As we’ve discussed here before, the idea of “Satanic ritual abuse” is a relatively modern one, originating in a small city on the west coast of Canada in 1980. That’s when psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Pazdor and his client (and eventual wife) Michelle Proby, aka Michelle Smith, published the literary hoax Michelle Remembers, documenting Dr Pazder’s course of therapy with Michelle, who “remembered” having been victimised by a group of Satanists in Victoria, B.C.
That book formed the foundation for the “Satanic panic” which began in the United States and Canada in the early 1980s, and migrated to the UK in 1988, when the first fully fledged SRA case took place in Broxtowe, an estate in Nottingham.
This case, and the way in which it was investigated, reveals a great deal about the many pitfalls which can arise during investigations of allegations of SRA, and tackles head-on the issues of leading questions, contamination, witness reliability, and conflicting stories from witnesses.
We’d like to thank the reader who pointed us toward the JET report, and hope our other readers will find it as informative as we do.
The Nottingham ritual abuse cases
In October 1987, seven children were removed from an extended family in Broxtowe, on suspicion that they had been sexually abused by their parents and extended family. A year and a half later, in February 1989, 10 men and women were charged with a total of 53 offences of incest, indecent assault, and cruelty against 21 children in the extended family.
Medical evidence indicated that the children had been sexually and physically abused, and that they had been given alcohol. The accused were found guilty and extended prison terms were imposed. This outcome was heralded as an example of smooth collaboration between social workers and police.
The foster parent diaries
Before the trials commenced, the children were placed in foster homes and their foster parents were asked to keep diaries of anything they said or did which might have an impact on their future welfare. The contents of these diaries began to indicate that something even more serious than sexual and physical abuse had happened to the children.
Strange and disturbing allegations began to emerge, including “witch parties”, infant murders, animal killings, the involvement of strangers, and videotaping of sexual abuse.
According to the Joint Enquiry Team (JET) report,
Nothing like the content of these diaries had ever been seen before and they eventually gave rise to the suspicion that the children might have been involved in some form of organised ritualistic Satanic abuse or witchcraft cult. Adult members of the extended family were interviewed by social workers and appeared to support this view.
Split between social workers and police
A schism developed between some of the social workers involved in the case and the police, as is became clear that the police did not believe the allegations emerging from the foster parents’ diaries.
The police launched a separate investigation called the Gollom Enquiry, which concluded that:
- No Satanic or Witchcraft abuse was involved;
- There was a lack of evidence to support allegations of abuse;
- The corroborating adults were unreliable;
- No adults outside the extended family were involved;
- The children and foster parents were influencing one another in their creation of false memories;
- Ideas of abuse were being shared by the foster parents at their bi-weekly support meetings;
- The children’s stories of Satanic abuse were similar to each other because the kids were contaminated by the foster parents.
The social workers, on the other hand, seemed to believe that:
- The police were attempting to discredit the children;
- The diary reports, including allegations of Satanic abuse, were reliable;
- There was no contamination of the children’s stories—the children’s allegations were similar because they were relating accurate memories of similar events;
- SRA experts Ray Wyre and Dr Kirk Weir believed that Satanic abuse was involved. The judge, Mrs Justice Margaret Booth, agreed.
- The list of Satanic abuse indicators prepared in the U.S. closely matched the children’s disclosures.
Social workers and police seemed to be at an impasse, and by June 1988 police were refusing to investigate any further allegations arising from the foster parents’ diaries. To resolve matters and progress the case appropriately, it was decided that a Joint Enquiry Team consisting of two police officers and two social workers, none of whom had worked on the case previously, would investigate the allegations.
The enquiry lasted five months, and was comprehensive.
The JET investigated places and premises disclosed by the children and adults, as well as people related to those locations. Interviews were conducted with both convicted and other members of the extended family, along with alleged perpetrators. Some senior police and social work staff were interviewed, as were the SRA experts who’d been used by social services. Some of the foster parents were interviewed, and there was “involvement with the interviewing of twelve children disclosing ritualistic abuse during the course of the Enquiry”.
