Jimmy Savile: the Satanic panic resurrected
Jean La Fontaine on the Savile case's eerie echoes of past hysteria.
‘There is a weakness in Western culture and society, which means conspiracy theories go across very well’, Jean La Fontaine, an established anthropologist, tells me over a coffee. ‘We’ve currently got one involving the BBC and the sexual abuse of young girls. Now, it may be true that all of these celebrities were doing things they shouldn’t, but we haven’t seen much in the way of evidence…’
It’s fair to say that La Fontaine knows a thing or two about the dangerous comingling of conspiracy theory and child sexual abuse. In the early 1990s, with children having been ripped from families in Rochdale, the Orkneys and elsewhere in the UK on the basis of Satanic ritual abuse allegations, the Department of Health commissioned La Fontaine to investigate. The result of her investigations – a study titled The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse, published in 1994 – dealt the death blow to the fevered hunt for child-abusing Satanists. La Fontaine found nothing to substantiate the allegations. Or to quote the journalist Rosie Waterhouse, as La Fontaine herself does, there were ‘no bodies, no bones, no bloodstains, nothing’.
What La Fontaine did find, however, was an overarching determination on the part of certain evangelical Christians, social workers and child-protection charities, plus a few campaigning journalists, to see Satanic abuse almost everywhere – in spite of the absence of evidence. Allegations which sound outrageous to contemporary ears resonated all too plausibly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For instance, Diane Core, founder of the charity Childwatch, declared in 1988 that ‘at least 4,000 children were being sacrificed a year in Great Britain alone’. In July of the following year, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) told the public it was ‘increasingly anxious about the existence of ritualistic abuse involving children’.
La Fontaine seems wryly amused when recalling the lengths believers would go to to justify themselves. She remembers asking the psychiatrist Joan Coleman, why, if hundreds of children had been sacrificed, there were no bodies. As La Fontaine recalls: ‘”What you have to remember”, said Coleman, “is that some of these Satanists work in crematoria, which means they can burn the bodies”. So I said, “You also said these rituals take place in forests far away, so no one will see them”. “Yes”, she said, “they have portable crematoria”. “Oh”, I said, “and how do they power these portable crematoria?”. “They run them off car batteries”, she said.’
La Fontaine tells me: ‘You see, so convinced were the believers that Satanic abuse was true [that] they were always looking for back-up arguments, without realising how silly it made them sound. But that was the problem: the convictions of the believers in Satanism were not based on fact and their beliefs could not be shaken by rational argument. This belief in the existence of Satanism was a triumph of faith over reason.”
The Satanic panic seems a long time ago now. Largely thanks to La Fontaine’s government report, it is now accepted by all but the most devout that while there was evidence of child abuse, albeit often tangential, the Satanic abuse allegations were false; there was no Satanist conspiracy, organised or otherwise, to abuse children. The whole thing was a witch hunt, almost literally given the occasional focus on the UK’s pagan community.
Yet while the Satanic panic itself seems a long time ago, La Fontaine is not convinced that it simply stopped. Rather, it seems simply to have shed its Satanic garb, dropping the horns and the masks and the robes, and become something non-religious in appearance but no less zealous and demonological in essence. That is, it fed and mutated into the conviction held by many today that the evil of child abuse is abroad – that, in the recent words of UK deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz, ‘There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited’. This is not to say La Fontaine is sceptical about the existence of child abuse (indeed, she has written extensively about it); rather, she is sceptical about the conspiratorial claims made for its hidden prevalence. And in that sense, there is considerable continuity between the Satanic panic of 20 years ago and the febrile climate of today, rich as it is in post-Jimmy Savile rumour and innuendo.
‘I don’t think that the idea of a conspiracy to abuse children, with or without Satanism, ever died’, La Fontaine explains. ‘[The Satanic abuse accusations] just went silent, because the then government stamped on it from a great height. (You have to remember that the government to which I reported was Tory, and they didn’t want to spend any more on social workers than they could help, so they were relieved and pleased by the results of my work.) As a result, it is now difficult to talk publicly about Satanic abuse. However, child sexual abuse is definitely something that child-protection workers do concern themselves [with]. So, although it is unofficial, the idea of conspiracies to abuse has not gone away. It’s there in the stories about sex rings, nursery schools, and now the “culture of abuse” at the BBC. The basic bones of the story have not gone away.’
