregnancy and cannibalism, is usually lacking (Coons, 1997; Lanning, 1992)4-5. It is noteworthy that although corroboration of abuse can often be obtained for adults with DID, this has not been the case for those claiming SRA despite many undergoing intense medical and legal investigation. In some cases, medical examination directly disproved aspects of the individuals' claims (Coons, 1997)5. All of this said, many SRA reports from both children and adults may have contained many truthful and accurate elements. Colin Ross has attributed these to "distorted recall of childhood participation in small Christian cults; small, isolated Satanic groups; deviant elements of the Ku Klux Klan; pornography; or other forms of abuse that a child could misinterpret as Satanic" (Ross, 1995)2. Similar explanations for SRA claims have been given by Lanning: pathological distortion or errors in processing reality, which could result from dissociation, confusing fiction for reality in order to mentally escape from abuse, attempting to rationalize abuse by attributing it to the work of Satan, or an inability to process extreme abuse in any other way; and deliberate confusion and trickery by abusers (Lanning, 1992)4. It is not impossible that reports of extreme traumas such as ritual murder are based on events staged by perpetrator groups, and alleging that cult members were brainwashed into the abuse themselves may serve as a less painful way for survivors to process that their parents independently chose to abuse them (Kluft, 1997)6.
According to Dutch researchers Onno van der Hart, Suzette Boon, and Olga Heijtmajer Jansen, "Dutch clinicians increasingly have gotten the impression that many of these so-called SRA groups are linked with syndicated child-sex rings... and other forms of organized crime. SRA activities seem to be a screen -- evoking disbelief among law enforcement agencies and other parties when reported -- as well as a means to ensure loyalty in victims, which is accomplished by instilling terror and guilt" (1997)7. These concerns are shared by US law enforcement. Lanning expresses that not only might some child abusers introduce ritualistic aspects in order to control and manipulate the child and to confuse the justice system, it would be a very effective strategy. However, it would not make the abuse SRA even if the ritualistic aspects were Satanic in nature, and to erase this distinction could have grave consequences. Lanning admits to being "outraged that, in some cases, individuals are getting away with molesting children because we cannot prove they are satanic devil worshipers who engage in brainwashing, human sacrifice, and cannibalism as part of a large conspiracy" (1992)4. When the media chooses to focus only on the most sensationalistic types and aspects of child abuse, many genuine cases of child abuse, whether they include such aspects or not, are ignored.
During the Satanic ritual abuse panic, many innocent people were accused of crimes that they never committed, and the false allegations were and are still used as an excuse to ignore and discredit legitimate accounts of child abuse, especially those involving repressed memories, DID, or religious or ritualized abuse. There's reason to believe that often quoted numbers of false allegations have been grossly inflated, often in the name of sensationalism. Many of the allegedly false cases of Satanic ritual abuse, such as the cases involving the Kellers and Frank Fuster, are associated with strong evidence that sexual abuse had occurred and were actually prosecuted on these grounds. The Satanic-based panic was driven largely by media frenzy and rare cases such as the McMartin preschool case in which the original allegations were expanded to include many innocent individuals, but it should be noted that even the McMartin case involved clear evidence of the sexual abuse of at least three children. In this way, the Satanic scare damaged both those adults who were falsely accused and those children whose abuses were ignored because of the fantastical elements introduced to their cases or because of public backlash against any child abuse report. Dozens of cases that had nothing to do with SRA were pegged as being similar to the McMartin case and were dismissed accordingly. In many ways, the Satanic ritual abuse panic contributed to the way in which child abuse is ignored, downplayed, or disbelieved today (Cheit, 2014)8.
Organized child sexual abuse, particularly child sex trafficking, may be particularly vulnerable to being misportrayed as "ritual abuse." Not only does this provide an opportunity to deny the validity of the abuse, it can be problematic even from those who take ritual abuse at face value because of how it diverts focus from the sexual crime itself to an alleged belief system of the perpetrators. Much like how ritual abuse has been historically attributed to marginalized "others" such as religious minorities, trafficking today is often associated with developing nations and downplayed or ignored in Western nations. Labeling severe forms of trafficking "ritual abuse" remains a way to disown the harm that wealthy, industrialized, and "civilized" nations are capable of committing or deliberately overlooking. Additionally, to attribute the abuse to "cults" is a way to deny that the most commonly reported traffickers of young children are family members, and clients of commercial sexual activities can be from any walk of life. Sex trafficking is a much larger criminal activity than most realize; around 20% of all pornography on the internet involves minors (Salter, 2008)9, and 2.2-4.4% of men in the community have deliberately sought out these materials. Unfortunately, backlash against the SRA panic also hit reports of child trafficking. Although most would like to believe that there is a widespread consensus on the harms of child sexual abuse materials, early attempts at criminalizing these materials were seen by some as a "moral panic" and "witch hunt", positions that overlapped with denying all forms of organized abuse (Salter & Whitten, 2021)10.
That said, cases of human trafficking do confirm that abuse can involve many elements traditionally associated with ritual abuse, including: multiperpetrator and multivictim child sexual abuse rings; ritualized behaviors; the misuse of religious beliefs; and torture. These elements alone should not cast doubt on abuse testimonies despite the associations which they have taken on. That these abuses are not occurring as part of a global Satanic conspiracy does not mean that they do not occur in some isolated, familial, or network abuse cases. In fact, some of these elements are fully acknowledged as occurring in locations such as African nations; the United Nations even set "the misuse of some ritual practices to intimidate women and girl victims of trafficking" as a research priority in 2002. However, in developed nations, similar circumstances often result in the ritual practices and alleged beliefs being emphasized over and above the actual abuse despite the lack of evidence that the spiritual or ideological beliefs are a primary motivation. To the contrary, ritual activities may function as a way to terrorize children both to increase the control of perpetrators over them and to provide pleasure through sexual sadism (Salter, 2008)9.