Locations where Satanic ceremonies were alleged to have been held included various hidden and underground rooms and tunnels, a swimming pool at a private home, and a secret passage containing four dead bodies at a house in Derbyshire. None of the rooms or tunnels were found to exist. An indoor pool does exist now at the home in question, but it is a new installation and did not exist at the time of the alleged abuse.
An “expert in SRA”
Ray Wyre, a former probation officer who described himself as “an independent sexual abuse consultant” had been called in by the original social services team to brief the foster parents on “indicators of Satanic ritual abuse”, and the team found that it was after this briefing that four children from three foster homes began to make bizarre allegations. It seems likely that Mr Wyre’s instructions had a profound influence on the direction of the case.
As the JET report concludes, “The children knew the foster parents wanted them to identify places and people and would have wanted to please them”.
According to ReligiousTolerance.org,
Mr. Wyre’s services had been acquired by Social Services as an expert in SRA. His indicators of SRA came from an alleged expert from the US, and included: “transportation to other places, animal sacrifices, drinking of blood, eating flesh, defiling children with urine and feces, monsters and ghosts, a mysterious church, killing of children etc.” Foster parents were urged to ask their children about these indicators, and to document the results.
Following this directive from Mr Wyre, the stories began to flow: babies had been murdered by being shot, jumped upon, having their heads smashed against the floor, killed by a monster, killed by crocodiles, killed by sharks, killed by a dragon…and that was just the beginning.
Other allegations included:
- Adults having “dead babies hanging around their necks”;
- Jesus chopped up and eaten;
- Babies being dug up in a field;
- Witches removing a foetus from its mother’s body, killing it, and then reviving it;
- Children being sexually abused in an underground room at a church;
- One of the children’s tummies being cut open by her father in the living room and then taken to hospital;
- An adult putting on a cloak and flying;
- All of the children being killed at parties;
- A swimming pool with crocodiles, sharks and dragon that kill the children;
- Adult witches turning the children into frogs;
- Underground rooms, tunnels, sharks, eating spiders, snakes, burning sticks, a bath full of blood, a red drink that makes you sleepy, a table with a purple plastic cloth with snakes, moons, stars, pigs, spiders and donkeys on it.
Unsurprisingly, the team decided that in the absence of any physical corroborative evidence, none of these allegations had any likelihood of being true.
We had not found any physical corroborative evidence in the Broxtowe case and no longer believed the children’s diaries substantiated the claim of Satanic abuse. In our view they reflected other influences and were open to alternative interpretations. Our research indicated that nobody else [in other countries] had found corroborative physical evidence either. All the evidence for its existence appears to be based upon disturbed children and adults claiming involvement during interviews by social workers, psychiatrists, and Church Ministers who already themselves believed in its existence. It seemed possible that Satanic abuse only existed in the minds of people who wanted or needed to believe in it. In the USA the result had been a modern day witch hunt which had ruined the lives of many innocent people.
The context of the disclosures
The Joint Enquiry Team pointed out that it’s critical to understand the context of the disclosures made by the children:
The first fact that strikes you is that until Mr. W. briefed the foster parents with the Satanic indicators all four children were talking entirely about their family, of which seven are ESN, being involved in sexual abuse and what they call witch parties. There are only vague references to strangers.
The second, even more pertinent fact, is that until Mr. W.’s presentation of the Satanic indicators all the children are talking about sexual abuse and the witches parties at their homes. It is not until the 5.3.88 that they start to talk about a big house with a swimming pool and even then, only with reference to sexual abuse and nothing ‘Satanic’. They only start to identify other locations in the context of witch parties in July 1988 when the foster parents had been asked to take the children around to identify locations.
The children all lived in typical semi-detached council houses on council estates. As we all know the walls of these houses are paper thin, the rooms are very small with the average living room being 14′ by 12′ and they have open gardens. In our experience it is virtually impossible on council estates to keep anything secret that can be seen or heard (unfortunately sexual abuse is often neither) and information and particularly anything of a spicy or bizarre nature passes around very quickly.
