NETWORKS OF FEAR
Social Work Today, 26 October 1989
Organised sexual abuse of children – in sex rings and satanic cults – exists in various parts of the country. Here we present a briefing document which describes how these networks operate, with the intention of raising professional awareness of the problem. The material is chiefly drawn from child victims’ own accounts of abuse, and for reasons of legal and professional confidentiality the authors have asked to remain anonymous. The article is followed by a discussion of the staff care issues raised by social work in this particularly difficult field.
For some time, there have been press reports (often originating from child care campaigners) of organised bizarre and frightening sexual abuse of children. “Child sex rings” and, in particular, satanic cults have been alleged to be in operation in various parts of the country.
Much of this information has failed to raise public or professional consciousness, partly because it has tended to be treated in a sensational manner by the media. However, there is an increasing amount of professional, serious material now being accumulated in social services departments and other agencies across the country that substantiates and corroborates much of what previously may have been dismissed as medial sensationalism or the over-reaction of campaigning extremists.
The simple and whole purpose of this paper is to assert that organised sexual abuse of children exists; furthermore, that is exists as more than an isolated, extreme aberration.
Much of the material cannot, as yet, be fully released since it relates to children under the protection of courts, and there are obvious issues both about legal and social work confidentiality.
However, in all cases, the material has been meticulously gathered (almost invariably from child victims) by trained and experienced social workers, psychologists, therapists, police officers etc for it to be credible, consistent and coherent.
Patterns of organisation, types of abuse and methods of maintaining secrecy and security are beginning to emerge. However, these are difficult and dangerous areas to explore; not only are perpetrators frequently prepared to go to extreme lengths to avoid detection, but it must be openly recognised that the national and international market in child pornography (which is increasingly supplied by “cottage industry” child sex rings) is ultimately financed and controlled by powerful, hidden interests.
For all workers in this field, the personal pain of listening to accounts of horrific abuse is also accompanied by persistent fears about safety. The most obvious and overriding conclusion that is immediately reached from the material is that these kinds of child sexual abuse can, and do, occur in a wide variety of social and geographical settings.
It is not a phenomenon confined to inner-city areas, specific ethnic groups or socio-economic backgrounds. On the contrary, it has been found in pleasant, semi-rural communities with close-knit community and neighbourhood ties; it is certainly not related to financial hardship, nor to people with known histories of abuse or antisocial behaviour. It is for this prime reason that all workers need an appreciation of the phenomenon.
A further major reason for introducing a wide range of workers to this topic is, quite simply, that workers may fail to pick up what children are saying if there is no appreciation of the experiences to which children may have been subjected.
Many of these experiences are so extreme as to produce a feeling of incredulity, even in workers who are comparatively sensitised to the child’s likely history; disbelief is, indeed, the most common early response in all of us who have first-hand experience of these matters.
Most child sexual abuse that is reported to the police or social services departments occurs within the confines of the family. Occasionally, families will be encountered in which there is a history of sexual abuse from generation to generation; accordingly, intra-family sexual abuse may involve grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
However, there is a major change in the nature of sexual abuse when adults (or children) outside the immediate or wider family have become involved, and it is such types of abuse that are the subject of this paper.
In broad terms, two models of child sex networks are distinguishable:
a. Groups of families (not related to each other) who join together to abuse their own and each other’s children. Outsiders may be involved; either adults who have no children of their own, or adults who are allowed to abuse children in the network without being expected to recruit their own children into the network. In this latest case, the spouse and children of the outsider adult may be completely unaware of his/her activities within the child sex network. A network of this nature can be called a “family-linked” network. The existence of such networks provides great challenges, in detection and eradication; additionally, since parents are heavily involved, it is likely to be necessary to remove children from parental care.
b. The “prostitution-type” network, on the other hand, is characterised by relative lack of parental involvement. In such networks, a group of strangers recruit children directly, usually without parental knowledge. An often-encountered example are groups of homosexual men who build up a network of contacts with boys who are prepared to be photographed, indecently assaulted etc in return for inducements. The detection of such a network may not require removal of children from parental care, since the activities may not have taken place with parental knowledge.
Structure of organised abuse
Very rarely is a “ring” involved, in the sense that there is a fixed, finite group of participants, each known to the other. Rather, there is a set of shifting, changing, overlapping alliances, and many participants may not know (or even be aware of) all the contacts within the rings.
Different sets of participants may be involved in differing kinds of sexual activities, but revolving around “core” participants who are active in several sexual arenas; for example, one participant may be active in both homosexual and heterosexual abuse, but relating to other participants who join only in homosexual or heterosexual activities.
