A full stop to the Satanic panic

A BBC documentary reminds us how irrational were the fears of ritual abuse in the 80s and 90s. Yet the view that parents can't be trusted lives on.

Dolan Cummings

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A BBC documentary broadcast last night (11 January) served as a reminder of the disastrous consequences of the theory of ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ that gripped many British social services departments in the late 1980s and early 1990s (1). Following similar stories in the USA, allegations were made across the country, from Nottingham to Orkney, of devil-worshipping, sexual abuse of children and even human sacrifice.

All of the cases, in the USA as well as the UK, turned out to be unfounded, but not before generating a media frenzy, and putting the families concerned through hell. Children were taken from their parents, in many cases for several years, while those parents stood accused of acts that would have seemed absurd were the consequences not so serious. Not only rape and incest but all manner of outlandish occult rituals were said to have been performed by ordinary-seeming families across the land. Sacrificing animals, locking children in ‘caves’, drinking human blood, even making girls pregnant so the fetuses could be torn out and sacrificed: the social workers at the centre of these cases claimed to have uncovered the bestial underside of apparently civilised, secular societies.

It ought to be said that even at the time not everyone was convinced. Notably, regular spiked contributor Dr Michael Fitzpatrick challenged the myth of Satanic ritual abuse in the pages of Living Marxism. In many ways, ‘Satanic abuse’ was a classic moral panic, and transparently so, but it was given special impetus by the peculiar political character of the child abuse issue. While concerns about the occult might seem more in keeping with religious conservatism, especially coming from the USA, in fact the uncovering of child abuse had become a feminist, even left-wing cause, and the idea that sinister things were going on behind the closed doors of the family had a certain resonance even beyond the lunatic fringe. The former Communist and noted feminist Beatrix Campbell wrote a series of articles and made a Channel 4 Dispatches programme promoting the myth more enthusiastically than any American evangelist group or salacious tabloid.

The Rochdale case revisited in the BBC documentary began in June 1990 when a quiet young boy who liked to hide under tables at school was referred to social services. A series of conferences and training videos had convinced many in the profession that Satanic ritual abuse was widespread. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) published so-called ‘Satanic indicators’, a shameful endorsement of irrational panic that has not prevented the organisation retaining respect and patronage for its ongoing promotion of the idea that more mundane child abuse is routine today.

Having read up on the hot topic in the profession, social workers in Rochdale were excited to come across a case that met the promiscuous indicators of abuse. These included such innocuous things as a child’s
obsession with urine and faeces, fear of ghosts and monsters, and reluctance to be left with babysitters.

A total of 12 children were taken from their homes for investigation, and the documentary revealed some of the mechanics of how the panic took off. The BBC took Rochdale Council to court to gain access to tapes of
interviews with the children taken at the time, which make for fascinating viewing. It is clear that the children were led by the social workers. They were encouraged to talk about ‘ghosts’, indulging what they thought of as fantasies but which the social workers interpreted as revelations about their abuse at the hands of various adults. Even when one child insisted that these were ‘nice ghosts’, the skewed interpretation was maintained, while in many cases their statements were simply distorted.

Following similar practices in America, the children were asked to play with anatomically-correct dolls, and again, the social workers led the children and interpreted their play according to their own preconceptions. The children are now suing the council for compensation and an apology for their ordeal.

As in other similar cases, it is clear that the social workers were utterly convinced that the ritual abuse was going on before they began collecting ‘evidence’. In another case, in Nottingham in 1997, the outlandish claims made by children in such circumstances included the following: babies being stabbed in a balloon and cooked in the oven; Jesus being chopped up and eaten off a silver pad; an uncle killing a man, cutting him up and putting him in a bag after going to a fantastic castle in a boat with Mr Pooh Pants and the local vicar; the family witches killing a big sheep brought in a plastic box with their finger nails and taking it to the hospital to get better and bringing it back; a swimming pool with crocodiles, sharks and dragons that kill the children (2).

It seems incredible now that such charges could ever have been taken seriously, but once the theory had taken hold, it became a point of principle that there must be truth even in the most absurd accusations, and above all that children must be believed no matter what.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the Satanic panic as a freakish aberrance, however. The generally unhealthy suspicion of social workers towards families is revealed by the fact that the family at the centre of the Rochdale case had been on the radar of social services even before the false allegations were made; they were judged not be looking after their kids very well and were criticised for having financial problems. (Certainly they come across in the documentary as unsophisticated, which no doubt made it difficult for them to defend themselves against the false allegations.)

While the Satanic panic is generally seen as a thing of the past, the misanthropic assumptions underlying it have only been strengthened since the early 1990s. Organisations like the NSPCC are more rather than less influential, and the idea that child abuse is going on in countless apparently normal homes is absolutely mainstream. It is this institutionalised suspicion that means the apparently irrational Satanic
ritual abuse panic can be explained, and also that it has never completely disappeared. It is still important to challenge the myth wherever it flares up, but more than that to question the more mainstream misanthropy that feeds it.

Moreover, at a time when it is increasingly fashionable to cast doubt on the ability of parents in general to feed, discipline and socialise their own children, it is worth remembering what the professionals are capable of, especially when they are convinced they are on the side of the angels.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) When Satan Came To Town: The Real Story, BBC ONE on Wednesday 11 January at 2100 GMT.

(2) The Broxtowe Files, Revised Joint Enquiry Report

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