It’s very interesting to talk to professionals and discover that not all agree with the report by Professor Jean la Fontaine, an anthropologist, who was appointed by Virginia Bottomley, the then Health Secretary, to research ‘Ritual Abuse’ in 1991. Some ask what the consequences of La Fontaine’s report have been over the last 20 years.
Satanist Ritual Abuse and the Problem of Credibility by Dr Joan Coleman
Do some satanists really commit crimes and abuse children? Many people believe not. My own hard-earned professional experience tells me otherwise.
This chapter is an account of my own journey: a journey from relative ignorance prior to 1980, through growing awareness of the extent of child sexual abuse, through my bizarre, frightening introduction to satanist ritual abuse, to my eventual belief that satanist crime does, indeed, occur. And I would like to think that mine is a reflective, rather than reflexive, belief (van der Hart & Nijenhuis, 1999) – that is, belief that stems from reflecting on the evidence, rather that blind acceptance of what initially seems highly improbable.
Ritual abuse evoked considerable interest in Britain between 1987 and 1994. The subject was taken up by many professionals, mainly psychologists, counsellors, and social workers; numerous children thought to be at risk were taken into care. In 1989, some of us who had encountered it formed an organisation called RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network & Support), with the aim of sharing information and supporting each other.
Ritual abuse can be found in a wide range of social and religious backgrounds. In this chapter, I focus on abuse within satanist groups, as that is the type that I myself and most RAINS members have largely encountered.
In 1990, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) issued a press release regarding the large number of such cases they were working with. There were numerous press articles and several television programmes. In 1991, Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley appointed an anthropologist, Professor Jean la Fontaine, to research the subjects of organised and ritual abuse. La Fontaine had already written an acclaimed book on child sexual abuse.
In the summary of her report, La Fontaine concluded that there was no evidence of satanist abuse and that the alleged disclosures of the children were largely suggested by adults. In those cases in which the police had found ‘satanic’ paraphernalia, she maintained that these were simply used by paedophiles to intimidate the children (Great Britain, Dept. of Health, 1994).
Largely as a result of this report, both the media and professionals became cautious about the subject of ritual abuse, and many shied away from it. Social workers were instructed not to mention the words ‘ritual’ or ‘satanic’ in any reports regarding child abuse.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of adults were seeking help with what they were convinced were genuine memories of severe and sadistic abuse that they had undergone as children. The recognition of the reality of child sexual abuse and its resulting psychological effects enabled adult survivors of satanist ritual abuse to feel some hope they would be believed. However, this was not always the case because when ceremonies and sacrifices were mentioned, these were dismissed by some psychiatrists as delusions and many survivors were given inappropriate treatment with antipsychotic drugs. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (set up in 1992) and the British False Memory Society (set up in 1993) also contributed to the general attitude of scepticism among professionals, and the whole subject of ritual crime became ‘suspect’.
Incidentally, the reader may notice that I have been using the term ‘satanist’ rather than the more commonly used ‘satanic’. In my view, it is important to make this distinction because, although the alleged abuse may be done in the name of Satan, whom the abusers profess to worship, it is nonetheless people, not Satan, who are the abusers.
From ignorance, through uncertainty, to reflective belief
When I was working towards membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the early 1970s, only a few days of the course were dedicated to the subject of sexual disorders, which included perversions and fetishisms, incest, and paedophilia. The latter was considered rare and usually referred to strange men preying on children singly, rather than in groups. When the existence of the Paedophile Information Exchange network was exposed less than a decade later, it was an eye-opener for many that a large number of professional people appeared to be abusing on an organised scale. Furthermore, most of us were still unaware of the extent of child sexual abuse by family members.