Revisiting the Satanic panic

ESSAY: 20 years after families were ripped apart by hysterical officials, the lessons of that scandal haven’t been learnt.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

In August 1983, 39-year-old Judy Johnson made a call to the Los Angeles Police Department. She claimed that her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Billy, had been molested by 25-year-old Ray Buckey, an assistant at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach.

The police were initially dismissive, but Johnson was insistent – indeed, as the days passed she started claiming that her son had not only been molested, but had been forced to participate in several bizarre rituals involving a goatman and men in capes. Billy was subsequently interviewed and medically examined, during the course of which he neither recognised Buckey from photographs nor showed any physical signs of abuse.

But no matter, the police undertook a search of Buckey’s home, confiscating as evidence a rubber duck, a graduation robe and some soft-porn magazines. On 7 September 1983, Buckey was arrested. And with this, what became known as Satanic ritual abuse, a phenomenon that was to grab the imagination of social workers, therapists, child-protection organisations, police, press and several prominent feminists across the English-speaking world, began its insidious ascent.

The McMartin preschool abuse trial

The day after Buckey’s arrest, the police sent a letter to 200 parents of current and former children at McMartin school. The parents were asked to question their children about whether they had been involved in, or witness to, ‘possible criminal acts’ including ‘oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretence of “taking the child’s temperature”. Also photos may have been taken of children without their clothing.’

The letter had an all-too-predictable effect. It induced panic, suspicion and, over subsequent weeks, an avalanche of allegations. Enter Kathleen ‘Kee’ MacFarlane, a consultant therapist at the Children’s Institute International. During the 1970s, MacFarlane had made a name for herself in the embryonic field of sex-abuse treatment, in particular making pioneering use of the theory of dissociative orders, whereby not remembering that abuse happened was understood to be a product of the subject’s self-protecting dissociating activity. So it was that the Los Angeles district attorney identified MacFarlane as the ideal person to lead the interviews with nearly 400 children.

This she did with zeal, deploying the now infamous anatomically correct dolls and a style of questioning at best described as leading, at worst as misleading. As MacFarlane was to admit in a later interview: ‘The children were scared. They thought they might die or their parents might die. When we realised that’s what kept them silent, we began to feel we were not going to get to any of that information until they got over that fear. One way is to say we talked to a lot of their friends and they told of yucky secrets. I felt that it gave a message there may be something yucky they could tell. We found it relieved them. It took the onus off being the first one.’

So despite all the children initially denying that anything untoward had taken place at the McMartin preschool, the interviews eventually produced the desired result: a host of allegations involving stories of animal sacrifices and even a secret network of hidden passageways under the school (these have never been discovered). By the beginning of 1984, the media had taken up the story, with psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, co-author of Satanic abuse ‘recovered’ memoir Michelle Remembers (1980), telling ABC News that the McMartin case was the visible tip of a vast international Satanic conspiracy. It came as little surprise, given the febrile climate around the case, that on 22 March, Ray Buckey, his mother Peggy Buckey, Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey (Ray’s sister), Mary Ann Jackson, Bette Raidor and Babette Spitler were indicted by a grand jury on 115 counts of child sexual abuse involving 18 children, later expanded to 321 counts involving 48 children.

Over subsequent months, the lack of evidence, aside from the children’s inconsistent, continually embellished testimony, clearly began to bother prosecutors. One was quoted as saying, ‘Kee MacFarlane could make a six-month-old baby say he was molested’. By the time the case came to trial in July 1987 (the original accuser, Judy Johnson, had died of alcohol poisoning by then), the district attorney had dropped charges against five of the seven defendants, leaving Ray Buckey and Peggy Buckey to face 79 counts and 20 counts, respectively, of child sexual abuse. Thirty months, $15million and a host of sodomy-and-animal-sacrifice stories later, the LA county judge dismissed the charges against both Buckey and his mother, too.

The Satanic panic in the US

The McMartin preschool abuse trial was the most famous of the US Satanic ritual-abuse cases – indeed, it had prompted what was then the longest, most expensive trial in American criminal history. But it was neither the first nor the last ritual abuse case. There were claims of Satanic ritual abuse at a daycare centre in Kern County, California in 1982, as there were at the Little Rascals daycare centre in North Carolina in 1989, and the Oak Hill daycare centre in Texas in 1991, plus many more. Yet while there were a handful of isolated prosecutions for child abuse, no cases of Satanic ritual abuse were ever proven.

