Damian Thompson argues that a tangle of folklore and urban legend, allied to a particular horror of paedophilia, has blinded many to the scientific facts
Ritual satanic abuse is back. In March, a private meeting at Westminster, chaired by Lord Alton, discussed assaults on children by hooded, chanting Satanists. “You may be aware,” the organisers said, “that, for several years, there have been reports of the ritual abuse of children and in some cases ritual murder. The rituals reportedly often involve the Black Mass and the wearing of robes. Adult survivors of ritual abuse are divulging important evidence regarding the large scale of this problem in the UK.”
One of the organisers, Wilfred Wong, an evangelical Christian, is campaigning for ritual abuse to be made a specific crime, so that the Satanists – responsible for “hundreds, if not thousands” of sexual assaults and murders – can be brought to justice. “But so far little has been done,” he says plaintively. That is a matter of opinion. In the early 1990s, far too much was done. In Rochdale, 20 children were removed from their homes after a 6-year-old boy told teachers he had seen babies murdered; the claims were dismissed by the High Court. In the Orkney islands, village gossip about satanic practices led to the removal of nine children from their homes; after a £6 million inquiry, all charges were dismissed and social workers criticised for planting ideas in children’s heads. In 1994, a 3-year Department of Health inquiry by the anthropologist Prof Jean La Fontaine into 84 alleged cases of ritual abuse found no evidence of Satanism in any of them.
What the inquiry did expose, however, was the tangle of folklore and urban legend that produced the scare. The ingredients included stories of baby sacrifice borrowed from 19th Century anti-Catholic prop-aganda (many Satan-hunters are anti-Catholic fundamentalists), the anti-Semitic blood libel, corny images of devil-worshippers owing more to The Wicker Man than to any real occult rubric, television cartoons (the Orkney allegations featured adults dressed as Ninja Turtles), and the scatological rambling of small children.
As Prof La Fontaine points out, paedophilia is the most potent representation of evil in modern society; it is not surprising that it should become conflated with older folk devils, or that groups with a distrust of the Establishment – fund-amentalists, feminists, social workers – should prove receptive to such a myth. What is surprising is that they have been able to sustain their belief in the face of the empirical demolition of their claims.
They have done so by retreating into the time-honoured logic of the conspiracy theorist: the absence of evidence proves the effectiveness of the conspiracy. The resourceful Satanists dispose of bodies by feeding them into mincing machines, dissolving them in acid baths, burning them in furnaces or just eating them. How do they get away with it? Dr Joan Coleman, a psychiatrist who spoke at the meeting, says the abusers have “Masonic connections”, though an American campaigner, Professor Cory Hammond, thinks they are part of a Nazi conspiracy led by a renegade Jew.
The anti-Satan lobby has also seized opportunistically on isolated crimes. Last September, the torso of a 5-year-old black boy was found in the Thames. Valerie Sinason, a psycho-therapist at St George’s Hospital in London, told the press that the case bore all the hallmarks of a ritual murder. “Sadly, I do not think this is a one-off,” she said.
Of course she doesn’t. Miss Sinason, the main speaker at the meeting, is on the record as saying that Satanists are breeding babies for ritual murder, a practice she described to the Catholic Herald as “an Auschwitz in peacetime”. Until now, not one body has surfaced to corroborate this theory, which explains why the ritual abuse lobby is so eager to claim the Thames torso for Satanism. But this, too, is nonsense. The little boy may have been ritually killed – but by an African witchdoctor harvesting body parts for the magical medicine known as muti. It has nothing to do with suburban devil-worship.
Prof La Fontaine’s verdict on Valerie Sinason goes to the heart of the problem. “It’s depressing to find someone who has a position at leading London hospitals who is so cut off from what research methodology is, and what rational evidence is,” she says. When Miss Sinason announces that she has “clinical evidence” of infanticide and cannibalism, she means that her patients have told her stories about them. The implication is that, because the suffering of these people is real, their “memories” must be accurate.
Miss Sinason’s claims are so implausible that they are unlikely to win much of an audience this time. The real cause for concern is the influence on our thinking about a range of social problems: chronic fatigue, cot death, post-battlefield stress, autism. In each case, it is more emotionally satisfying to identify a single cause – an undiscovered virus, chemical warfare, the MMR jab – than to accept that nasty things happen randomly, or are produced by a mixture of causes.
It is not just that we have lost faith in science: it is also that we have done so without bothering to understand the limits within which science must operate. Statistical probabilities are hard to grasp; we prefer to encounter our evidence in the form of human interest stories. Proper research, which is fundamentally about measurement, lacks entertainment value: Prof La Fontaine’s report cannot compete with the Hammer Horror scenario of satanic abuse, just as the painstaking work of real archaeologists pales in comparison with the tales of “lost civilisations” that television companies, to their shame, still commission.
Fortunately, inconvenient facts have a way of fighting to the surface. Lord Alton – who says he is keeping an “open mind” on satanic abuse – might want to consider the following story. Last year, Jeremy Laurance, the health editor of the Independent, was alerted by a well-known psychotherapist to the existence of pictures on the internet of a man eating a dismembered baby. The paper ran the story. A week later it apologised. “Let’s not beat about the bush. I’ve been had,” said Laurance. It turned out that the photographs were a hoax by a Chinese performance artist. And the gullible psychotherapist? Valerie Sinason, of course.
From The Daily Telegraph (London), March 22, 2002