This is an abridged version of Professor Hill’s presentation to the 1998 Skeptics’ Conference.
During the witch-hunts of the Early Modern period, a regular pattern emerged. Volumes would be written by theologians and lawyers setting out the diagnostic criteria for identifying and processing witches; these then formed the basis for witchcraft investigations and trials.
Similarly, preachers would vividly describe the physical and behavioural stigmata associated with demonic possession, and these would then be exhibited by certain members of their congregations.
The point is that the satanic scenario had to be well established in official dogma and, more generally, in peoples’ minds before an episode of witch-hunting got under way.
Much the same process occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, first in North America and subsequently in Australia and New Zealand. It is possible to trace the origins of claims about the existence of alleged satanic cults and to show their impact as they inflated the everyday anxieties of people — especially parents with children in paid childcare — and grew to become a widespread moral panic.
Furthermore, moral panics often rely on moral entrepreneurs for their propagation, and, in the case of the “satanism scare” which began in 1980, it is clear that a small number of “expert” claims-makers played a key role in disseminating the satanic scenario. The same moral entrepreneurs have been highly active in Australia and New Zealand.
Satan’s arrival in North America
A series of influences fed into the satanism scare, including the growing interest in alleged satanic forces by Christian fundamentalists from the 1960s onwards, but the year in which it took a definite shape can be dated fairly precisely as 1980. In that year, two very different volumes were published which converged to produce an escalation of claims about satanic ritual abuse throughout the 1980s.
The first was a book called Michelle Remembers, by a claimed “survivor” of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA), Michelle Smith, and her therapist — later husband — Lawrence Pazder.
In this gothic narrative, later to be discredited, Michelle recalls as a five-year-old “being tortured in houses, mausoleums, and cemeteries, being raped and sodomised with candles, being forced to defecate on a Bible and crucifix, witnessing babies and adults butchered, spending hours naked in a snake-filled cage, and having a devil’s tail and horns surgically attached to her” (N & S:45). At one point in the account there is a personal appearance of the Devil (complete with tail) and an epic battle with sound effects as Jesus and Mary emerge to give support to the victim. Michelle’s Christian faith finally defeats the satanists, who release her, after which she completely forgets her experiences until 20 years later when she is in therapy with Dr Pazder.
Pazder had worked in West Africa and had taken an interest in witchcraft rituals, some of which involved being buried in a pit: it is worth noting that burial or entombment was to become one of the frequently reported components of the SRA scenario. The book was a best-seller and it was not long before other women began to recover “memories” of similar satanic events.
The other relevant volume to appear in 1980 was the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSMIII), which for the first time included the categories of “Multiple Personality Disorder” — later to be relabelled Dissociative Identity Disorder — and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
These were to become the most common diagnoses applied to those thought to have been the victims of satanic abuse, and very soon a group of prominent US psychiatrists who specialised in hypnotism had established an organisation to advance the treatment of Multiple Personality and Dissociation. In this way a phenomenon — demonic possession — which had initially been the preserve of fundamentalist Christians began to be validated by a group of secular professionals.
Pazder’s influence was soon to be exercised in raising the satanism scenario in the investigation of what was to lead to the longest and most expensive investigations and trials in American history, centring on the McMartin Preschool. The claims and the investigative techniques involving interviews with preschool children were to be repeated in a number of subsequent investigations in America and elsewhere.
Two central figures in the group of “experts” investigating the McMartin preschool were social worker and interviewer Kee MacFarlane and psychiatrist Roland Summit. MacFarlane was aware of the problems of interviewing small children and introduced novel procedures, such as using hand puppets in the interviews, wearing colourful clothes, and making use of anatomically correct dolls. Given the growing interest in multiple personality and ritual abuse, children were told that if they did not remember incidents at the preschool this was because they were dissociating, and that the job of the interviewers was to help them remember. This led to a form of insistent interviewing, in which denials of abuse by children were discounted in the search for “truths” which the interviewers believed were being suppressed.
