Jean La Fontaine (1997) Speak of the devil: tales of satanic abuse in contemporary England Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 0 521 62082 1The idea of ‘ritual’ or ‘satanic’ abuse originated among evangelical groups in the USA and crossed the Atlantic through the Evangelical Alliance and the NSPCC, who briefed journalists on it, saying in 1990 that six of its sixty-six teams had encountered it (Waterhouse et al., 1990). By September, when Rosie Waterhouse published Satanic cults: how the hysteria swept Britain (1990), the hysteria was in full swing with cases apparently discovered in Congleton, Nottingham and Rochdale and, a few months later, in Orkney. Though Waterhouse cited the fact that the FBI had never been able to find a single piece of forensic evidence to support such allegations, the idea continues to have a following in the USA and the UK (Mair, 2010).
Jean La Fontaine was commissioned by the government to investigate the subject and her report was published in 1994. This book provides the detail of the research which underlay the 1994 report.
- Allegations of ‘ritual’ or ‘satanic’ abuse initiated by Christian fundamentalists were later taken up by psychotherapists.
- The initial and more recent allegations involved adults but at their peak around 1989 the allegations involved children.
- Believers and sceptics are drawn from a wide variety of groups who do not always agree among themselves about the issues.
- There are similarities between the allegations and those in early modern European witch-hunts.
- Such allegations are normally intended to explain something which cannot be explained in any other way at the time.
- Allegations tend to arise in periods of general unease, the accused are given traits which are the opposite of being human and the authorities are often complicit in the allegations for fear of being accused of shielding wrong-doers.
- Though there are differences between witch-hunts at different periods, similar allegations of murder, cannibalism and incest were made against followers of Bacchus, the early Christians, the Cathars, the early modern European witches and twentieth century adults.
- Like the FBI in the twentieth century, the Spanish Inquisitor had complained about the lack of evidence in the early modern European period.
- The practices of modern occultists bear no relationship to the practices described in the allegations, which are closer to modern fiction.
- The first UK case took place in Shropshire in 1982; most cases identified thereafter could be linked with social workers’ experience of a previous case, much as early modern European cases were mostly linked with the presence of particular individuals in the locality.
- Whereas the US cases involved middle-class families, the UK cases mostly involved large, deprived families; in only three cases was there a ritual element to the abuse.
- The allegations were often used to justify failing to satisfy normal obligations to families.
- In less than half the cases was there corroboration of the abuse and, in the three cases where ritual had been used, it had been used to persuade a child to comply rather than as part of a recognised ritual.
- Believers use a variety of explanations for the lack of evidence, including the power of the abusers and looking in the wrong places.
- While children may generally tell the truth, young children’s memories are not reliable and their stories are normally subject to interpretation by adults.
- There is plenty of evidence of failures in interviewing and recording allegations.
- Believers are unable to explain why the gender balance in allegations of ritual abuse is roughly equal when it is not for other abuse allegations or why Holocaust survivors are able to remember many of the names and faces of their abusers but survivors of ritual abuse cannot.
- In the UK allegations of ritual abuse have gone through three phases: (a) Christian fundamentalism, (b) social workers and (c) sink estates and adults undergoing psychotherapy, the last being immune to the legal challenges that can be brought against social workers.
In Chapter 1 Introduction: the problem, she describes how in 1988 newspaper allegations of sexual abuse involving witchcraft, black magic and satanism had come from two sources in the US and the UK: child protection workers and therapists and counsellors. They used the term ‘survivors,’ by analogy with the Holocaust, to designate the adults who told these stories but who rarely told them to the police. There was soon scepticism because, as Rosie Waterhouse put it in an article in the Independent on Sunday, “Investigators have produced no bodies, no bones, no blood stains, nothing”.
The believers, including Christians, millennialists, therapists and feminists, tended to dismiss the need for evidence, while the sceptics encompassed a diverse group from those who put the allegations down to mass hysteria to those who denied that sexual abuse took place.
Finkelhor et al. (1988) defined ‘ritual abuse’ as abuse in contexts linked to religion, magic or supernatural symbols or activities but respondents to Jean La Fontaine’s survey defined it in many different ways. In addition, the term ‘organised abuse’ which had originally been intended to cover paedophile rings, was extended to ritual abuse. In practice, in the bulk of the cases she had studied the ‘satanic abuse’ was unsubstantiated and in the three cases where there had been ‘ritual abuse,’ there had been no associations with magic or specific rituals.
