Dr Sarah Nelson (University of Edinburgh) is a prominent Scottish researcher, writer and media commentator on child sexual abuse and its effects throughout life. Sarah Nelson 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
THE SATANIC PANIC:
JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING RHYMES,
DOESN’T MEAN IT’S REAL
I agree completely with Tim Tate that in Radio 4’s Analysis , Ritual Abuse: The Anatomy of a Panic (27.5.15 & 1.6.15) the BBC allowed David Aaronovitch “to broadcast two high -profile programmes which were at best misleading, and sometimes deeply deceitful”.
Deceitful to us as contributors, too. We repeatedly sought and received assurances that the programmes would fairly reflect conflicting views. The producer told me, for instance: “I have taken extreme care that all the key points you made in the interview are covered”. It is now clear that there was never any intention for balance.
Although this hurts because like Tim, Sue Hampson and I were invited and took part in good faith, it is not about taking personal offence. It is about the damage done to protecting abused children and adults, and the pain and insult for survivors listening to the programmes. These made a mockery of the BBC spokesperson’s claim to have “in no way downplayed the horrific nature of child sexual abuse”. On the contrary, they actively encouraged disbelief of current disclosures, at a time when a tsunami of allegations, investigations and prosecutions of sexual abuse (especially involving powerful and influential people) is taking place following the Savile revelations.
Indeed, David was repeatedly quite upfront in his view that to recall the discredit of “satanic ritual abuse” should encourage us to a deep scepticism about the veracity of this current round of sexual abuse revelations. “ I think in understanding what happened over ritual abuse, it might help listeners make sense of what’s happening now, because what you have is a certain amount of testimony and very little corroborative evidence -actually none, none. “ (Never mind that testimony from others is itself legitimate corroboration – as in the Moorov Doctrine in Scotland).
A small minority of recent allegations will indeed be false, mistaken, confused or fanciful – and (an important point) will be identified as such. To try publicly to discredit the great majority is different entirely. But at least any attempt to connect two separate incidences of alleged credulity would have to be convincing, evidence-based, and properly researched.
“The production team put considerable effort into tracking down key documents from the time and individuals involved.” Tim’s blog has meticulously demonstrated the hollowness of that BBC claim, in the Broxtowe (Nottingham) case. Overall the programmes featured not detailed investigation, but old familiar backlash claims, which were wheeled out in the 1980s and 1990s to discredit abuse victims and those who worked with them.
These stories are all so familiar that I could have written them myself, even sitting upside-down with my eyes shut. You can pick them up anywhere on the Internet too, if you don’t want to bother with the effort of research.
A blog should not be very long. This one certainly would be if I contested each claim made in these two programmes. So I’ll select just two for now: the “satanic panic”, and amnesia following serious trauma.
If you’re going to spend almost the whole first Analysis programme “proving” that a “satanic panic” was created and zealously promulgated by a bizarre alliance of radical feminists, evangelical Christians, counsellors, crazy female mental patients and social workers, invited contributors who challenged this conspiracy theory could surely expect even a few minutes to respond on air. The many points in my own interview disproving a satanic “moral panic” took less than five minutes to say: yet not one point from my interview transcript was used. I was told by the editor that they “did not fit the structure of the second programme.”
Numerous flaws in “satanic moral panic” theory:
* There was no widespread panic; only a small minority of child protection and mental health staff ever encountered these disclosures. Even their own colleagues frequently failed to support them.
* Over decades in sexual abuse work I never met nor heard of any professional who concluded that ritual abuse existed, as Analysis claimed, through reading Sybil, Michelle Remembers or the Courage to Heal. I never heard of any survivor who read Courage to Heal for what it might say about ritual abuse or dissociative identity disorder! Professionals all came to believe ritual abuse existed after hearing disturbing disclosures of sadistic organised abuse, (within and beyond quasi-religious or occult rituals) from children and adults.
* The public are simultaneously expected to believe satanic abuse revelations were incredible, ludicrous and unbelievable, lacking in any evidence, and would be to any normal person; and that intelligent educated professionals swallowed the whole lot after reading one book, or attending a single conference!
* The idea that anyone bar a few evangelical Christians would want to believe this stuff, far less promote it with crusading zeal, is the very opposite of the truth. It was the worst, most traumatising knowledge in the world, it overturned all your assumptions about the limits of human cruelty towards children, and we would have wished anything for it to be untrue.
* The scapegoats, folk devils and witches of classic moral panic theory were not the accused adults; they were instead the professionals who believed RA existed. (Just as, in a different case in Cleveland, Marietta Higgs became the feminist witch). It was destructive to many careers, and a source of lasting vilification .
* The media in classic moral panic theory support and propagate the panic. Yet nearly all media after an initial flurry disbelieved ritual abuse, and sided with the accused adults.
* The vast majority of professionals and foster parents who received disclosures were neither devout Christians nor radical feminists. This fact could easily have been established at any time.
* Ritual abuse disclosures were so strange and esoteric, so unlike anything we had heard before, that “putting words into children’s mouths” would have been incredibly difficult – even had the backlash lobby provided detail about how social workers or counsellors supposedly did this.
I will spend about as long on this huge subject as the Analysis programmes did. They found one prominent academic, Prof. Richard McNally, to dispute that people could forget traumatic incidents and recover such memories.
They must have known this was an entirely unbalanced selection to put to listeners, since there is such a large and reputable literature demonstrating that these things are indeed possible, supported by the frequent experience of practitioners and abuse survivors themselves, that a colleague has just sent the BBC an entire appendix of references.
Back in 1997 Charles Whitfield, to give one small example, had cited 36 studies specifically confirming amnesia for abuse, but the phenomenon was recognised long before in battlefield and concentration camp experiences, as well as in childhood abuse. This was breathtaking selectivity and distortion, of what the programme-makers must have known the actual balance of opinion among specialists in trauma to be.
I shall be taking my complaint further, with the BBC and elsewhere, and I hope many other people working against sexual abuse will do too. The BBC cannot, in Tim’s words, “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”.