Earlier this month, in the days leading up to Neelu Berry and Sabine McNeill’s trial, a notice landed in our email about a conference at the London School of Economics, featuring Dr Jean LaFontaine, Britain’s foremost researcher into the topic of ‘Satanic ritual abuse’. Dr LaFontaine is now Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and a board member of the charity Inform, which aims to promote understanding of lesser-known religions.
She described how she began to investigate the rise of SRA reports in the UK in the late 1980s. Her first introduction was at a conference on witchcraft in Cardiff, where the audience seemed about evenly split between “vicars in collars, and the other half seemed to be child psychiatrists”, Dr LaFontaine said.
At that conference, two senior social workers from Nottingham showed the audience drawings that they said showed that children had been abused by a cult of Satanists. The presenters’ claim was that the Satanists were “sexually abusing the children, sometimes raping them, and occasionally murdering babies, which they ate”.
Dr LaFontaine, who had spent her early years in Africa, found these claims both fascinating and extraordinary, as they echoed witchcraft traditions with which she was already familiar. She began to investigate the UK variety, and quickly found that it was a new phenomenon in this country, having arrived here via North America.
She undertook a study of the phenomenon, noting that by the 1980s the national media had begun to write about secret rituals, murders, and sacrifices, all involving the practice of ‘black magic’. British television and newspapers carried stories linking the sexual abuse of children with cultists; because similar reports had begun to spring up elsewhere, it took on the tone of an international conspiracy.
Assertions began to be made about a wide range of unspeakable activities, but no one had ever seen them occurring. Rituals were supposed to have been performed by people in robes, masks, and other paraphernalia, but no one had ever seen them. Dr LaFontaine said it was assumed that this was because the rituals and those who performed them were protected by ‘important people’, who prevented them being investigated.
Where did the Satanic panic come from?
The genesis of the 1980s Satanic panic can be traced to the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, co-written by a woman named Michelle and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. The story revolves around a lurid and graphic story of child sexual abuse, which supposedly occurred when Michelle was five years old. She told of being raped, kept in a cage, and finally rescued by a vision of the Virgin Mary.
We’ve discussed Michelle Remembers on this blog. Regular commenter Justin Sanity offered a fascinating look at Michelle and her psychiatrist, who would later become her husband, along with some cogent observations about their motivations.
In the wake of this book, some people became particularly possessed by the idea of ritual abuse. They took on the role of campaigners, trying to persuade others to understand that children were not only at risk for domestic child abuse, but also for abuse by cults. ‘Cult specialists’ sprang up in the mental health field, and went about spreading the gospel of SRA, as well as treating those who claimed they’d been abused in a cult context.
The ‘ritual abuse industry’ was under way.
Echoing the resurgence of evangelical Christianity at that time, a large number of these campaigners were evangelicals; others were journalists, while many were social workers. Newspapers seized on SRA and a ‘feeding frenzy’ ensued. The sensationalist content of such stories, which were full of sex, murder, black magic, and so forth, encouraged the reporting of further cases.
Campaigners, journalists, and people who said they were victims spoke at conferences, held seminars, and wrote books, creating cross-contamination—those reporting SRA would often include details that seemed to have come from other sources.
An effect of the Satanic panic was that ‘therapists’ (often unaccredited, and full of missionary zeal) took over the treatment of survivors of child sex abuse. This sometimes resulted in people undergoing years of therapy, spent digging for ‘recovered memories’ of ritual abuse.
Questioned about the lack of physical evidence of any ritual abuse, one therapist said that evidence of baby sacrifices had been destroyed in portable incinerators brought to the ritual sites in the woods by cult members who happened to work in crematoria. These incinerators were supposedly powered by car batteries.
The end of the panic
Dr LaFontaine set about studying 84 cases of alleged ritual abuse in England and Wales, but was unable to find any supporting evidence for the existence of such cults. Despite the absence of any ritual abuse, she found that half the children she studied had in fact suffered sexual abuse, usually in their own homes; many others had suffered physical abuse as well.
In part, Dr LaFontaine attributes belief in ritual abuse to the sense of shock and horror these crimes against children evoked: “How do you explain why people would do that?” Ideas of ritual abuse helped people absorb the fact that children were being mistreated and abused in the worst possible ways.
When Dr LaFontaine’s report on the extent and nature of ritual and organised abuse was released in 1994, the Department of Health removed the terms ‘ritual abuse’ and ‘organised abuse’ from the advice they gave to social workers. In effect, Dr LaFontaine said, this was a recognition that this form of child abuse was no longer considered an issue.
However, a few cases continued to be reported, up to the present day.
These are “mostly historic, but recently the Hampstead case came up”, said Dr LaFontaine, noting that this case is significantly different from others she’d investigated in the past. “Interestingly, the judge had experience of other fantastical abuse cases, so there was no conviction”.
Unlike the heyday of the 1980s satanic panic, the media is no longer interested in reports of SRA; they have other fish to fry, such as the recent rash of allegations of historical abuse by VIPs which has dominated headlines since the death of Jimmy Saville.
In some ways, it’s encouraging to know that Hoaxtead is an outlier, a hangover from a bygone era. It’s never gained real traction in the media, despite best efforts of those who’ve promoted it…and that’s a good thing.