Although rare, child sexual abuse materials have documented tortures such as bondage, sadism, bestiality, or paraphiliac abuse. Not only has the internet led to commercial sexual abuse material involving increasingly younger children, but this material has portrayed increasingly extreme abuses (Salter & Whitten, 2021)10. In 2016, analysis of a collection of 43,760 images and videos revealed that over 2% involved extreme abuses, and another 48% portrayed sexual assault. The youngest children are the most vulnerable, with almost 60% of materials of toddlers involving sexual assault; this is especially concerning because the majority of victims shown are very young, between the ages of 4 and 8. Additionally, 20% of materials clearly portrayed multiple children being exploited (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2016)11.
Reports from adult survivors of child sexual abuse materials confirm that around half had been abused in a multiperpetrator setting and that abuse was primarily facilitated by one or more family members (mainly fathers). For those whose abuse was organized, 82% reported that it began prior to age 4, 55% reported that it lasted past age 18, and 43% reported the involvement of other child victims. Violence within the organized abuse context could be severe. 39% of survivors were threatened with death, 16% were threatened with the death of a family member, and many reported being beaten, being drowned, having a weapon held to their head, being choked, or being forced to watch the abuse of others. 25% of all survivors and 68% of those with organized abuse histories reported experiencing posttraumatic dissociation. 31% of the organized abuse survivors told someone about the abuse as a child, 10% had someone else discover the abuse, 4% had another victim of the same offenders disclose the abuse, and 3% had images discovered. Ultimately, 38% reported their abuse to the police; criminal charges were laid in 7 cases, but other cases were blocked by the victim being too afraid to proceed, the statute of limitations having passed, or the primary offender already being deceased. In many cases, the survivor was not seen as credible, or there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Of note, of the 68 survivors who gave information about the type of group or network involved in their organized abuse, only 11 mentioned that it was ritualistic or religious (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2016)12. However, all of these facts combined make it easy to see how even non-ritualistic abuse could be misinterpreted as ritual abuse by the survivor themselves, by support professionals, or by those who wish to deny the reality of the abuse.
The implications of the SRA panic did not end when the panic itself ended, and the ability to take a nuanced position on current-day abuse reports is vital. Even within a single individual, different memories may be corroborated or disproved. Memories may be proven accurate in their core details and wildly inaccurate in other details. Evidence of inaccurate recall is not justification to conclude that every abuse memory of an individual is false, let alone all abuse memories from a group on the basis of their mental health diagnosis (e.g., DID) or aspects of their abuse claims (e.g., torture in a multiperpetrator context). On the other hand, the perceived accuracy of some details of an individual's abuse history is not reason to believe all claims. It is not harmful to the survivor to refuse to suspend disbelief for claims that are logically impossible or highly implausible, such as routine ritual sacrifice, or to believe that some claims may reflect trickery by perpetrators more so than actual events. In some cases, it is kinder to refuse to buy in to claims that may harm marginalized communities by insinuating they are uniquely responsible for the worst abuses. However, it is equally important to not spread discredited claims about child abuse being rare, recovered memories being uniformly inaccurate, or extreme abuse only occurring in nations or populations that might be seen as somehow lesser.
1 Becker, T. & Coleman, J. (1999, May). Ritual abuse: An European cross-country perspective. In The Spectrum of Dissociation. Presentation conducted at the ISSD Spring Conference, Manchester, UK.
2 Ross, C. A. (1995). Satanic ritual abuse: Principles of treatment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
3 Robinson, B. A. (2009, January 28). Satanic ritual abuse: History. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/sra_intro.htm
4 Lanning, K. V. (1992). Investigator's guide to allegations of "ritual" child abuse (United States of America, Federal Bureau of Investigation). Quantico, VA.
5 Coons, P. M. (1997). Satanic ritual abuse: First research and therapeutic implications. In G. A. Fraser (Ed.), The dilemma of ritual abuse: Cautions and guides for therapists (1st ed., Clinical Practice, pp. 137-163). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
6 Kluft, R. P. (1997). Overview of the treatment of patients alleging that they have suffered ritualized or sadistic abuse. In G. A. Fraser (Ed.), The dilemma of ritual abuse: Cautions and guides for therapists (1st ed., Clinical Practice, pp. 137-163). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
7 Van der Hart, O., Boon, S., & Jansen, O. H. (1997). Ritual abuse in European countries: A clinician's perspective. In G. A. Fraser (Ed.), The dilemma of ritual abuse: Cautions and guides for therapists (1st ed., Clinical Practice, pp. 137-163). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
8 Cheit, R. (2014, September 10). Mythical numbers and Satanic ritual abuse. Huffpost Politics. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ross-cheit/mythical-numbers-and-sata_b_5578078.html
9 Salter, M. (2008) Out of the shadows: Re-envisioning the debate on ritual abuse. In Perskin. P. and Noblitt. R. (Eds.), Ritual abuse in the twenty-first century: Psychological, forensic, social and political considerations. Robert D. Reed: Brandon, OR.
10 Salter, M. & Whitten, T. (2021). A comparative content analysis of pre-internet and contemporary child sexual abuse material. Deviant Behavior, forthcoming.
11 Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (2016). Child Sexual Abuse Images on the Internet. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Retrieved from: https://www.protectchildren.ca/en/resources-research/child-sexual-abuse-images-report/
12 Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (2017). Survivor's Survey Preliminary Report. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Retrieved from: https://protectchildren.ca/pdfs/C3P_SurvivorsSurveyPreliminaryReport_en.pdf
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