In the Western world, we like to think that witch-hunts are things of the past. We like to think that we are all calmer, rational and more civilised now, but as late as the 90s, witch-hunts were going on in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and many parts of Europe. Satanic Panic was in full swing and no parent was safe from the accusation that they were involved in Satanic Ritual Abuse.
During the 1980s and 90s, a number of perfectly innocent parents and members of their communities were charged with ritual child abuse. They were accused of being part of satanic cults who carried out all manner of evil deeds, including sexual abuse and ritual sacrifice. Of course, not a shred of evidence was ever found to substantiate any of these claims and a lot of children were needlessly and cruelly removed from their families by authorities.
The first accusation of Satanic Ritual Abuse in the US was made by a woman in Manhattan Beach, Florida. She approached police with a story about the sexual abuse of her son, who was supposedly being abused at his pre-school, which was run by the upstanding McMartin family.
The woman making the accusations was, as it turns out, a paranoid schizophrenic who would go some way to explaining some of the very bizarre accusations about devil worship and ritual abuse. Despite the woman’s mental health and the incredible claims she was making, the local police force took her claims seriously enough to warn parents of the school’s children that their kids may have also suffered this horrific abuse and thus Satanic Panic was born.
Many of the children at the McMartin school were sent to see psychological counsellors and it was not long before they were interviewing hundreds of children in the context of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The questions they asked were extremely inappropriate when being directed at children who had never even been abused and many of them were very leading.
The children who were being grilled really wanted to be helpful when answering these inappropriate questions and this lead to them agreeing to statements about ‘bad touches’ ‘dirty acts’ and ‘devil worship’ which were not, in fact true.
In 1984, Satanic Ritual Abuse was to become huge news when 7 teachers were accused of the most horrific crimes, which included sacrificing small animals, raping and torturing huge numbers of children and carrying out rituals using faeces – all whilst wearing sinister robes and occult symbols, of course. These allegations were to be the start of more than 7 years of trials for the poor teachers involved.
Satan Goes Global
No evidence was ever found against the teachers at the McMartin School, but that did not stop Satanic Panic spreading across the country and even the world, with a number of books, articles and even professional conferences created around the problem.
Myths and rumours about satanic Ritual Abuse were spread and reported everywhere from New York to Rochdale, UK. Stories ranged from devil worshipping cults abusing children in pre-schools across the country, to parents and neighbours conspiring to carry out acts of Satanic Ritual Abuse, including human sacrifice, in garden sheds – no one was safe from the accusations and over-eager psychologists and social workers were all too keen to believe them.
One of the biggest Satanic Panic scandals occurred in Cleveland, England when, in 1987, 121 cases of suspected Satanic Ritual Abuses cases were diagnosed by two paediatricians at the local Middlesbrough hospital.
After several trials were carried out, it was found by a judge that 96 of the 121 children had not been sexually abused at all. The remaining 25 children were permanently removed from their parents.
When the families of those children who had been taken away decided to fight for their children, they contacted journalists to help them and this is when shocking revelations about the way their children had been examined were revealed.
A technique called reflex anal dilation had been used to make the diagnosis of sexual abuse in many of the children and in some cases was the sole source of evidence that sexual abuse had taken place. It was also revealed that one of the doctors, a Dr Higgs, had tested the technique out on her own children. When she found a negative result, she had simply decided that if he found a positive result in any child, they must surely have been abused. Of course, this was not a very accurate or scientific method for discovering child abuse!
Dr Higgs continued to examine the children even when they had been placed in foster care and this led to foster carers been accused of the same kind of abuse!
With the media and the public behind the families, a public enquiry was put into place, but it was concluded that the paediatricians had ‘acted properly’ and that the anal dilation test was a perfectly fine way to establish whether a child had been abused.
Many of the children were subsequently returned to their families when the Satanic Panic died down and it was accepted that no abuse had taken place, but their childhood’s had been ruined and Dr Higgs was still practicing.
In 2007, she said that she would do the same again and even claimed to believe that even more children than she had identified were victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse.
The Panic Dies Down
By the mid-90s, the panic began to die down. It was becoming clear to all that there was never any evidence to substantiate the claims of the child abusing, human sacrificing devil worshippers reported to be on the prowl in neighbourhoods all over the western world.
Many law enforcement officials, including FBI expert Kenneth Lanning, came out to condemn the panics, insisting that police should thoroughly investigate claims for evidence before conducting any more witch-hunts. The media also grew bored of the phenomena and fewer reports were made public knowledge.
Many therapists were sued by their clients for the damage they had done in encouraging and planting false memories of satanic Ritual Abuse and the panic thankfully died a death, leaving us with a stark reminder that witch-hunts can happen anywhere at any time.