In particular, the participants in satanic or quasi-satanic abuse may be restricted to a tightly-controlled circle, but at other times may participate in “lower-level” sexual abuse (eg: filming of child sexual activity) with a much wider group of people who have no knowledge of (or inclination to participate in) satanic rites.
This complex, multi-layered organisation causes obvious difficulties in understanding what children are describing, and in identifying adult participants. If the whole network of contacts is not readily visible to adult participants, it is even less so to child victims.
When the age of the children is taken into account, and the distinct possibility that drugs or alcohol will be used to render children more compliant, then confusion and a degree of inconsistency is inevitable. Of course, such confusion is ripe ground for the cross-examination defence barrister, and few criminal prosecutions can hope to succeed on the evidence of children alone.
The size of the network tends to be related to the type (or types) of sexual activity, and norms are difficult to establish. However, networks of 20 to 40 child victims, and a slightly smaller of adult participants, are encountered: these numbers relate to the frequent, well-established participants and victims, and there may be an equivalent additional number of occasional participants or victims whose identities are not fully known to the “core” victims. In dealing with prostitution-style networks (particularly homosexually-inclined) upwards of a hundred children may be named and traced.
It is difficult to be precise about the sex and age of victims. However, the networks seem to be broadly divisible in age terms; that is, the network will concentrate upon abuse either of very young children (from the age of one year to approximately seven or eight years old) or of adolescent in sibling groups, it is rare for children at both ends of the age range to be contemporaneously involved.
However, there are instances in which older children are encouraged or coerced into assaults upon very young children; this particular situation (in which children are made to feel both victims and “offenders”) contradicts the general trend for networks to specialise in older or younger children.
Children of both sexes seem to be equally likely to be abused. The stereotype of an abuse victim is the pre-pubescent girl, whereas in reality no stereotype (either as to age or as to sex) exists. In particular, the number of young (below the age of ten years) boys involved in homosexually-inclined networks is becoming recognised.
Categories of abusers
Within child sex networks, it is likely that there will be recurrent instances of abuse by parents of their own children; these situations may be the core of the child’s sexual abuse, but be accompanied by (or elaborated into) instances of abuse by other relatives, friends or virtual strangers. In this context, it is important to note that another stereotype (that fathers are predominantly the abuser) needs to be established by breakdown of networks.
Mothers are likely to be heavily involved, either as full participants in the abuse or as aiders and abetters (eg: filming and photographing, preparing and training children, observing abuse without taking preventative action).
Close relatives (eg: aunts and uncles) may become involved in abuse, sometimes recruiting their own children into the network. This is particularly likely to be the case where a parent originates from a family in which sexual abuse was endemic in his or her own childhood; in such cases there may be other siblings of the parent who have similarly grown up with experience of sexual abuse.
Where other adults (neighbours, friends, acquaintances) become involved, there needs to be some mechanism or device that allows adults to make contact with each other and (with comparative safety) become aware that child sex abuse is an acceptable and encouraged form of sexual behaviour. That is, there are great risks in introducing outsiders to a child sex network unless the existing participants can be reasonably sure that the outsider will not react negatively when he or she becomes aware that child sex abuse is occurring.
Such devices for ensuring security and complicity are numerous, and include:
- Sexual activity amongst adults (“wife-swapping” etc) which is subsequently extended to include children, and a similar process amongst networks of homosexual males.
- Use of advertisements in “contact” magazines.
- Information picked up in the distribution and circulation between acquaintances of pornographic material that leads to a knowledge of an individual’s sexual preferences and inclinations.
- In satanic or pseudo-satanic groups, an expressed interest in membership can be taken to imply acceptance of child sexual abuse as part of the history and culture of such groups.
In all of these devices, it will be noted that there is the possibility of pressure, coercion or blackmail. In other words, when newly-recruited adults become fully aware of the network’s activities, they may themselves be too compromised to speak out because of fears for their own welfare or safety.
The major exception of a model of child sex networks that is based on adult recruitment and initiation (with a core of parents abusing their own children) is the prostitution-type network.
In such a network, an adult (or adults) obtains sexual access to children (not related or part of the family) by the use of bribes and inducements; in turn, the children themselves recruit futher children, effectively acting as procurers for the adult. It is possible in this way for groups of children (eg, within a school or a neighbourhood) to become “infected” by this type of activity; once again, security of the network is maintained because each child is compromised by participation. The bribes or inducements may be relatively trivial; some of these networks have informally become know as “pocket money” rings, and the number of children involved may be very large.
