Satanic Ritual Abuse
The history of claims that secret Satanic cults are abusing children.
by Blake Smith
To just read out the allegations, it sounds absurd. Animal sacrifice, secret hot-air balloon trips, networks of underground tunnels, sexual abuse, baby sacrifices, kidnapping and torture, people flying via magical powers - yet such claims directly led to people being arrested, tried and, for some, decades-long convictions. Let's turn our skeptical eye to the topic of Satanic Ritual Abuse.
The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of renewed interest in satanic ritual in popular culture. Films like The Exorcist, Race with the Devil, The Omen, The Devil Rides Out and Rosemary's Baby suggested that the ancient figure of Satan was not just a spiritual foe urging people to make poor choices, but a dark and evil force practically equal to God, and capable of giving power to those who would do his bidding. Stories of cultists being behind animal mutilations and missing children cases were popping up all across the country.
The 1970s also saw the rise of apocalyptic millennial literature like Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth and other works which suggested that the world was on the verge of destruction and that before it was over there would be dark and terrible activity conducted by the followers of Satan. Father Malachi Martin thrilled readers with his story of five allegedly real exorcisms in Hostage to the Devil. Self-described Satanic-cult survivor Mike Warnke wrote about his experience as a cult priest in his 1972 tell-all book, The Satan Seller.
The stage was perfectly set for what sociologists call a moral panic. What is a moral panic? It is a cultural event wherein people become hypervigilant to a threat to the status quo and tend to throw reason and rationality out in favor of seeking protection from the perceived threat at all costs. Sociologist Stanley Cohen describes it in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics:
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to, the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. (Cohen, 1972)
The history of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in America is just a tiny part of a greater phenomenon commonly referred to as The Satanic Panic. This was a period of heightened fear of Satanic cult activity that took place from the 1970s to the early 1990s. This episode of Skeptoid focuses specifically on the allegations that Satanic cults were conducting ritual abuse and murders all across the US during this time. A future episode of Skeptoid will deal with the broader phenomenon of the Satanic Panic itself.
What is Satanic Ritual Abuse? Sometimes abbreviated as SRA, Satanic Ritual Abuse is the idea that organized cults of Satan were secretly controlling childcare facilities and using their positions to molest, murder and torment the children under their care. There were many allegations and many legal cases that took place during this time. We will take a look at the outcomes of some of those, but first we will look at a couple of key allegedly non-fiction works that were direct precursors to the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare.
In 1972 Mike Warnke's book The Satan Seller introduced the world to the mysterious and deadly world of Satanic cults. Warnke claimed that he had become involved in a Satanic cult in California known as The Satanic Brotherhood, part of a network of other groups led by an upper echelon of cult leaders known as the Illuminati. According to historian Scott Poole:
"Warnke proved enormously appealing to his white, suburban, Charismatic, and evangelical audiences. His comedy albums became top sellers in the burgeoning world of Christian contemporary recordings by 1991 with 1 million-plus sales. The Satan Seller topped three million in sales over a 10 year period." (Poole, 2009)
In the book, Warnke describes a powerful and dark group with more than a thousand members. He claimed they required blood sacrifices, rapes and child abuse. The success of his book led him to become a regular lecturer and widely known as an expert in Satanic cults.
The second major media event related to start of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic was the book Michelle Remembers. Written by Michelle Smith and her therapist (and eventual husband) Lawrence Pazder, it describes the story of the lengthy and shocking sexual and physical abuse that Pazder had uncovered as repressed memories while treating Smith. According to the book, Michelle remembered children being kept in cages, people having fingers removed as a sign of Satanic fealty, baby sacrifices, cult efforts to summon Satan, and more. Michelle Remembers also became a widely successful book and primed the general public for what was to come. Pazder became something of a consultant on Satanic-themed cases, warning all who would listen about the giant, secret Satanic cult he felt was lurking behind much of the evil in the world.
The McMartin Daycare Trial
Probably the most famous of the legal cases brought during the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare was the McMartin Daycare Trial. The McMartin family-run daycare business had been a reputable local business in their California community until Judy Johnson started bringing her two-year-old son Matthew to the facility. After her son experienced several episodes of red and irritated rectum and difficulty with bowel movements, she became convinced that he had been sexually molested at the daycare. She took her child to the authorities and Matthew was given a medical exam by an inexperienced examiner who concurred with her suspicions. The allegations exploded in the community after a letter was sent to parents whose children used the McMartin facility urging them to question their children.
