There is a worldwide epidemic of satanic child abuse allegations. Are they true? Has satanic child abuse happened here in New Zealand?
The most extensive child sex abuse case to be heard in a New Zealand court was the Christchurch Civic Creche affair. Nor was this an ordinary sexual abuse case, for throughout the lengthy period of investigation and the initial depositions hearings, bizarre claims of ritual sexual abuse were made. There were several similarities between this case and a sexual abuse case which had first surfaced in the US ten years earlier in 1983 — the highly publicised McMartin preschool case in Los Angeles — which also dealt with claims of ritual sexual abuse. In both cases, claims were made of the existence of child pornography networks and satanic conspiracy.
Although New Zealand has frequently been judged a highly secularised society, claims of Satanism were widely accepted during the initial investigation into the Christchurch creche case, and were repeated during the depositions hearings. Indeed, the whole affair led to a moral panic concerning child sexual abuse which later spread throughout the country.
It is important to stress that a moral panic is not an entirely spontaneous public reaction to a perceived problem such as child sexual abuse. It is also a consciously planned course of action which involves one or a number of different interest groups. Panics concerned with sexual abuse cases in general often involve groups such as fundamentalist Christians, mental health professionals, social workers, law enforcement officers, and the media.
The events which led to this particular “satanic panic” in Christchurch can be traced to Christian fundamentalist groups and the direct import from the United States of the satanic ritual abuse scenario.
The Satanism scare in the United States gained momentum during the 1980s, in the aftermath of the religious cult scare of the 1970s. Christian fundamentalist interests — especially groups which subscribed to the belief that the “end time” had arrived and that satanic forces would be particularly strong during this period — were behind the moral panic which spread across the United States.
Additionally, some mental health professionals and law enforcement officers were prepared to disseminate the idea that Satanism was rife. Of these two groups, the former were often associated with adults who alleged that they were “survivors” of ritual sexual abuse.
Indeed, the origin of the modern Satanism scare can be traced to the earliest “survivor” account — the book Michelle Remembers, which was published in 1980 by Michelle Smith, co-authored by her therapist, later husband, Lawrence Pazder.
As the panic spread during the 1980s, the satanic scenario was broadened to incorporate such elements as large-scale child abduction, ritualistic abuse of children, human and animal sacrifice, and cannibalism.
Law enforcement officers, social workers, and mental health professionals provided the key secular network for spreading ideas of Satanism through their involvement in seminars and workshops aimed at combatting the satanic menace.
It was in this manner that the anti-satanic movement spread to Britain later in the 1980s, and eventually to New Zealand. American fundamentalist Christians, presenting themselves as “experts” in the field of ritual child abuse, were invited to speak at social worker and police seminars. One such “expert” visited Christchurch in August 1991 and was reported as saying that “satanic ritual abuse posed as great a threat to children as sexual abuse” (Christchurch Press, 27 August 1991).
Although the Satanism scare appears to cover a unique, if somewhat bizarre, series of events, it is in fact a development of earlier trends in the child protection movement.
Beginning in the 1960s with the “discovery” of the battered baby syndrome, by the late 1970s child protection became increasingly focused on sexual abuse. This was expanded during the 1980s when false claims were made (in the United States) that as many as 50,000 — or even 90,000 — children were abducted by strangers each year.
It was in the early 1980s that the first adult “survivor” accounts of satanic abuse began to emerge. Following such accounts, the child protection movement made claims that satanic cults were responsible for the majority of the child abductions. The most prominent claims came from an extensive network of social workers, police, and psychotherapists — groups which were already involved in the task of aiding child victims of adult exploitation. They assumed responsibility for this “new” form of child victimisation — satanic abuse — and thus were able to expand their organisational base.
It should also be noted that claims of satanic abuse incorporated psychological categories to explain victims’ behaviour. The psychological material is too complex to permit more than a brief summary here, but two important aspects should be mentioned.