Roland Summit’s ideas provided a pseudo-scientific rationale which underpinned the approach taken by the investigators. He had written a 1978 paper outlining what he termed “The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome”, arguing 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. However, children who had been victims of incest would often recant in order, he claimed, to maintain family equilibrium.
Here were two components which were reiterated by many of those involved in subsequent investigations. They became enshrined as dogma in the phrase “Believe the Children” — and in the maxim that children never lie about sexual abuse unless they are recanting.
Because of this, it is extremely important to note that Summit’s supposedly scientifically-phrased “Syndrome” was based on no research, being in his own words “impressionistic”. For the twelve years before he constructed the “Syndrome” he had done no therapy with children under 7, and even then the children were not in treatment for sexual abuse (N & S:145). This is very important, because Summit’s “Syndrome” was subsequently asserted in legal proceedings as a way of dismissing children’s denials of abuse.
Two other figures involved in the McMartin case, one of whom has considerable importance in New Zealand, are David Finkelhor and Astrid Heger. Finkelhor gathered evidence of day-care cases throughout the country between 1983 and 1985, finding some three dozen ritual abuse scandals. No attempt was made to evaluate the reliability of the allegations involved, and the study simply assumed that all were valid, even if no arrest or conviction arose.
Given the mounting hysteria about this newly discovered phenomenon, it is not surprising that this number of allegations had arisen. When Finkelhor’s jointly written book Nursery Crimes eventually appeared in 1988, it became a Bible for believers in ritual abuse.
Dr Astrid Heger was a fourth McMartin investigator, and she popularised a diagnostic technique which became influential in other parts of the world. Her investigation of children’s genitals, and especially her belief that sexual abuse could be detected by the size and shape of young girls’ hymens, for instance, became an abuse indicator in the Christchurch child abuse investigation at the Glenelg Health Camp, while the related “anal wink” or dilation test, which was supposed to indicate molestation, triggered a major sexual abuse investigation in Cleveland, Britain, in 1987. Though evidence gradually accumulated to show that these alleged stigmata of child sexual abuse were meaningless, Heger still persisted in maintaining her original diagnoses as an expert witness at the McMartin proceedings in 1987; the judicial process finally resulted in a dismissal of the charges.
Two other American figures, both social workers, were to have a significant impact on the dissemination of the satanism scenario. First, Pamela Klein, a rape crisis worker from Illinois, drew up a set of “satanic indicators” which included such symptoms as bed wetting, nightmares, fear of monsters and ghosts, and a preoccupation with faeces, urine and flatulence. These were to feature in a number of subsequent investigations of alleged satanism in several countries. Her credentials had been questioned by an Illinois judge, who stated that she was “not a legitimate therapist” and was not licensed to practise (Pope, 1991).
In July 1985 she settled in Britain and was very influential in generating a network of satanic claims-makers through her contributions to conferences and seminars, including one involving senior police officers. As we will see, Klein was also influential in New Zealand.
Pamela Hudson is the other key figure. She too produced a list of satanic symptoms and forms of abuse which had wide distribution among abuse workers. Of particular importance was her list of 16 reported forms of physical and psychological abuse. These included being locked in a cage, being buried in the ground in a coffin or box, being tied upside down or hung from a pole or hook, participating in a mock marriage, seeing children or babies killed, having blood poured over them, and being taken to churches and graveyards for ritual abuse.
Hudson had a particular interest in the robes and masks which perpetrators were alleged to wear, and the cover of her book, which received wide circulation, shows just such an image which a child had supposedly drawn.
Satan migrates to the Antipodes
In August 1986, Australia was host to the largest child abuse conference in its history, the Sixth International Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. It was held in Sydney and was attended by Summit, MacFarlane, Heger and Finkelhor, all of whom gave addresses about their work. MacFarlane was invited to conduct a further workshop after the conference for the benefit of local child abuse experts (G:29). Prominent members of Australia’s child abuse agencies participated in this conference.