In some instances, it’s the flesh of the Satanic panic, the outward appearance, that is still visible. Indeed, some of the people who were involved in that panic are now involved in the Savile case. Consider the therapist Valerie Sinason. She (along with other members of the psycho-therapeutic community) did much to stoke the fires of the Satanic panic 20 years ago, with stories of so-called survivors of Satanic abuse stories that were, as La Fontaine notes, constructed during the course of therapy sessions with Sinason. Despite being largely discredited at the time, Sinason recently seems to have taken advantage of the Savile hysteria: in January this year there was a story in the Express, as told by Sinason, of how the Satanist Savile used to wear a hooded robe and mask while assaulting a girl at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire.
That’s not the only Satanic hangover. One of Sinason’s fellow travellers, a lawyer called Lee Moore, a self-proclaimed ‘survivor of ritual abuse’, runs a Satanic ritual abuse awareness course. A few years ago, it transpired that in October 2004, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) child-abuse team had actually been sending officers to attend the course. And the identity of the commander in charge of the MPS child-abuse team at the time? Peter Spindler, who, until April this year, was heading up Operation Yewtree, the investigation set up to inquire into allegations against all those 1970s celebs – or what Yewtree comprehensively refers to as ‘Savile’, ‘Savile plus others’, and ‘others’. Spindler’s words in 2004 were revealing: ‘If survivors of abuse are telling us that this is the type of thing they have experienced in the past, then we need to be open-minded.’
Indeed, one of the most striking parallels between the Satanic panic and the post-Savile determination to root out the child-abusing evil in our midst is precisely this ‘open-minded’ approach to what the ‘survivors of abuse are telling us’. In the case of the Satanic panic, the faith invested in the testimony of children, teenagers and, later, with the discrediting of the younger people’s evidence, so-called ‘adult survivors’, stood in for the absence of any actual evidence. ‘Everyone was saying, you’ve got to believe the children’, recalls La Fontaine. ‘But when I got the material which showed me what the children were saying – the transcriptions, etc – the children weren’t saying that sort of thing at all. One little boy was asked 30 questions about witches, and you could see the point at which he realises what the questioners want him to say.’
Yet now, as then, to question the stories and, more often, the memories of those who claim to have been abused is considered out of bounds. ‘You can’t doubt them or question their stories because we’re told it does the putative victims more damage to disbelieve them’, La Fontaine says. In Operation Yewtree, this principle of assumed victimhood, of utter credulity before allegations of child abuse, has been enshrined as its governing principle. In the Yewtree report, Giving Victims a Voice, the police, working alongside the NSPCC, another former believer in the Satanic madness, asserted that because Savile can never be put on trial, those hundreds of people making allegations against him are to be treated as ‘victims’ rather than ‘complainants’, which means the police ‘are not presenting the evidence they have provided as unproven allegations’. In other words, in the name of ‘justice for victims’, unproven and unprovable allegations are now assumed to be true.
Talking to La Fontaine, it becomes clear that what unites the Satanic panic of the early 1990s and the post-Savile celebrity witch-hunt of today, taking in the North Wales care home scandal en route, goes beyond revealing parallels such as the ‘believe the victims’ mantra or the police trawling for allegations. What really pulls the two phenomena together is the near existential need among certain sections of society for the existence of evil. And as La Fontaine notes in her 1998 book, To Speak of the Devil, ‘the sexual abuse of children is the most potent representation of human evil in the late twentieth century’ – and the early twenty-first century as well, it seems.
At first, this peculiarly contemporary longing to identify and wage war against the child-abusing evil in our midst was fought by evangelical Christians, which perhaps explains the Satanic garb of the first wave of the child-abuse panic. But over time, we have seen other social interests mobilised, other groupings seeking to affirm their purpose in the field of battle, including children’s charities, psycho-therapists, feminists, and the state itself, from politicians to the police. In these morally uncertain times, these acutely anxious times, crusading against child abuse has become a means to create some semblance of moral purpose, some metaphysic by which to live. Child protection is fast becoming both the ultimate objective and the supreme ethic of society.
It’s perhaps not obvious yet, but what we have witnessed over the past 20 years is the moral reorganisation of society around child abuse and child protection. And here’s the sting: for as long as this crusade persists, for as long as certain agents seek to root out the corruption they are just certain is there, then there will be a consistent need for personifications of evil, be they the Satanic conspirators of the early 1990s or the Jimmy Savile ‘and others’ of today. The lessons of La Fontaine’s work are still waiting to be learned.
Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked
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