I first became aware of Satanic ritual abuse when a highly-publicized case occurred in 1983 in Jordan (Scott County) MN, where several children made allegations against an unrelated man and their parents. The man confessed and then identified a number of the children’s parents as perpetrators. Ultimately 24 adults were charged with child abuse, though only three went to trial with two acquittals and one conviction. Despite strong medical findings of sexual assault, all other charges were dropped after the young child witnesses fell apart under the duress of the criminal trial.
During the investigation, the children made allegations regarding the production of child pornography, ritualistic animal sacrifice, the eating of feces (coprophagia), the drinking of urine (urophagia), and infanticide, at which point the FBI was alerted. No criminal charges resulted from the FBI investigation, and the initial investigations by the local police and county attorney Kathleen Morris were so poor that they had destroyed the opportunity to fully investigate the children’s allegations. As far as the public knew at that time, the charges may have been true, but they could not be prosecuted in a court of law.
Around this time (from the early ’80s through the late ’90s), the US and other countries in the world (including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia) experienced a widespread panic about alleged Satanists and Satanic conspiracies.
It is interesting to me that this period also culminated with a belief in the “superpredator myth” concerning young people. Related? I really don’t know. John J. DiIulio Jr., a Christian fundamentalist who in 2001 served as the first director of the “White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” under George W. Bush, was the originator of the now-discredited superpredator idea—and it was Christian fundamentalists who also gave the Satanic ritual abuse idea much of its support.
But at the very least 1983-1995 was a period of generalized unreasonable fear.
Anyway, the McMartin preschool trial was the most famous example of this panic about supposed Satanists. Prosecuted by the Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner, members of the McMartin family, who operated a preschool, were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. Accusations were made in 1983. Arrests and the pretrial investigation ran from 1984 to 1987, and the trial ran from 1987 to 1990. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped in 1990. When the trial ended in 1990 it had been the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.
Two or three years after the Scott County case, I was invited to attend a one-day seminar on ritual abuse which was sponsored by a local police organization. Attendees were urged to believe in the reality of Satanic cults, their alleged victims, and to not question the extreme and bizarre victim “memories” uncovered. Proof was provided in the form of unconnected bits of information such as pictures drawn by mental patients, heavy metal album covers, historical folklore about Satan worshippers, and pictures of mutilated animals. I recall that Tipper Gore had a bandwagon going that targeted the supposed Satanic content of some rock-and-roll music. During the seminars, testimonials of patients’ experiences were presented, and the seminar stressed the importance of recovering “lost” memories in order to heal.
It was all very convincing, and for a long time I held out the possibility that the existence of Satanic cults and their perverse practices were true.
However, media coverage of Satanic ritual abuse began to turn negative by 1987, and the “panic” ended between 1992 and 1995. The release of the 1995 HBO made-for-TV movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial re-cast defendant Ray Buckey as a victim of overzealous prosecution rather than an abusive predator. This marked a watershed change in public perceptions of Satanic ritual abuse accusations, and in my thinking, too.
By 2003 allegations of ritual abuse were met with great skepticism and belief in ritual abuse was no longer considered mainstream in professional circles; although the sexual abuse of children is a real and serious problem, allegations of Satanic ritual abuse were deemed essentially false. Reasons for the collapse of the phenomenon include the collapse of criminal prosecution against alleged abusers, a growing number of scholars, officials, and reporters questioning the reality of the accusations, and a variety of successful lawsuits against mental health professionals.
Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia referred to the Jordan MN case in his summation on a later case, and stated, “there is no doubt that some sexual abuse took place in Jordan; but there is no reason to believe it was as widespread as charged.” He cited the repeated, well-intentioned but coercive techniques used by the investigators as damaging to the investigation. The bizarre allegations of the children, the ambiguities of the investigation, and the unsuccessful prosecutions were widely covered by the media. A number of accused parents confessed to sexually abusing their children, received immunity, and underwent treatment for sexual abuse, while parental rights for six other children in the case were terminated.
During the initial period of interest starting in the early 1980s, “Satanic ritual abuse” was used to describe a network of Satan-worshipping, secretive intergenerational cults that were supposedly part of a highly organized conspiracy engaged in criminal behaviors such as forced prostitution, drug distribution and pornography. These cults were thought to sexually abuse and torture children in order to coerce them into a lifetime of Devil worship. Other allegations included bizarre sexual acts such as necrophilia, forced ingestion of semen, blood and feces, cannibalism, orgies, liturgical parody such as pseudosacramental use of feces and urine; infanticide, sacrificial abortions to eat fetuses and human sacrifice; satanic police officers who covered up evidence of ritual abuse crimes and desecration of Christian graves. No evidence of any of these claims has ever been found; the proof presented by those who alleged the reality of cult-based abuse primarily consisted of the memories of adults recalling childhood abuse, the testimony of young children and extremely controversial confessions.
The idea of a murderous Satanic conspiracy created a controversy dividing the professional child abuse community at the time, though no evidence has been found to support allegations of a large number of children being killed or abused in Satanic rituals. From a law enforcement perspective, an intergenerational conspiracy dedicated to ritual sacrifice whose members remain completely silent, make no mistakes, and leave no physical evidence is unlikely; cases of what the media incorrectly perceived as actual cult sacrifices have supported this idea.
Satanic ritual abuse is also used to describe the actions of “pseudo-Satanists” who sexually abuse children and use the trappings of Satanic rituals and claims of magical powers to coerce and terrify victims, but do not actually believe in the rituals. A survey of more than 12,000 Satanic ritual abuse allegations, which found no substantiating evidence for an intergenerational conspiracy, did document several examples of abuse by pseudo-satanists.
A third variation of ritual abuse involves non-religious ritual abuse in which the rituals were delusional or obsessive. There are incidents of extreme sadistic crimes that are committed by individuals, loosely organized families, and some organized cults (some of which may be connected to Satanism), though this is more likely to be related to sex trafficking; though ritual abuse may happen in families, extended families and localized groups, it is not believed to occur in large, organized groups.
In conclusion, I will say that Satanic ritual abuse makes for great entertainment, but it has little basis in fact. Where it does exist, its practitioners are certifiably nuts.
Even Aleister Crowley, a Satanist and “the most evil man in the world,” was in the end proved to be an empty fraud.