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Satanic Ritual Abuse

Activities such as cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child sexual abuse that are assumed to be carried out by organized underground cults.

In 1984, Newsweek printed a feature article on an "epidemic" of child abuse in day-care settings. During the next 10 years or so, numerous newspaper and magazine articles described criminal trials in which reference was made to sexual abuse, torture, and ritual worship of one kind or another. For example, in 1988 Kelly Michaels was charged with sexually abusing children in her care at a nursery school in New Jersey. On the basis of children's testimony, she was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 different children. In Manhattan Beach, California, seven teachers were accused of abusing hundreds of preschool children over a 10-year period. The case was one of the longest and most expensive trials in California history. There have been numerous cases like these in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. All have involved accusations by children that they had been terrorized, abused, and tortured during strange ceremonies with satanic, ritualistic overtones. Some professional child care workers assumed that the accused perpetrators were members of an organized network of child predators.

What evidence is there to support the belief in an organization of child abusers? One study in Great Britain investigated 84 cases of reported ritualistic abuse involving sexual abuse, murder, bestiality, and torture. In only 3 of the 84 cases was there any material evidence to support the allegations, and none of them entailed witchcraft or Satanism. In the United States, a nationwide study identified more than 12,000 accusations of cult-like, satanic, ritual abuse. None of the allegations were substantiated, and neither the police nor the FBI have ever uncovered any evidence of child-abusing satanic cults. In the McMartin Preschool case, none of the accused teachers was ever convicted of a crime. Kelly Michaels was released from jail when the Appeals Court of New Jersey reversed her conviction.

There is no dispute that children are often abused, and that the consequences can be devastating. Raising questions about the (assumed) existence of organized, satanic, child-abusing cults is not the same as doubting the existence of actual child abuse, nor to question its wrongfulness. If organized ritualistic abuse does not occur, then how can we explain the widespread belief in it? Contributing factors include adults who have been persuaded by their therapists that they were abused as children, children who have been interviewed in aggressive and manipulative ways by investigators who believe the worst, and uncritical and sensationalized media accounts of satanic sexual abuse.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Bottoms, B.L., and S.L. Davis. "The Creation of Satanic Ritual Abuse." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 16 (1997): 112-32.

Nathan, D., and M. Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development