She then comments on the similarities of the allegations to early modern European witch-hunts (Ankarloo, 1993): the allegations were relatively uniform and were carried by a common language, Latin in the early modern period, English today. She suggests from the social anthropology of witchcraft that such allegations explain beliefs that have no other explanation in the current social context. Just as witches were associated with sex, food and killing and as having the reverse characteristics of humans, so sexual offenders, serial killers and other extreme offenders are labelled as ‘animals.’
Witchcraft is generally diagnosed retrospectively and witch-hunts seek to cleanse the whole community (Macfarlane, 1970); they tend not to have a formal organisation or structure and the knowledge to enable witches to be identified passes from person to person, adapting to cultural differences. The authorities often accept the allegations because a refusal is interpreted as an attempt to shield the witches. Witch-hunts tend to arise when there is a general sense of unease.
In Chapter 2 The personification of evil: a comparative perspective, she points out that, though the allegations came at the early stages from Christian fundamentalists in the US, this does not explain why they were taken up by non-Christians and by people in the UK. She dismisses explanations based on individual beliefs or on a ‘moral panic,’ which tend to be ex post facto explanations, arguing that the allegations were based on a concept of evil which led to “opposing images, mobilised by culturally hostile factions, supporting or denouncing the allegations, not mainly as a matter of ‘symbolic politics,’ but in order to influence public policy” (p. 21). She points out that the alleged literature of satanic crime is largely unreliable and that there was a general use of sources to attack a political rival.
She then discusses some of the differences between accounts of satanic activities in early modern Europe and in the twentieth century. Witches were seen as representatives of pagans or heretics in the church and witch-hunts were influenced by the attitude of the church, the nature of belief and a social conceptualisation of evil. For example, Christian reformers at the time were targeting necromancy, alchemy and astrology and also rejecting some of the ideas which had arrived from the Arab world as un-Christian and a threat, much as fundamentalists today often view New Age ideas.
They believe that Satan’s followers are involved in murder, cannibalism and incest — the same allegations as were made of followers of Bacchus and the early Christians; today, cults are accused of kidnapping young people, using drugs and sexual orgies much as the Cathars were in the twelfth century. Among the 34 groups listed in her survey as associated with satanism were the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and rock music.
She argues therefore that witch-hunts are political rather than religious. Normally, there is agitation about bizarre events and then their ‘discovery’ followed by ‘spontaneous’ confessions but there is rarely any consistency between cases in different areas; new technology is used to distribute allegations. She points out that Alonso de Salazar Frias, the Spanish Inquisitor, had stopped witch-hunts among the Basques in 1612, declaring, “These were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked about and written about” (p. 33). Today the linking of child sexual abuse with the older myths has refurbished the myths but common to both periods is that old certainties were being destroyed.
She concludes the chapter by observing that modern occultism sees itself as distinct from Christianity rather than co-existing and that the anthropology of witchcraft suggests that witchcraft is seen as the causation of misfortune and evidence of the existence of evil beings.
In Chapter 3 Witches, satanists and the occult, she first reviews the literature of satanism pointing out that the first books by ex-satanists in the 1970s do not mention children at all, just drugs, prostitution and sexual orgies.
She then reviews the history of occultists, pointing out that their numbers are inflated by both occultists and their detractors, but that in Britain they come from a wide range of backgrounds, are relatively highly educated and relatively young and three-quarters have no interest in satanism while two-thirds undertake neither rituals nor spells. The main difference is that witchcraft tends to be feminist, anti-hierarchical and ritually permissive whereas satanists tend to be hierarchical, patriarchal and ritualistic. The Wiccans are happy to coexists with Christianity whereas the Satanists tend to be anti-Christianity.
The Wiccans have no fixed forms and no large gatherings and children are not normally present. There are two satanist churches in the US but none in the UK and only around 40 people identified themselves as satanists in the survey. She points to the commercial exploitation of satanism and the existence of individuals who call themselves satanists but without connection to any group, and of disturbed individuals who use the ideas and images of satanism to justify their actions.
She points out that most of those who happen to engage in occultist and related practice and who also sexually abuse would not normally be considered occultists; the existing eyewitness accounts of Wiccan and satanist rituals differ from the accounts given in allegations of ritual abuse. A man who seduced his daughters during a ritual was expelled from the Wiccan coven and ritually cursed.
It is often alleged that drugs are used in order to explain impossible recollections but there is no evidence that drugs are used in any occultist rituals; most of the allegations regarding the use of masks and robes come from Dennis Wheatley novels; masks are not part of rituals and robes only rarely. In other words, the rituals that feature in the allegations do not feature in the normal practice of occultist groups.