In 1994, when the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect conducted a survey of more than 11,000 psychiatric and police workers, it discovered 12,000 accusations of ‘cult sexual abuse based on Satanic ritual’, but absolutely nothing investigators could substantiate. As the New York Times reported: ‘The survey found that there was not a single case where there was clear corroborating evidence for the most common accusation, that there was “a well-organised intergenerational Satanic cult, who sexually molested and tortured children in their homes or schools for years and committed a series of murders”.’

As many eventually came to realise, albeit following the ruination of many innocent lives, the search for murdering, child-abusing Satanic cults was, sometimes literally, a witch hunt. That is, like its seventeenth-century precursors, it was informed by the determined presumption of people’s guilt in spite of the absence of evidence. But this raises the question: how did such an irrational quest come to be so widely pursued? How did the authorities, cheered on by child-protection workers, therapists and a salivating press, come to be obsessed with the existence of a phenomenon that, in retrospect, looks as absurd as it does depraved. Sodomy, mutilation, infanticide, all conducted as part of some Satanic rites… it’s the stuff of horror fiction, not horrific fact.

This, in a superficial way, was how it started – as a subspecies of horror fiction dressed in therapeutic garb. The bestselling 1980 book Michelle Remembers, by Canadian therapist Lawrence Pazder and his patient and wife-to-be Michelle Smith, claimed to be the recovered memory of Smith’s childhood of Satanic abuse. And, to give it its due, there was little doubting the horror of its content , from rape and sodomy with candles to being forced to defecate on a Bible and crucifix. But there was plenty of reason to doubt its veracity, not least because, at the time of one of Smith’s alleged internments in Satanists’ cages, she was happily pictured in her school-year photo. Still, Michelle Remembers did provide proponents of Satanic ritual abuse with the closest thing there was to a textbook, with social workers in several cases claiming to have used it as training material.

Yet that doesn’t explain why the idea of Satanic ritual abuse, especially of the Michelle Remembers-kind, seemed so plausible to so many. And here we get to the deeper social currents upon which the Satanic panic was borne aloft.

An unholy marriage

The first of these currents came from the religious right. In this regard, the obsession with Satanic ritual abuse was part of a broader response to a post-1960s socio-cultural climate. Among many conservative, Christian Americans, the changes wrought during this period were a source of profound anxiety. People were unsettled by the growing sense of a more liberal, sexually permissive society, in which abortion was legal, divorce was common, and, with increasing numbers of women working, children were in daycare.

From the conservative perspective, society, in particular its basic familial unit, seemed to be coming apart. Recourse to age-old demonology was a way of making sense of what appeared to be moral and societal crisis – the times were a changin’, and the devil was responsible. In this anxious, culturally besieged moment, captured in films like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, and politically represented by the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the then Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon La Rouche funding a Satanic-abuse awareness leafleting campaign, is it any wonder that the image of a Satanic sex-abusing cult, infiltrating daycare centres across the US, seemed to resonate?

But there was another source of socio-cultural fuel for the Satanic panic, and that came not from the right, but from the left, especially from certain strains of feminism. In many ways, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Child protection, as a burgeoning industry and ideology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had always gone hand-in-hand with an elevated suspicion of so-called patriarchal society and its sexually violent underpinnings. Child protection, therefore, had assumed the appearance of a crusade, an attempt to root out the evils of patriarchy everywhere. Indeed, by the time of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975), patriarchy had come to be seen as being identical to biological males themselves. ‘By anatomical fiat, the inescapable construction of their genital organs, the human male was a predator and the human female served as his natural prey’, Brownmiller wrote.

Given its conviction that man was destined to be a predator, was destined to enact patriarchal violence, this wing of feminism was all too receptive to the idea of Satanic sex cults abusing children. Such was Satanic ritual abuse’s appeal that prominent feminist and co-founder of Ms magazine, Gloria Steinem, contributed money and public support to an abuse proponents’ group. Steinem was far from alone. As Alexander Cockburn, writing in Counterpunch, recalled: ‘Charges of perverse abuse of children seemed an inviting line of attack in the larger onslaught on patriarchy, sexual violence and harassment. Social workers and therapists – many of them feminists – became the investigators and effective prosecutors.’ Or as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker argue in the definitive Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt: ‘It is obvious that the anti-pornographers and victimologists are feminism’s main contributors to the ritual-abuse panic… Indeed, during the past decade, belief in ritual abuse has become so ensconced in this wing of feminism that the arrest, trial by ordeal and lifelong incarceration of accused women have occasioned hardly a blink from its proponents. They have remained silent as convicted mothers and teachers are sent to prison.’

