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Ritualistic abuse (also satanic ritual abuse) refers to the psychological, sexual, and/or physical assault on an unwilling victim (often a child) that is committed by one or more members of a religious or satanic cult as a means of performing a ritual sacrifice or offering. Since the 1970s, several thousand accusations have been made alleging widespread abuse, torture, and murder of children by members of satanic cults in North America and in Western Europe. However, Kenneth Lanning, a special agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Behavioral Science Unit, has uncovered no credible evidence to support these claims.
Many allegations of ritualistic abuse have been directed at adult supervisors and workers in daycare centers and preschools. Many adults have been tried, convicted, and imprisoned based on the testimony of young children. Later, all these charges were dropped and those in jail were freed when social scientists demonstrated that a child’s testimony is easily influenced by overzealous prosecutors, psychologists, and social workers using questionable interviewing techniques.
Other allegations of ritualistic abuse have been made by women after experiencing recovered memories of childhood physical and sexual abuse committed by family members and family friends. The recovery of these memories occurred during therapy sessions in which therapists (mostly psychologists and clinical social workers) were employing hypnosis, guided imaging, and age regression techniques. However, only a few of these allegations have been supported by credible evidence. In numerous studies, Elizabeth Loftus has shown that false memories may implant in subjects and may be remembered as actual occurrences. Supporting her conclusions, the social psychologist Richard Of she found that therapeutically recovered memories may be the consequence of questionable therapeutic and interviewing techniques used by investigators, psychologists, and therapists. The validity of recovered memories is a controversial and hotly debated issue.
Stories of ritualistic abuse are examples of urban legends. Taking extreme actions based on these stories constitutes moral panics. Urban legends are stories told as if true and often believed to be true that serve as cautionary tales or apocryphal stories relating to the fears of living in modern urban areas. Stories of ritualistic abuse warn parents of the potential danger of leaving their children with nonfamily members for long periods of time. Given a modicum of parental guilt, a Christian persecution narrative, a strong belief in Satan and evil, and unbounded credulity, it is a short step to taking action against perceived evil by inciting a moral panic. However, most children are abused by people they know, not by strangers.
Moral panics involve actions taken by people based on a false or exaggerated claim that some group or organization poses a severe threat to their own or society’s safety. Framed in moral terminology, the attacks on those in question often are vicious and merciless, for example, Nazi attacks on Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and the anti-Communist campaigns of the 1950s. The moral panic brought about by stories of ritualistic abuse was precipitated by the book Michelle Remembers. Documenting a case of ritualistic abuse, the book was written as fact, but was actually a hoax. After engaging in dozens of radio and television appearances, print interviews, and as consultants on over 1,000 cases, the authors were instrumental in fueling a moral panic, often with tragic consequences for innocent individuals and families.
- Lanning, K.V. (1992). Investigators’ guide to allegations of “ritual” child abuse. Quantico, VA: FBI Academy, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Behavioral Science Unit.
- Loftus, E. (1994). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Miller, D. E. (1992). Snakes in the greens and rumor in the innercity. Social Science Journal, 29, 381-393.
- Nathan, D., & Snedeker, M. (1995). Satan’s silence: Ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch-hunt. New York: Basic Books.
- Ofshe, R., & Watters, E. (1996). Making monsters: False memories, psychotherapy, and sexual hysteria. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Pazder, L., & Smith, M. (1980). Michelle remembers. New York: Congdon and Lattes.
- Victor, J. S. (1993). Satanic panic: The creation of a contemporary legend. New York: Open Court.
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