In Chapter 4 The extent of the allegations, she notes that Michelle remembers (Smith and Pazder, 1980) is about adult abuse and the first allegations about children relate to the McMartin nursery school, California, in 1984. Finkelhor et al. (1988) say there have been “at least 36 cases”. In the UK the first case of sexual abuse during a ritual happened in 1982 in Shropshire, that is, before the McMartin case; there were then no cases for five years and the later cases were very different but it is likely that the social workers’ experience of the Shropshire case influenced reactions in Cheshire (1987) and Somerset (1988) and allegations peaked by 1989 and decline thereafter. Gallagher et al. (1994) identified 21 or so cases of alleged satanic abuse, accounting for ten per cent of all cases of organised abuse which themselves comprise a minority of all cases of sexual abuse. In La Fontaine’s survey a disproportionate number came from the East Midlands, London and Manchester areas. Indeed, there was a pattern of geographic spread of the allegations from one social work team in Nottingham to surrounding areas.
She notes that in 1582 and 1645 there had been a cluster of allegations in the same area of North East Essex, in both cases at a time of outside intervention — Justice Darcy in 1582 and Matthew Hopkins in 1645. In Nottingham the leader of the social work team and the line manager lectured on the cases while Bea Campbell supported them with four articles in 1990 and two in 1991.
But the cases mainly involved large extended families where successive generations had been mistreated or abused; none of the allegations involved strangers. Indeed, out of the 84 cases in the survey, 18 involved large extended families and 12 small domestic groups; only eight involved organised groups and there was no organised abuse in the three substantiated cases of ritual abuse. The believers argued that the lack of evidence proved the skill of the abusers.
However, there were also significant differences between the US and the UK; until 1994 there were no UK cases involving nursery schools and only one in 1994. (The alleged abusers were cleared by the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2002.) The US parents were affluent middle class; the UK parents mostly deprived. The US parents lobbied for prosecutions; the UK parents were the accused. The alleged victims in the US were younger. The UK families were among the poorest; they often feared social workers and the children were shunned at school; they had mostly not had a normal childhood. Moreover, like allegations of witchcraft, allegations of ritual abuse were not randomly distributed across the population and could be seen as a way of justifying denial of social workers’ normal obligations to the parents.
In Chapter 5 The question of proof, she gives examples of the allegations; the distinguishing features tend to include the presence of the devil or Satan, witches, robes, killing babies or animals and drinking blood but over 60% of the cases had a feature not recorded elsewhere. There was a striking similarity with the accusations against the early Christians and, in spite of the allegations of drug use, no-one had been tested for them. She points out that on 3 October 1613 Spanish Inquisitor Salazar had called for “external and objective evidence” of witchcraft because the issue was not belief in witchcraft but whether the events took place.
While Christian fundamentalists rely on their belief in the devil or Satan, therapists believe they have discovered a new form of sexual abuse for which proof will come; both tend to believe that, if sexual abuse occurred, everything else did; in her survey, only 35 out of 84 cases had corroboration of sexual abuse, of which 60% came from medical evidence, 57% from a guilty plea and 33% from a witness statement. She points out that pretending to have mystical power was a way of persuading the child to engage but in no cases, including the three that included ritual, were genuine occultist or satanist rituals used.
She then discusses the three cases that included ritual pointing out that there was plenty of collateral evidence in these cases but that in the other cases “material evidence was remarkable for its absence” (p. 88). However, there was no evidence of ceremonial dress or there was an alternative explanation for the clothing. No pornographic material or cameras were discovered – the cases where it had been did not involve satanic abuse – and the other evidence alleged to corroborate ritual abuse did not.
In Chapter 6 Explaining belief, she argues that ritual abuse is being used as an explanation for difficult cases, for example, where there is no direct evidence of sexual abuse, sometimes because of the age of the children or because of the bizarre behaviour of the children. The allegations are normally made only some months after the children have been taken into care and this delay or failure to disclose is interpreted as a result of trauma or intimidation.
Sheila Youngson (1993) reports that many staff experience stress, partly because they believe they are dealing with something unprecedented and partly because they believe that other adverse events in their lives are related to these cases, but also that 42% had experienced more positive effects from working with these cases.
Jean La Fontaine notes that many staff believe that satanic cults include members of the police, which creates friction between social workers and the police and that, when ‘experts’ endorse the allegations, sceptical questions are brushed aside. She also notes that none of the children in her survey described anything comparable to Coleman (1994) except in the one case in which Joan Coleman had been involved, that most lists of indications are not based on cases but on other lists and that the absence of corroboration was explained by looking in the wrong places.