The result of this unholy fusion of right and left, self-regarding conservatives and self-styled progressives, was the overweening, unassailable conviction that Satanic ritual abuse was happening. Here. There. And everywhere. And it is this conviction, this certainty, that underpinned the development of the methodologies and techniques designed to prove it. There was, first, the formulation of so-called indicators of Satanic abuse, such as the rather mundane-sounding bed-wetting, nightmares, fear of monsters and ghosts, and a preoccupation with faeces, urine and flatulence; second, there was the increasing prevalence of a ‘believe the child’ mantra, articulated in Roland Summit’s widely circulated article ‘The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome‘, where he argued that children never fabricated accounts of sexual abuse and thus were to be believed when they disclosed them, regardless of how incredible their accounts were; and third, and most important of all, there was the belief that if a child does not initially disclose sexual abuse, then he is dissociating, repressing, and therefore must have an admission encouraged out of him.

Writing of the US ritual abuse cases, Debbie Nathan is scathing of the role of child interviewers in the construction of allegations: ‘At the beginning of each ritual-abuse case, the children had been eminently reliable, but what they communicated was that they had not been molested by Satanists. Indeed, it was only after an investigation started, after intense and relentless insistence by adults, that youngsters produced criminal charges… What came from the mouths of babes were juvenile renderings of grown-ups’ anxieties.’

In the late 1980s, these dubious methods of ascertaining and proving the existence of Satanic ritual abuse, of turning children into ventriloquists for abuse-hunters, crossed the Atlantic.

Satan comes to Britain

Following a year-long investigation, in February 1989, 10 men and women from the same family living in the same estate in Broxtowe, Nottingham, were convicted of 53 offences of incest, indecent assault and cruelty against 21 children. There was medical evidence that the children were sexually abused, physically abused and given alcohol.

Yet during this investigation into multi-generational incest, a group of Nottingham social workers, (featuring Judith Dawson, who was to remain to the fore of ritual abuse cases throughout the 1990s), had begun arguing that this was the tip of an iceberg of Satanic abuse. Using diaries kept by the abused children’s foster parents, the social workers claimed to have evidence of Satanic abuse, including infanticide, a network of secret tunnels under Wollaton Hall (a local Nottingham landmark), animal sacrifices, babies being ripped from wombs and a whole lot more besides. In other words, there were more people involved, more people to be caught, and this time they were Satanic child sex abusers. The problem for the social workers propounding these allegations was that the police did not believe them to be true. This dispute was to generate the remarkable and revealing joint enquiry team report (JET), a document produced under the auspices of detective superintendent Bob Davy of Nottinghamshire CID and John Gwatkin, area director of Nottinghamshire social services.

The JET report, finished in late 1989, reveals that neither the police nor the enquiry team could find any corroborating evidence for the remarkable claims in the diaries. No secret rooms, no secret tunnels, and no evidence of Satanic abuse. And when attempting to scrutinise the actual diary disclosures, the report team were staggered. Here is a sample: ‘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 children themselves being killed and magicked better’; ‘the witches killing a baby taken out of a female member of the family’s tummy and then making it better’; ‘swimming under water to a big room from Captain Calais’ boat’. When questioned by the report team as to how this constituted evidence, the social workers responded that the entries needed interpretation and a suspension of disbelief. To which the report team responded: ‘We do not consider that suspending disbelief should also mean a suspension of common sense or the use of critical faculties.’

It is the parallels and connections with the US Satanic panic that are striking. Firstly, thanks to Ray Wyre, a probation officer turned sex-crime consultant then working on ITV’s sensationalist investigative news programme, The Cook Report, foster parents had been supplied with the very same Satanic indicators used in the American cases. (Pamela Klein, the Illinois rape counsellor who had created them, had settled in the UK in 1986 and had become an associate of Wyre.) And secondly, the questioning and interrogation of the alleged victims of Satanic abuse was, as it was in the American cases, an exercise in extracting what adults wanted to hear under the guise of a dissociative-order theory. The JET report looks in detail at the interrogation of ‘Mary’, a then 17-year-old member of the Broxtowe family: ‘”Let’s have the older children you’ve seen murdered” (Mary: at a house someone murdered a kid that’s all I remember) “How old?” “Who was there?” “Who ate it?” “Did they have to drink the blood?” “We think you were made to.” “Did many people get buried in mum’s back garden?” “That’s not right. You said babies were buried somewhere else.” “Who was buried in the front garden?”‘ And so on.

Reviewing the transcript, Professor John Newson of the child development research unit at Nottingham University was scathing: ‘One may cite numerous occasions where the social workers assert as bald fact their belief that [Mary] had witnessed and participated in child murder and in the eating of human flesh… There are many inconsistencies in the stories told by [Mary] at different points in these transcripts. The social-work interviewers also imply to [Mary] that the “facts” were not in dispute but that it was her memory of them that was faulty. This is a procedure which in other contexts might well be described as “brainwashing”; in fact [Mary] frequently describes herself as confused.’