There are fascinating links and parallels between the McMartin case and the first allegations of satanic involvement in Australia. In October 1988, a woman reported to police her suspicion that her three-year-old daughter was being abused at her day-care centre by a man named “Mr Bubbles”. In the ensuing interviews with police and social workers, children attending the day-care centre claimed they had been abducted, given drugs, assaulted with knives, hammers and pins, sexually abused, filmed for pornographic movies and forced to watch animal sacrifices and satanic rituals.
Also involved in interviewing some of the children in the “Mr Bubbles” case was a Sydney psychiatrist, Dr Anne Schlebaum. She was called in after the children had made their allegations, and she fervently believed their occult stories and reports of animal killing. Her beliefs were further developed in a speech she made to the November 1990 conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychology, Psychiatry and Law. Her speech was titled “Nursery Crimes – A Perfect Little Holocaust in the Suburbs”, showing the affinity of her claims with the work of Finkelhor.
The “Mr Bubbles” case generated a great deal of media attention, and within a short period of time police in Western Australia, Victoria, the ACT, Queensland and New South Wales were investigating allegations of bizarre satanic cult crimes involving sexual abuse of children, the sacrifice of humans and animals, rituals in which blood was consumed, and black mass rituals. Among specific allegations were those that could be found on the lists of satanic “indicators” which had been devised by American “experts” — children being locked in coffins became one of the common claims in a number of investigations.
What is of considerable interest in the Australian dissemination of the satanic scenario, and something which will also be found in New Zealand, is the part played by publicly funded agencies. For instance, in 1993 and 1994 two editions of a pamphlet on Ritual Abuse: Information for Health and Welfare Professionals were published by the NSW Sexual Assault Committee, a subsidiary of the Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women. Among other sources the booklet quotes the work of Summit, Finkelhor, Hudson, and a 1991 publication of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women on Ritual Abuse — the same sources were to become the basis for satanic claims across the Tasman.
Satan’s New Zealand Stopover
The satanic cult scenario was introduced to New Zealand in May 1990, when Pamela Klein spoke to a Child Sexual Abuse conference. In a rambling speech on the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder and associated disorders in children, she referred to “horrific satanic cult situations” and went on to claim that children in satanic cults were “purposely programmed to develop multiple personalities”. Here we see once again the significance of the new diagnostic labels introduced to the 1980 psychiatric manual in providing apparent scientific legitimacy for a scenario which might otherwise be subject to critical scrutiny.
Early in the following year, 1991, the Ritual Action Network — later to be called Ritual Action Group — was established in Wellington. The group received public funding from the Department of Social Welfare through the Family Violence Prevention Co-ordinating Committee. Its membership was composed mainly of counsellors and social workers, but also included a police officer.
The key members of the group were Ann Marie Stapp and Jocelyn Frances (O’Kane), both social workers, the latter practising hypnosis and recovering memories of satanic cult abuse on the part of several “survivors”; Laurie Gabites, a police officer who had visited the United States and brought back SRA material; and Nigel Marriott, a probation officer. Marriott was a graduate in Classics and had written a Masters thesis on Graeco-Roman love magic, in which — by his own admission — he was a dabbler.
They circulated material from the States on satanic cult allegations, including Pamela Hudson’s list of satanic indicators and diagrams of supposed satanic symbols and alphabets. By 1991 the group had attracted considerable credibility and was able to propagate its views among Social Welfare staff, police, and staff from other government departments.
But the main focus of satanic allegations was to be Christchurch, where in September 1991 a Ritual Abuse Workshop presentation was a prominent feature at a Family Violence Prevention Conference and was presented by Stapp and O’Kane on behalf of RAG. The content of their paper is important because it shows the degree of cross-fertilisation between American anti-cult and anti-satanic literature. The sources quoted in this section of the paper are the same Los Angeles Report as that cited in New South Wales and the claimed accounts of ritual abuse “survivors” in Wellington.