During the next few months a bizarre feedback loop of accusations, highly suggestive questioning techniques, rumors, and a complete lack of skepticism led to more and more paranoia within the community. An upcoming election seemed to have been a factor in the highly public legal case that was brought against the McMartin teachers. Judy Johnson continued to make increasingly odd accusations. Dr. Lawrence Pazder, of the Michelle Remembers case came to the community and supported the idea that this was not just a massive child-abuse case, but that the motivations and leadership behind the crimes were that of a secretive Satanic cult. Jones, speaking for her son, would eventually allege that her son had seen the cultists fly, kill babies, take hot air balloon rides and that there was a secret network of tunnels and trains under the facility to transport the victims to ritual sites.
The legal case against the McMartin Preschool teachers became the longest, most expensive trial in US history at that point. It ran for seven years and cost 15 million dollars. The defendants spent years in prison, some without ever being formally charged. Their bails were set at millions of dollars.
In the end, there was insufficient evidence to convict the daycare workers. Moreover, the primary evidence against them came from children's testimony derived from highly dubious techniques involving leading questions and anatomically correct dolls. Allegations from Judy Johnson became more and more bizarre, and eventually she had a complete breakdown and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. The fact that the primary source of the charges turned out to be a highly delusional woman who would soon die of alcoholism could not stop the freight-train of the national media that had gone full-throttle. Lives were damaged irreparably, friendships were destroyed and a community imploded as neighbors accused each other of involvement. Millions in tax money were wasted trying to prosecute adults of events that never took place. A group called Believe the Children grew from the McMartin case and its mission was to ensure that children's stories would be believed even if there was no evidence to corroborate them.
The Oak Hill Daycare Trial
In 1991 in the city of Oak Hill, Texas near Austin, allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse struck again at a small daycare. In this case the charges arose during therapy sessions with a three-year-old child who was having behavior problems during her parent's divorce. The allegations targeted the Keller family who ran the daycare and as the story broke, parents began to investigate and interrogate their own kids. Information from the Believe the Children group was used to help guide the questioning process. Strange stories of the Kellers killing pets and a baby were told. It was claimed that the children were flown to Mexico, abused by soldiers, and then flown back to the daycare in time for pickup by the parents. A medical examiner thought he saw evidence of sexual abuse, but a few years later would find that what he saw was actually consistent with normal physiological variation in a child's body.
The Kellers were sentenced to 48 years each. There was no evidence of abuse, just testimony obtained through flawed methodology. The Kellers remained in prison until the end of 2013.
Thurston County Ritual Abuse (Paul Ingram)
In 1983, Paul Ingram, a politician and member of the Sherriff's department, was accused by his daughter of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Ingram was a Pentecostal and may have believed in the idea that he could have been controlled by Satan, but he and other members of his department were accused of highly unlikely activity. The accusations came after Ericka, Ingram's daughter, when she attended a church retreat. Paul didn't remember committing any abuse, but also believed in the honesty of his children. Investigators urged Ingram to visualize and try and remember abusing his children — and eventually he did, constructing memories of the alleged events.
During the interrogation he would say things like "I see this" or "I feel like I'm watching a movie," but these new memories were becoming his indictment. His daughter claimed to have been raped in more than 800 Satanic ceremonies. He was accused of being involved with a cult that killed at least 25 babies. As the investigation continued, Paul Ingram was kept in a jail cell whose lights were never turned off for months and was pressured to write down more of his memories. No physical evidence emerged despite the extensive physical abuse alleged by his daughter and, ultimately Paul Ingram was sentenced to 20 years in prison for events that never happened. He served the full 20 years, and was released in 2003.
