Tim Tate is a multi- award-winning film maker, journalist, and best-selling author. He was also a contributor to the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme about Ritualised Sexual Abuse. Part 1 of which can be listened to HERE, and Part 2 HERE
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
But, seeing what
the man will do
no occasion to.
Humbert Wolfe: 1855-1940
In 2009, David Aaronovich, columnist and broadcaster, published a book examining and ridiculing conspiracy theories. Voodoo Histories was a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the wilder shores of suspicion and paranoia; but its introduction included a paragraph which its author would have done well to remember six years later.
Documentaries are increasingly partisan and liable to include material that suggests conspiracy on the part of someone or other … And such works are given the same treatment as major exercises in historical analysis or substantial pieces of investigative journalism. In fact, they are often given a better billing. Uncountered, their arguments enter popular culture.
Over the past fortnight, David Aaronovich has presented a two-part BBC radio documentary programme entitled: Ritual Sexual Abuse: The Anatomy of A Panic. The programmes formed part of Radio 4’s long-standing and well-respected Analysis strand. The series bills its purpose as “to go beyond the bien-pensant agenda”.
Aaronovich’s two programmes were billed as:
“… an examination of “the role played by unproven psychoanalytic theories which, from the 1980s, spread from the world of therapists in Canada and the USA to social work, medicine and then to law enforcement in Britain.
“From the NSPCC to academia it was believed that children were being sexually abused in group Satanic rituals which involved murder and animal sacrifice. The programme will explore how these bizarre ideas took hold, how they were related to mistaken psychotherapeutic practices, and how they resonate still.”
What actually happened was that Aaronovich – without troubling to present any evidence – put forward his own conspiracy theory: one in which satanic ritual abuse is a no more than a fantasy created by social workers taken in by the claims of improperly-motivated North American psychiatrists and psychotherapists. In doing so he deliberately ignored solid and unequivocal evidence which counters his thesis. And the BBC allowed him to broadcast two high profile programmes which were at best misleading and sometimes deeply deceitful.
The aim of this piece is threefold: to present the proven facts about ritual abuse; to analyse Aaronovich’s claims; and to show how the BBC acted dishonestly. In contrast to Aaronovich’s approach it will provide evidence at each and every stage.
But first, a disclaimer and a declaration of interest are needed. Aaronovich argued that his examination of ritual abuse came about because he is deeply sceptical of many of the current allegations of VIP paedophilia. I share some of this concern – at least in so far as it relates to the way some newspapers and websites (not this one) have presented unsubstantiated allegations as fact, without bothering to undertake any independent investigation.
My interest in ritual abuse stems from the work I did first for a (not very good) Cook Report on it in 1989 and thereafter for a book on the subject. That book – Children For The Devil: Ritual Abuse and Satanic Crime – investigated some of the cases Aaronovich referred to in his programmes. It did so by obtaining documentary evidence and by conducting first-hand interviews with the key participants. Additionally, it detailed six English court cases in which adults had been convicted for the sexual abuse of children in what were explicitly described as satanic rituals.
It is a fact that my publisher and I were sued for libel and that my publishers settled out of court. The complainant was a police detective in the 1988/89 Broxtowe case, who alleged that in a book of approximately 100,000 words, four paragraphs could lead readers to infer that he had acted corruptly. He had not, and I had not intended any such inference to be drawn.
Aaronovich’s producer, Hannah Barnes, asked me to be interviewed for the programme. Here is what she claimed the programmes wanted to do:
We are planning to explore the ideas and beliefs that have shaped how British society views allegations of child sexual abuse over the last 30 years or so, and look at how these views have changed. I have come across your name in relation to reports of satanic ritual abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s and wondered whether you might be willing to spare me some time to talk.
The reports to which she referred alleged that I had been responsible for bringing the “Satanic panic” to Britain by providing to social workers in the Broxtowe case a list of “satanic indicators”. These were – allegedly – the reason why children in the case described abuse within rituals. As we shall see, this is simply factually wrong – and both Barnes and Aaronovich were provided with the facts.