First is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a term used in the diagnosis of patients whose maladaptive behaviour could be explained by supposedly traumatic past experiences. PTSD, it has been suggested, is often coupled with multiple personality disorder (MPD) and “occult survivors” were typically attributed with this condition. Indeed, the “expert” mentioned earlier was reported as saying that MPD was the usual damage caused to children by satanic ritual abuse. He also argued that “about half the children suffering [MPD] had been victims of satanic ritual abuse” (Press, 27 August 1991).
A major factor in the diagnosis of “survivors” with PTSD and/or MPD was that patients’ denial was proof; any denial of involvement with satanic ritual was dismissed as a typical symptom of the underlying disorder.
The media’s role in spreading the Satanism scenario cannot be overlooked, since in the United States, Britain, and New Zealand, popular newspapers and television talk shows were very much involved. The New Zealand media, in September 1991 (shortly after reports of the visiting American sexual abuse therapist), reported a workshop presentation which was given at the Family Violence Prevention Conference in Christchurch. The main theme of this particular workshop was ritual abuse and was a prominent feature of the conference.
As co-ordinators of this workshop, the Ritual Action Group (RAG) were concerned with presenting ritual abuse as a serious threat to children in this country. Their presentation drew on both anti-cult and anti-Satanist literature, detailing a definition of ritual abuse, the situations in which it was likely to occur, and the signs parents should be looking for to determine whether their child had been abused.
There was a period of intensified media interest in claims of Satanism following the September conference and the RAG workshop. This included reports that police were stepping up investigations into ritualistic cults, following bizarre claims coming from Australia which told of satanic cults there. These cults were said to have links with child pornography rings, but they were also reported as killing and eating babies.
It was also reported at this time that a “prominent New Zealand policeman” had spent time in the United States studying techniques for investigating links between child pornography and Satanism: the same policeman had earlier been linked with the RAG group. It was during this period of intense media coverage that allegations of ritual abuse in the Christchurch Civic Creche began to surface.
Following similar patterns in the United States and Britain, the links between child pornography, organised sex rings, and ritual abuse have been a prominent feature of the Satanism scare in this country.
Although the first reports of Satanism appeared in 1991, it was not until a year later that a moral panic which focused on the sexual abuse of children broke. From early in 1992, a former male worker from the Christchurch Civic Creche had been under investigation for indecent assault and sexual violation of children. Subsequent events further amplified the panic — the abrupt closure of the civic creche; the police investigation into a “major paedophile ring” operating in New Zealand and reputed to have links with an international network of child pornography dealers; the leader of the Centerpoint commune facing charges of child sexual abuse; and sporadic claims of abuse emerging from other childcare centers around the country.
All these events occurred within the space of two months during the latter half of 1992. Although the Department of Social Welfare began to express concern about their rapidly increasing caseloads of child abuse, it was not until the news broke that four female co-workers were also alleged to have committed indecent assault and sexual violation of children at the creche that the panic gained full momentum. The creche case now took on elements of “organised” abuse rather than being one involving a lone “predatory” male abuser.
It was at this stage that the media concentrated on the bizarre nature of the case, with its alleged elements of ritual abuse. In particular, one alleged incident known as the “circle incident” provided a vivid image which enabled the media to locate this case within an established stereotype of ritual abuse. However, it was not only the media who made links between this case and the ritual abuse scenario. During the depositions hearings the mother of an alleged victim had called for an overseas “expert” on ritual abuse to be brought into the inquiry.
As the events leading to the Christchurch case have shown, religious concepts still feature in the public perception of problem conditions such as child sexual abuse and the amplification of deviance thus generated. This is despite the increasingly secularised nature of New Zealand society.
Christian fundamentalists in particular have been relatively successful in having their ideas on issues such as child pornography and alleged satanic abuse incorporated into the rhetoric of secular agencies such as social work, counselling, and law enforcement. It is no coincidence that this moral panic has focused on children given that, in periods of rapid social change and uncertainty such as New Zealand has experienced in recent years, children represent the hope for the future. This is likely to prove a recurrent theme of perceived social problems.