The conclusion to the report is chilling: ‘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 US). 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.’

Sadly, thanks to an internal decision on the part of the authorities, the report was not published at the time and those involved in producing it were forbidden from talking about its contents. However, the social workers involved in the Broxtowe case, and their media supporters, freely promoted their conviction that Satanic abuse was very much present in British society. As journalist Richard Webster recalls: ‘During the course of 1990, the New Statesman… published four articles, three by [feminist Beatrix] Campbell and one by [Judith] Dawson, bearing titles such as “Satanic Claims Vindicated” and “Vortex of Evil”, in which belief in the reality of Satanic cults dedicated to child abuse was fervently canvassed.’

Little wonder that in the aftermath of the Broxtowe case, the Satanic panic did not die down. Incredibly, it picked up. Its advocates were not cowed by the lack of corroborative evidence; they merely became all the more convinced that Satanists were covering their tracks. In April 1990, a Rochdale council estate was raided by police and social workers and 16 children were taken away from parents accused of being involved in a Satanic abuse network. The allegations were proven untrue. The following year, on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, five boys and four girls, aged eight to 15 and all from the families of English ‘incomers’, were taken from their parents, and sent to the mainland for months where they were denied any contact with their parents. The local sheriff threw the case out, declaring the evidence seriously flawed.

Yet still the conviction that Satanic ritual abuse was rife persisted. And still the allegations continued to be remade. It would take the 1994 government-commissioned research report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse by Professor Jean La Fontaine, to finally put the Satanic abuse panic to bed. Of the 84 alleged cases of ritual abuse Fontaine investigated, ‘there was no evidence of Satanic abuse’. Then UK health secretary Virginia Bottomley declared that the report ‘exposed the myth of Satanic abuse’.

The legacy of the Satanic panic

As in the US, the ritual-abuse crusade in Britain was pursued with venom and zeal by similar constituencies: social workers, therapists, police, child-protection organisations and a ready-to-be-excited media. But there were differences, too. In the US, with the religious right framing the panic, and the caring professions pursuing it, the focus tended to be on complacent, middle-class communities, the sources, as the right would have it, of moral laxity. In the UK, the objectifying gaze of the witch hunt had shifted. The communities under siege were not middle class and permissive; they were working class and traditional, in places like the Broxtowe estate in Nottingham, or the Langley estate in Rochdale. This reflects, in part, the extent to which in the UK, the Satanic panic was framed less by anxious Christians than it was by elements of a decadent and decomposing left.

This is why the publications in which British proponents of the Satanic panic made their mark were not journals of the cloth; they were the rags of the left. It was publications like the New Statesman and Marxism Today which carried tales of ‘a culture of sexual terrorism, power and sacrifice’, of ‘[organised] rituals to penetrate any orifice available in troops of little children; to cut open rabbits or cats or people and drink their blood; to shit on silver trays and make the children eat it’. For certain elements of the British left, with feminist theorising prominent and a sense of defeat writ large in the Miners’ Strike, the fall of the USSR and the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher, the Satanic panic touched a nerve. It revealed to sections of a disillusioned left the reason for their failure to realise socialism: a working class corrupted by patriarchy, and fucked up by the family. Little wonder that old-time-Communist-cum-feminist Beatrix Campbell, one of the most vocal proponents of ritual-abuse ideas, wrote recently: ‘It was feminism that clarified the unsustainability of state communism. Macho, manic productionism relies on force, it valorises conquest of nature and other humans. It marginalises the means of reproduction – how societies sustain themselves, breathe, give birth, grow and rest, clean up; how people take care, give pleasure and co-operate… The sexism – and destructiveness – of modernity was not evolutionary, it was a bitter political struggle. The outcome: men’s movements masquerading as egalitarian and socialist.’ In this sense, Satanic ritual abuse was merely one of the most depraved forms of society’s endemic machismo.

Because of the left-feminist inflection of the Satanic panic in the UK, its legacy is not a rational, more sober approach to child protection following the nasty, destructive excesses of the 1980s and early 1990s. No, the legacy, properly speaking, was the secularisation of the Satanic panic, its transmutation into the nasty, destructive excesses of today’s obsession with child abuse, the conviction that families up and down the land are caught in cycles of abuse. There are cases of child abuse – of that there can be no question. But the certainty that child abuse is everywhere, that it is rife, that children must be encouraged and pushed into revealing it – in those strains, you can still hear one of the devil’s best tunes.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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