Aaronovich’s thesis for the programmes was that all satanic ritual abuse allegations trace back to a 1980 book called Michelle Remembers by a Canadian psychiatrist called Lawrence Pazder with his patient (and later wife), Michelle Smith. These claims then spread out through the North American psychiatric and therapeutic community and were accepted as evidence of the factual existence of satanic cults ritually abusing children. Aaronovich provided no actual evidence for his assertion, relying instead (as he would throughout the programmes) on a post hoc, proper hoc argument that simply because the book was widely publicised it therefore must have been the root for all subsequent allegations.
This is factually wrong. Long before the 20th century there were written accounts of children being abused in so-called Black Masses. The empirical basis of these must be questionable since most – though not all – were the result of confessions obtained under torture by religiously motivated inquisitors. But in 1974 – six years before Michelle Remembers – a Hungarian-British journalist called Paul Tabori published what he claimed was his own first-hand eyewitness account of the abuse of children in a satanic ritual at Big Sur in California.
Inside the house overlooking the Pacific, three altars were set up: two of them had young, nude boys tied to them with wide leather belts, being whipped by two bearded men who were dressed in nun’s habits …
For whips they were using heavy black rosaries – and there was no make-believe about the flogging, or both boys were screaming and weeping.
The middle altar held a girl, barely in her teens, with her arms and legs spread-eagled. A tall man, wearing a goat’s head was crushing a live frog on her sex, and he then started to carve a small cross on her bare stomach – just a shallow, superficial cut which, however, drew blood …
Despite this, Aaronovich alleged that the sources of all British cases of ritual abuse were firstly Michelle Remembers and thereafter a 1988 self-help book called “The Courage To Heal”.
The cases he referred to were firstly the Broxtowe case, then Rochdale and the Orkneys. I cannot comment on the latter two, since I have never investigated them. But I spent more than a year working on the Broxtowe case, interviewing some of the (adult) complainants, the police and the social workers. I also obtained copies of many of the children’s verbatim disclosures. In other words, I did what every journalist is supposed to do: I sought evidence before publishing.
The case involved three generations of an extended family, living on the rough Broxtowe council estate in Nottingham. The family had been known to social service (and police) for years for repeated sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect. Finally in 1986, 23 children from the third generation were taken into care. Each child was given to a different foster-family and had little or no contact with any of the others. The foster-parents were asked either to tape record or write down verbatim what the children said.
As well as sexual abuse, starting in January 1987 several of the children also described to their foster parents bizarre events. They spoke about “witch parties” at which adults – some from outside the extended family – beat and sexually assaulted them and other unnamed children. They also said that animals were killed, while adults danced round in robes; they described (accurately) the taste of drinking blood, as well as being buried in the ground in boxes and being penetrated with snakes or spiders.
But they also described incidents which were improbable – the murder of babies – and some which were physically impossible – people flying through the air, for example.
Nottinghamshire Police investigated but could find no evidence to support the allegations of abusers from outside the family, or of the killing of animals or babies. By contrast, Nottinghamshire social services were convinced that the children’s stories needed further investigation: the joint police-social services investigation broke down in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust.
Despite this, in 1989 10 adults were jailed for a total of 150 years for abusing these children. The evidence which convicted them was both physical and the testimony of the victims from both the second and third generations.
Strangely, David Aaronovich failed to mention these convictions when dealing extensively with the case in his second programme. Listeners who did not know the facts would never had realised that the case resulted in successful prosecutions. Instead Aaronovich focussed on allegations made by a former Sunday newspaper journalist, Rosie Waterhouse, that the children’s ritual allegations had arisen only after the foster-parents were given the list of “satanic indicators”. They had then asked leading questions of the children.
Unfortunately this is nonsense. Firstly, the dates simply don’t match up. Since I was the source of these so-called “indicators” (in reality no more than a few photocopied sheets of paper put together by a perfectly sensible psychiatric social worker in California) I can be absolutely certain of exactly when I received these papers, to whom I gave them and when.
I did so in 1988 – and only to the social workers. This was many, many months after the Broxtowe children began making allegations of abuse within parties or rituals. Nor, to my certain knowledge, were these papers passed on to the foster-parents.