The family were under constant surveillance from the authorities and from an interview with a neighbour it is clear that they attracted attention to themselves as these families often do. The neighbour states that she had “seen young children naked in the garden eating their own excrement and running around the garden naked or [with] very little on even on freezing cold days”. She adds that “any talk of witchcraft or any type of Satanic practices regarding the family surprises me a great deal. I have never heard or witnessed anything like that on this estate before”. The neighbours do maintain that the family used to frequently return from the pub and continued ‘parties’ with a lot of shouting and swearing.
Despite this the social workers have accepted that the family were having witch parties at which sheep were being slaughtered in the front room or the back garden and the front garden and were subsequently left in the garages in wheelie bins, that abortions were committed in the front room, that more than eight witches danced around singing in the front room, that later one of the children had her stomach cut open on a table in the front room and that [Mary] witnessed seven children being killed along with acts of cannibalism. We do not consider that the belief that this could be kept secret matches basic commonsense or reality. Outside of the babies and the children, sheep are large, noisy, difficult animals and when one was slaughtered by an Indian on a council estate in Leicester it hit the national newspaper headlines the following day. In our view another explanation has to be sought.
Especially in the context of what we now know about those who believe implicitly in the existence and prevalence of SRA, we found the team’s concluding remarks most interesting:
Our interpretation of the diaries…does not support the view that the children have been involved in organised Satanic ritual or witchcraft ceremonies. All our research both in this country and abroad has revealed that no actual physical empirical evidence has been found anywhere at anytime for Satanic abuse. If you still wish to believe that it exists logically you would have to accept that an organisation has the unique ability to keep it secret. Even relatively secret organisations such as the Masons and the Mafia have never managed to achieve this. At least it would mean that the followers were extremely clever, powerful, wealthy, sophisticated people who could use their power and wealth to ensure privacy.
If this is the case, as it must be, such people would hardly get involved with a family of ESN adults living on a council estate who are the subject of gossip by their neighbours, who are known to the police and who are subject to surveillance by the authorities. It would be too great a risk as they would be discovered within a week. Such a family could not handle it, and could not keep it quiet. The most that we can deduce from the diaries is that these children have been sexually abused and that they may also have been terrorized by sadistic adults who found it amusing to frighten them. This could fit in with the adults laughing (not a normal practice one would assume at ritualistic ceremonies) as the children describe. It could be true that the children have been deliberately burnt (there is plenty of medical evidence for this) made to drink alcohol, locked in the garages, pushed into wheelie bins.
We also found the team’s conclusions about SRA in general quite prescient:
In our view two years later on an unshakeable belief system in Satanic ritualistic abuse appears to have developed which could easily lead into a modern day “witch hunt” (as has happened in the USA). All the elements appear to us to be present; rigid preconceived ideas, dubious investigative techniques, the unwillingness to check basic facts, the readiness to believe anything, however bizarre, the interest in identifying prominent people, with widening of the net to implicate others and the unwillingness to accept any challenge to their views.
The JET report’s conclusion included this recommendation:
The use of the current information on ‘Satanic’ ritualistic abuse / witchcraft within Social Services should be stopped immediately in the absence of any empirical evidence to support it. Presentations using this material, which in our view has no validity, should also cease immediately as it is contagious.
While social services within Local Authorities seem to have largely abandoned their belief in SRA, we’ve observed that a disturbingly large number of social workers, therapists, police officers, and others continue to cling to the belief that children are subjected to horrific “Satanic ritual abuse”.
There’s more—much more—to say about this report, which laid the groundwork for Professor Jean La Fontaine’s later national study of SRA, among other things. We’d urge our readers to read the abridged version of the report, which was itself the subject of a great deal of controversy when it was published online in the 1990s. It contains a great many lessons which have not lost relevance in the 30 years since its original publication.