She concludes that the slogan ‘we believe the children’ ignores the fact that the children do not describe ritual abuse; rather the adults place their interpretation on the children’s descriptions.
In Chapter 7 Children’s stories, she begins by pointing out that belief in satanic abuse can be explanatory or representative; children’s evidence had not been given special status until the late twentieth century when ‘survivor’ stories were alleged to confirm ‘what children said.’ She argues that this reflects a shift from Hobbes’s view of children to Rousseau’s notion of childhood innocence.
She points out that children’s evidence varies with age and is not always reliable, while small children only provide fragmentary evidence which requires more adult interpretation than the evidence of older children. However, the problem is not whether children can tell the truth – mostly they can – the problem is adult interpretation. Adults may:
ñ misreport what children said,
ñ fail to recognise the sources to which they were exposed,
ñ fail to recognise how ideas are transmitted among children.
Adults want to identify the perpetrators and exactly what the children had witnessed and tend to view the telling as part of a way back to normal life. But very often the child responds because they are in a dependent relationship with the adult.
The Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991 (1992) had covered the problems with interviews, but distortions in records could arise from distortion in interviews, distortions of third party records, the use of lists and extreme summaries of interviews or other records.
In Chapter 8 Confessions and tales of horror, she points out that no evidence has ever been produced that the events alleged in spontaneous confessions took place but there has been a shift in that the authors of modern spontaneous confessions have been treated as victims. Also there was a difference between those in the US – by younger children against staff – and those in the UK – by older children against their parents. In the US a small group of psychotherapists were involved with the bulk of allegations but the first disclosures were not normally made to trained people. She notes that counsellors may gain great pride from being chosen as a confidant and that many ‘survivor’ stories are not told by the ‘survivor’ but by someone else, even in their presence.
Though there are normally more female than male victims of sexual abuse, the proportion of alleged victims of ritual abuse is roughly the same, though the allegations overwhelmingly come from women and it has become a feminist issue. She notes that the accounts given by teenagers generally resemble those by adults and that, while the accounts are highly detailed, there is no memory of people present except parents – a difficulty not shared by Holocaust survivors. This amnesia is explained as arising from fear of reprisals but she notes that adult survivors mention even larger numbers of unnamed individuals than teenagers and, where there is a willing listener, there is no end of telling the story and believing listeners sustain belief.
She notes that, though one point of a ritual is that it has to be performed consistently, there was very wide variation in the accounts of rituals and that, in spite of the detail in the published accounts, there was no clarity about what made them distinctively satanist.
In Chapter 9 A modern movement of witch-finders? she points out that most of the UK allegations involved ‘sink estates’ and a shift from a Christian fundamentalist focus on ‘saved souls’ in the 1980s to a psychotherapist and feminist focus on ‘patients’ in the 1990s. The initial phase had involved the Evangelical Alliance, the use of the media by the NSPCC in their July 1989 press release ahead of the Cook Report on the subject and the involvement of Christian social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.
The second phase had involved social workers using the hypothesis of satanic abuse to explain difficult cases in Congleton, Nottingham and Rochdale and presenting this as a new danger for the nation’s children in part because it was seen as a gender issue in a service sensitised to gender issues. In the face of opposition from the police regarding evidence and Waterhouse blaming the Christian fundamentalists, the believers had dissociated themselves from Christian fundamentalism.
The third phase involved a shift to adult survivors and psychotherapists; though RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support) had been founded in 1989, it only displaced the Christian organisations several years later; the therapists presented themselves as ‘experts’ but therapy is both a rewarding profession and easy to enter; this led to the emergence of a new school of therapy based on ‘believing clients’ and emphasising adults’ survivor stories.
In Chapter 10 Aftermath and conclusions, she notes the predominance of therapists, that Michelle Smith had had no memories until the therapy started and the variety of ‘proofs’ adduced including ‘body memories.’ She notes the success of the False Memory Society in bringing court cases in US and that Multiple Personality Disorder had not been accepted in the UK.
She concludes that beliefs in a conspiracy to destroy society are not new and that, notwithstanding changes in the ways in which people view witchcraft and Satan, there are common features with earlier witch-hunts, in particular, the lack of evidence, the assumption that ‘deniers’ are complicit, the association of alleged perpetrators with things that society repudiates, for example, terrorism or paedophilia, and the desire to cleanse community.
She points out that none of those accused were genuine occultists; they were mostly society’s rejects and, though child protection procedures ultimately rejected the allegations on legal grounds, psychotherapy does not face such legal challenges.