What about leading questions ? In researching both the television programme and my book I obtained copies of the verbatim records and tapes of they key child witnesses. When we filmed the senior investigating police officer we showed him the transcripts and challenged him to find a single leading question. He could not – because there wasn’t one.
The Waterhouse allegations, put forward by Aaronovich as proof that ritual abuse was the product of contamination by exposure to extraneous information are simply factually wrong.
Aaronovich knows this. I specifically gave him precise details of the dates during the recorded interview he asked for. He chose to ignore this. Nor did he or Hannah Barnes bother to get hold of a copy of my book. Had they done so they would have found the transcripts and seen that there were no leading questions. When challenged about this, the editor of Analysis e-mailed me to say that:
Hannah understood that the book had been withdrawn from publication following a libel action and therefore assumed that it was therefore not available.
One of the fundamental rules of journalism is not to “assume”. Even the most cursory of checks would have found the book for sale on Amazon. And as every journalist knows, the British library holds a copy of every book published.
The truth is that neither Aaronovich nor Barnes made any effort to find evidence which ran contrary to Aaronovich’s belief in a conspiracy of gullible social workers who created a “panic” about a non-existent phenomenon – ritual abuse.
How do I know this ? Because I asked them. Last week I sent both Aaronovich and Barnes a list of specific questions relating to the research for the programmes. For each of the cases to which they were referring I asked what independent research they had undertaken; whether they had sought case papers; whether they had spoken with witnesses, police officers, social workers or victims.
This week I received a reply not from Aaronovich or Barnes, but from a BBC “publicist”. It read:
“Analysis is a programme about ideas that shape public policy and opinion. David Aaronovitch is known for his scepticism about some of the allegations currently being made about historic child sexual abuse – and in this two-part series he advanced a challenging viewpoint outlining the risks arising from excessive credulity.
It was never intended to be a re-investigation of cases from 25 years ago, although the production team put considerable effort into tracking down key documents from the time and individuals involved. The programmes have in no way downplayed the horrific nature of child sexual abuse but they have argued that it can only be tackled effectively if its extent and nature is properly understood.”
This response failed to answer a single question put to Aaronovich or Barnes. It was shabbily evasive. More disturbingly still, it was not just the controversial cases like Broxtowe which Aaronovich and Barnes chose not to re-investigate before pronouncing ritual abuse to be a fantasy. They were also given details of a number of successful British prosecutions in which adults were variously convicted or admitted the sexual abuse of children in what the courts were explicitly told were satanic rituals.
The first of these took place in Telford in November 1982. Malcolm John Smith was given three 14-year prison sentences for the buggery, wounding and rape of four children between 12 months and 15 years old. His wife, Susan and her sister Carole Hickman, were jailed for two and five years respectively for aiding and abetting. Hickman’s husband, Albert, was sent down for 10 years for specimen charges of buggery and assault.
All four had pleaded guilty, ensuring that the prosecution only presented an outline case. But that case was explicit in its descriptions of the satanic rituals in which the children had been abused.
These victims were raped on an alar dedicated to Satan, sodomised with altar candles and, in the specimen testimony of the oldest victim, Malcolm Smith used an altar knife to carve an inverted cross on her chest and abdomen before heating it and branding her on the genitals. The court heard – and the judge accepted – that the victim was convinced that Smith was (as he claimed to be) Lucifer and that she had no power to resist him.
This case is documented. The offenders pleaded guilty and did not challenge the evidence presented to the court of abuse during satanic rituals. They went to prison.
Four years later, Stafford Crown Court sentenced Shaun Wilding to three and a half years in prison for the sexual abuse of boys during his satanic rituals. Once again, Wilding pleaded guilty: he did not challenge the explicit evidence presented by the prosecution that he had held elaborate rituals involving robes, chanting and an altar, nor that his victims had been terrified and believed in the rituals. In fact his only challenge was to reject the allegation that the ceremonies had been no more than a trick to ensure his victims’ silence: his defence counsel told the judge that Wilding wanted to stress his “genuine and longstanding interest in the occult”.