Some Problems with Satanic Ritual Abuse Cases
As discussed in Skeptoid episode #446, memory is not the reliable recording device people tend to believe it is. Memory is malleable and can be altered by playing back and thinking about information we've observed — or which we hear or see others recount. Children and adults are susceptible to such alterations. The children in these cases were being told that they were repressing their memories and were encouraged to remember their repressed memories. They were praised by authority figures when they had a recollection, and were given disapproval when they said nothing had happened. They were given leading questions, and they were allowed to mingle with other children who had had the same experiences of interrogation, and pressured to tell stories. The work of memory researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated that not only are false memories common, but that around 90 percent of the population can be led to believe a false memory about themselves if someone else claims to have witnessed it.
In both the McMartin case and the Oak Hill case, part of the problem was that baseless allegations were reinforced when inexperienced medical examiners misinterpreted the data they saw. In both cases, as the examiners got more field experience they realized that what they had seen were typical children and not the results of sexual abuse. For young preschoolers, the type of abuse that the defendants were accused of would have severely injured or killed the victims. There would have been no ambiguity about the injuries. Unfortunately for the people who had been imprisoned, the legal system is not quick to admit a wrongful conviction.
As the allegations of bizarre abuse played out in these communities, there was no voice of reason to counter-balance the claims. The good intentions of groups like Believe the Children led to a complete credulity on the part of parents who only wished to protect their kids and their community. Without critical thinking skills in play, rumors and innuendo and the imaginations of children became the new reality for people with the power to imprison the alleged perpetrators.
While sociologists might call this feedback-loop a moral panic, we can now see that it was literally and figuratively a witch-hunt, and in a witch-hunt one is concerned with finding witches and not in questioning whether such things exist.
It is likely that some people were erring on the side of caution, assuming that the parts of the children's narrative that were implausible could be ignored but that there must have been real abuse at play. Clearly, other parents believed (and some still believe) that a giant Satanic cult is at work even today.
The Media's Role in the Satanic Ritual Abuse Cases
During the time of the Satanic Panic, there was an increased amount of news coverage related to the topic of Satanic Cults. Geraldo Rivera produced multiple TV specials, bringing on experts like Ozzy Osbourne and Lawrence Pazder. His 1988 special on Satanic cults was the highest rated 2 hour TV documentary when it aired. He would have many more such shows, but would eventually distance himself from groups like Believe The Children and admit that he was wrong about the scope and power of any secret Satanic cult. That was quite a change from when he originally claimed that there were more than one million Satanists operating in secret across the country. Rivera was not alone. Satan was a staple talk-show topic throughout the period, and very little critical response to such coverage was promoted because many people found it entertaining even if they didn't believe what was being said.
The Satanic Ritual Abuse scare was a nightmare for the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators. Communities wasted tax money trying to fight imaginary witches, children were distressed and traumatized by repeated interrogations, and countless hours of police and community work time was spent in vain trying to find animal carcasses, dead babies, and secret tunnels that never existed. Innocent people spent years to decades in prison. Families were torn apart. Retirement accounts were destroyed in civil lawsuits brought by alleged victims who imagined they'd been violated in Satanic rituals, memories uncovered in highly questionable therapy sessions.
But what about the original cases — the fantastic cult stories from Michelle Remembers and The Satan Seller?
Lawrence Pazder, husband of Michelle Smith, became an occult consultant. He got involved in many high publicity cases of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and was a frequent guest on TV. In 1990 the British conservative newspaper The Mail on Sunday published an article that debunked much of the book's allegations and questioned many more. More researchers began to dig in and interview friends and relatives, revealing that, as you might expect by now, the book seemed to be the result of Pazder helping to implant memories into Michelle's personal narrative to the extent that she "remembered" and believed a fantastic story which simply cannot be true.
The fantastic narrative of Mike Warnke also began to fall apart when it was finally subjected to investigative scrutiny. There was no evidence of a Satanic cult, much of the timeline he revealed was called into question and it appeared that he had lied and made up much of the story. He had built a very successful lecture business touring churches to tell his story of escaping a Satanic cult, and telling Christian stand-up comedy. In 1992, Warnke was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, when Cornerstone magazine published its investigation into his claims. Accusations of fraud devastated Warnke's career as a comedian and occult lecturer, but he maintains that despite the inconsistencies between his book and reality, the events took place as he described them.
It is possible that much of the pain, anguish, despair, and expense that came from the Satanic Ritual Abuse cases could have been avoided if throughout the chain of events someone could have exercised a little skepticism.
By Blake Smith
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