She argues that this situation was able to arise because of threats to Christianity from cults, the growth of individualism, the charismatic authority of clinicians, widespread concern at the prevalence of evil, plus nostalgia for the past and threats to traditional gender roles.
This book is unusual among the texts which most child care workers will read because it draws on social anthropology and because it takes a comparative approach, not just with child care in other countries or different types of child care within a single country but with events which are likely to be outside the experience of most UK child care workers.
But it is also one of those rare research projects where it was possible to look at all the documented instances of a particular phenomenon rather than just a sample. So those who wish to dispute its conclusions have to attack the methodology rather than the evidence, much of which was provided by those who believe(d) in the existence of ‘ritual abuse.’
Its main messages for child care workers are:
- beware of inventing an explanation for something you find difficult;
- beware of attributing non-human characteristics to those whom you find difficult;
- beware of using those explanations or attributions as excuses for not carrying out your obligations to the child;
- be careful about how you interpret what young children say;
- be careful about how you record interviews or summarise records;
- beware of relying on ‘experts’ in the absence of evidence.
We saw in the accounts by Cawson and Martell (1979) and Blumenthal (1985) how secure units were used to explain away failures in the care system by blaming the children, in the Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991 (1992) how the explanations were used to avoid social workers carrying out their obligations to the children and their parents and how particular interpretations of what children had said and poor recording compounded the situation, and in the continuing adulation of Bowlby (1952) and in the events in Staffordshire (Levy and Kahan, 1991) how social workers have relied on ‘experts’ in spite of the lack of evidence for their theses.
Quality child care is not impossible, as King et al. (1971), Wolins (1974), Wiener and Wiener (1990) and Fletcher-Campbell (1997), among others, have demonstrated but it starts from seeing the children and their families in a positive light and not as a difficulty which has to pathologised and then explained away before you can work with them.
Ankarloo, B (1993) Sweden: the mass burnings 1668–76 In B Ankarloo and G Henningsen (Eds) Early modern European witchcraft: centres and peripheries (Second ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
Blumenthal, G J (1985) The development of secure units in child care Aldershot: Gower See also Children Webmag December 2009.
Bowlby, E J M (1952) Maternal care and mental health: a report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations programme for the welfare of homeless children (Second ed.) Monograph Series No 2 Geneva: World Health Organization Previously published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization 1950
Cawson, P and Martell, M (1979) Children referred to closed units DHSS Research Report No 5 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag December 2009.
Coleman, J (1994, June) Presenting features in adult victims of satanist ritual abuse Child Abuse Review 3(2), 83–92
Finkelhor, D, Williams, L M and Burns, N (1988) Nursery crimes: sexual abuse in day care London: Sage
Fletcher-Campbell, F (1997) The education of children who are looked after Slough: NFER See also Children Webmag October 2011.
Gallagher, B, Parker, H and Hughes, B (1994) Report to Department of Health. Manuscript
Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991 (1992) Report of the Inquiry into the Removal of Children from Orkney in February 1991: return to an Address of the Honourable the House of Commons dated 27 October 1992 [James J. Clyde] Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag August 2011.
King, R D, Raynes, N V and J. Tizard, J (1971) Patterns of residential care: sociological studies in institutions for handicapped children London: Routledge & Kegan Paul See also Children Webmag April 2009.
La Fontaine, J S (1994) The extent and nature of organised and ritual abuse: research findings London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Levy, A and Kahan, B J (1991) The Pindown experience and the protection of children Stafford: Staffordshire County Council The Report of the Staffordshire Child Care Inquiry 1990 See also Children Webmag September 2011.
Macfarlane, A (1970) Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: a regional and comparative study London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Mair, K J (2010) Creating nightmares: a short history of belief in ritual abuse In W Burgoyne, N Brand, M Greenhalgh and D Kelly (Eds) Miscarriage of memory: historic abuse cases — a dilemma for the legal system, pp. 35–45 Bath: BFMS
Smith, M and Pazder, L (1980) Michelle remembers New York: Congdon & Lattes
Waterhouse, R (1990, 16 September) Satanic cults: how the hysteria swept Britain The Independent on Sunday, 3
Waterhouse, R, Kingman, S and Cuffe, J (1990, 19 March) A satanic litany of children’s suffering The Independent on Sunday
Wiener, A and Wiener, E (1990) Expanding the options in child placement Lanham MD: University Press of America See also Children Webmag January 2010.
Wolins, M (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care: explorations in the powerful environment Chicago: Aldine
Youngson, S C (1993, December) Ritual abuse: consequences for professionals Child Abuse Review 2(4), 251–262