July, 1987; the Old Bailey. Brian Williams received an 11 year sentence for sexually abusing 15 girls and boys on an what the court was told was an altar dedicated to Satan, within an inverted pentagram drawn in the blood of Williams and his victims.
I supplied all these details – and those of three further named and identified successful prosecutions – to Aaronovich, Barnes and the editor of Analysis. Each one was a clear case in which adult men and women had been sent to prison for sexually abusing children in what the court heard – without challenge or complaint – were satanic rituals. I also detailed them during the recorded interview I gave to Aaronovich. As a result, he knows that there is unequivocal proof that ritual abuse does – occasionally – happen.
Barnes and Innes Bowen, the editor of Analysis, gave an undertaking that the cases would be clearly referred to in the programmes. They were not. Bowen’s subsequent explanation read:
Having read the material you sent me, I thought that there was one case – the Smith/Hickman case – in which the judge appeared to accept that abuse had taken place in the context of a ring of Satanists. But even that case was only heard in outline as the defendants all pleaded guilty …
Furthermore I think it was also reasonable to give a great deal of weight to the official government report produced by Jean La Fontaine, a senior academic who had the advantage of gaining access to the relevant case files. Her report found no evidence that the sexual and physical abuse of children was part of rites directed to a magical or religious objective.
Quite why a case should be dismissed as evidence because the defendants pleaded guilty is a mystery. And as for Prof. la Fontaine, however contentious some parts of her report might be, the truth is that she did accept that there had been cases in which individual adults had abused children during rituals. Her conclusion was simply that she found no evidence of an organised conspiracy of Satanists. Rather, where abuse within rituals occurred:-
“the aim is sexual and the ritual is incidental to it. Self-proclaimed mystical/magical powers were used to entrap children and impress them with a reason for the sexual abuse, keeping the victims compliant and ensuring their silence.”
This goes to the heart of why ritual abuse matters. Children who make disclosures of being abused within rituals experience very real terror as a result – much greater than the trauma and fear associated with non-ritual or “garden-variety” ritual abuse.
How do I know ? Because I have worked with, met or interviewed several such children; my experiences also match those of social workers and therapists who have done so much more frequently than I.
This fear – coupled with the claims of physically impossible incidents – are what make ritual abuse cases uniquely difficult. The first problem is practical: what does a prosecution do when a child makes impossible claims amid otherwise credible allegations of sexual abuse ? If they are – as they should be – turned over to the defence, the alleged perpetrator’s barrister will use them to cast doubt on the child’s credibility. But if they are withheld, they become grounds for a mistrial.
The second problem follows on from this. However fantastic or impossible the allegation, if a child believes it then there is an urgent therapeutic need. But any such therapy is likely to be seized on as ‘evidence’ that the claims have been planted or induced by the therapist.
These conundrums have never been solved. There is no protocol for dealing with allegations of ritual abuse. There is a reason for that. It is the rabid and loudly-trumpeted claims of self-proclaimed great thinkers like David Aaronovich that ritual abuse is a myth.
He is entitled, of course, to his opinions. He is entitled to ignore evidence which undermines or even shatters his prejudices. He is entitled to think what he likes – in private.
What he is not entitled to do is to lie in public. He is not entitled to withhold that evidence just because he doesn’t like it. That is dishonest.
Nor is the BBC entitled to shrug its well-funded shoulders and say that it was simply giving Aaronovich a platform to express his views. It has a duty to perform diligent research to establish the facts and ensure accurate reporting. It did neither.
Aaronovich’s Analysis programmes set out to demolish what he sees as the conspiracy of gullible child protection workers underpinning the “satanic panic”. The facts are that there was no such conspiracy – just as there is no evidence of a conspiracy of international Satanists.
But nor was there ever any “satanic panic” – at least not as he means it. Since the 1980s there have been a total of four cases of alleged multiple-perpetrator, multiple-victim abuse in which satanic rituals were alleged: Nottingham, Rochdale, Orkney and (recently) Hampstead. Four cases in almost 30 years do not a panic make: it exists only in the imagination of those, like Aaronovich, who can’t be bothered to do research before rushing to broadcast their prejudices.
(If any readers of this blog would like details of the cases mentioned above, feel free to e-mail me: email@example.com )