It was just seventeen days after this story appeared that the first allegations in the Christchurch Civic Crche case were made by a mother who had earlier written a pamphlet on sexual abuse.
With the credentials the RAG network claimed for itself, their reports gained credibility with a wider audience. In turn, this wider audience may also have become predisposed to accept even more bizarre claims. Claims about child pornography, and about the existence of organised sex rings and cults which practised ritual abuse, had featured prominently in media reports prior to the September conference and were to reappear subsequently.
The linkage between child pornography and ritual abuse had been an important feature of the satanism scare in the United States and Britain. According to RAG members, cults often recruited family members from generation to generation so that ritual abuse became a way of life.
The extent to which an SRA scenario was involved in the Christchurch creche case has been somewhat masked by the Crown prosecutor’s successful suppression of the more bizarre allegations which emerged in the children’s later interviews, but it was undeniably part of the beliefs of some parents and formed a significant element in the police investigation. One mother who was prominent in the accusations against Christchurch crche workers ran a newsletter called End Ritual Abuse, with funding from the Lotteries Commission. In it she reprinted claims which originated in an American publication, Believe the Children, a movement that arose out of the McMartin case.
Pamela Hudson’s work was a particularly important source of “indicators” of satanic stigmata. She was invited to Christchurch in 1993 by the Campbell Centre (Presbyterian Support Services), whose Director in 1992 — Rosemary Smart — had written a damning report on the Civic Crche which assumed that Ellis was guilty; this was a year before his trial.
Smart’s report was very influential and led to police investigation of the women creche workers. A further indication of the American influence on the case is the fact that the Commissioner for Children’s office (then Ian Hassall) had sent Smart the Executive Summary of David Finkelhor’s book Nursery Crimes, and in the report she cites him as an authority on child sexual abuse in childcare settings. Clearly Finkelhor is still regarded as a substantial expert in New Zealand child abuse circles.
The influence of Klein, Hudson, and Finkelhor has been noted, but it is interesting to note that other participants in the original McMartin debacle have had a continuing influence on the New Zealand child abuse industry. Roland Summit visited in 1994 at the invitation of Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care, and in his speech he spoke of the “backlash” that claims-makers like himself were facing.
Perhaps his influence is detectable in the Appeal Court’s acceptance of the notion that retraction of allegations by a child — which happened while Ellis’s case was being appealed — is merely “denial”, for as Sir Maurice Casey wrote, “It is not uncommon for child complainants in sexual abuse cases to withdraw their allegations or claim they were lying…We are by no means satisfied [the girl] did lie at the interviews, although she may now genuinely believe she did” (Court of Appeal, 1994:33).
One should remember the pseudo-scientific status of the “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation syndrome” when such opinions are stated as established principle. Another McMartin protagonist, Astrid Heger, was invited by DoSAC no fewer than five times between 1989 and 1996. DoSAC has also invited SRA believers Arnon and Marianne Bentovim to New Zealand, as well as a number of the more extreme claims-makers in the recovered memory and multiple personality/dissociation debate.
As long as such lack of balance persists in the sexual abuse industry there remains a possibility that the SRA scenario will persist. Satan’s excellent adventure is currently a lively feature in Australia, where it is fuelled principally by adult “survivors” and their supportive therapists. Satan’s New Zealand stopover may have been more low-key, but for some of those involved in the Christchurch creche case it has had devastating consequences.
One of the more disturbing features of the last decade is the way in which the uncorroborated claims of Satan-hunters have infiltrated the beliefs of secular professionals and semi-professionals such as psychiatrists, social workers, police, and government administrators. Despite the findings of a growing body of research which would urge scepticism over the SRA scenario and the related issue of therapy-induced pseudomemories, organisations like Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care continue to listen to a select group of true believers and to exclude critical views. In such an atmosphere of professionally-induced credulity, it is possible that Satan’s excellent adventure may not be entirely ended.
References have been kept to a minimum. The two books referred to are (G) Richard Guilliatt (1996) Talk of the Devil, and (N & S) Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker (1995) Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.