Typically, the network will consist of children of similar age, sex and neighbourhood; the involvement of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls is particularly likely, although similar networks of boys are known. In many cases, the involvement of will be relatively short-lived, and the abuse inflicted may often fall into the category of indecency; however, a proportion of children may be open to subsequent exploitation (eg: to become regular prostitutes) through their membership of the network.
Parents in many instances may be completely unaware of the child’s activities, often because standards of parental supervision are relatively low.
It is important to note that, in both the family-linked and the prostitution-type networks, commercial considerations may emerge if the activities become well-established and network security is high. In both kinds of network, pornographic material may be produced, for which a ready market exists.
It is therefore possible that certain adult members of the network become commercial agents for the sale and distribution of this material, and in doing so will come into contact with (and be influenced by) those who deal in pornography as a commodity. The involvement (albeit at a distance) of these elements is a further compromising and threatening factor that bears upon adult participants and child victims; indeed, these factors may be regarded with greater fear than the prospect of detection and prosecution.
Evidence of the types of abuse perpetrated upon children comes from the statements of the victims, the admissions of adult offenders (rarely available) and the volume of pornographic material in the possession of the police and other agencies. It is difficult to summarise briefly the range of activities that have been encountered, but the following have all been recorded by investigating officers.
In all cases, these types of abuse have been perpetrated in child sex networks, not simply in single-family situtations.
Forced manual masturbation of adults by children; of men by children of both sexes, of women by children of both sexes. Coerced masturbation of children by children. Age of child from 18 months upwards.
Oral sex of all varieties. Fellation of men by children of both sexes, cunnilingus of women by children of both sexes; coerced simulated oral sex by children upon children (both sexes). Age of child from 18 months upwards.
Penile penetration, both rape and buggery, no effective minimum age of the child.
Use of mechanical devices (eg: vibrators) both for penetrative and masturbatory purposes; perpetrated by both men and women; no effective minimum age of child.
Digital and manual penetration of children of both sexes by both men and women; no effective minimum age of child.
Simulated penetration of child by child. In the case of pubescent boys, actual penetration may occur.
Production of pornographic material. This is almost invariably the use of video cameras, operated either by adult participants or (if commercial links exist) by outsiders unknown to the child victims. There is a wide range of themes, stories, or “scripts”. However, in the case of networks, predominantly involving very young children, the “nursery rhyme” motif is encountered, in which adults and children act out abusive versions of fairy tales and similar material. Other themes may be circuses, “monster” or horror stories, children’s birthday parties and so on; in all cases, the “script” ends in overt sexual abuse. Characteristically, both children and adults will wear a variety of costumes, often of the “fancy dress” type, and animal costumes (particularly gorilla, wolf, bear) may be favoured. The heads and faces of adults may remain concealed throughout the activities, to protect their identities.
Drugs or alcohol may be administered to render children more compliant, and subsequently, confused (thus making reconstruction of activities and identities more difficult). They may often be administered covertly, for example in soft drinks given to children ostensibly assembled for a birthday party or similar event.
Degradation activities including urinating and defacating on children.
Sadistic activities and themes may involve children being tied, particularly using a noose around the neck; children may be tied or chained to adults, to animals or to objects of which they are frightened. Whips and similar objects may be used. Children may be imprisoned in confined spaces, or put into sacks or bags. Children may be burned (eg by cigarette ends) or threatened with fire. Animals (especially pets) may be attacked or killed in the presence of children.
Bestiality may be overtly present (eg. coerced masturbation of animals by children) or be an underlying theme, as noted in the use of animal costumes. Pornographic material of this nature is especially saleable.
Satanism (or pseudo-satanism) is a special form of abuse. These activities will certainly include the wearing of typical costumes and ritual behaviour culminating in all varieties of sexual abuse; there may also be strong sadistic overtones, and the ritual killing of animals is encountered.
Mutilation and/or death is the most alarming form of abuse and the most difficult allegation to evaluate or prove. There is increasing information from child victims of wounding and serious assault; additionally, that child victims have been coerced into involvement in the ritual or quasi-ritual killing of babies. The allegations (and these have been repeated in articles and a recent television programme) are that such babies are the result of pregnancies concealed from public and health agencies, so that their subsequent disappearance passes unnoticed. This information is exceptionally difficult to assess as to its reliability and accuracy; however, it is of great concern that children should produce such allegations spontaneously, whatever the ultimate or provable link with real events may be.
The need to arouse professional and public awareness is, it is hoped, amply demonstrated by the material produced here. It is manifest that we are faced with a growing problem, facilitated by modern technology and fuelled by commercial and criminal pressures. It is, quite simply, a problem that must be faced head-on, challenged and attacked; it does not permit of compromise or moral evasion.