Satanic ritual abuse, or SRA, is the belief that an organized network of Satanists engages in brainwashing and abusing victims, especially children, throughout the United States or, in fact, the world. Satanic ritual abuse is generally considered a conspiracy theory because of the standards of evidence and logic that are used to argue for its existence. Sociologists consider the public outcry in the 1980s concerning SRA to be a classic example of a moral panic.

Table of contents
1 Prevalence
2 Historical origins
3 SRA in modern times
4 External links
5 Further reading


Some conservative Christian groups in the United States have claimed that as many as 60,000 people a year are tortured and murdered by an organized network of Satanists. According to criminal justice statistics compiled by the National Institute of Justice, approximately 20,000 people a year are victims of homicide.

No credible evidence has been presented that there is a statistically significant number of murders due to SRA. There have been widespread claims but no proof of any organized network of satanic ritual abuse. The panic slowly died off in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance conclude, "In the early 1990s, we analyzed reports on SRA from both believers and skeptics. We tentatively concluded that the skeptics are correct; there is no international Satanic conspiracy ritually abusing and murdering children. We have been tracking the SRA movement ever since, and have not seen any hard evidence to change our conclusions."

Historical origins

The prescientfic belief that certain evil people worship dark forces and use magic powers against others, commonly known as witchcraft, is probably as old as mankind and can today still be found in many tribal cultures. The allegations of satanic ritual abuse are more complex and allege structured groups which systematically and repeatedly torture and kill others in the context of devil worship. The earliest such claims can be found in the context of medieval witch-panics; for instance, in 1334 a trial was held against 63 presumed witches who were accused of worshipping Satan, eating infant flesh, engaging in sexual orgies with others and with Satan himself. Eight of them were burned and the rest imprisoned. Similar witch panics occurred earlier, but are usually not well documented, especially when there was no official trial. The height of the witchhunts, of course, was in the 16th and 17th centuries, when many similar mass trials against presumed worshippers of Satan took place.

Even though some religious fundamentalists continue to believe in the existence of witchcraft, most of them denounce these persecutions, and within the scientific world, they are generally recognized as a symptom of the irrationalism of the time. Yet, some critics of the modern belief in satanic ritual abuse have stated that similar irrationalism still exists in modern society, and that the SRA scares of the last decades were in fact functionally similar or equivalent to historical panics regarding witchcraft and devil worship.

SRA in modern times

Concern over SRA became most prominent in the 1980s, when a "Satanic panic" descended on America's Christian community. According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, an "SRA industry" sprung up in this period, with self-appointed experts taking money to educate law enforcement and private citizens on the alleged threat.

It must be distinguished between two types of SRA discovery that took place in this period:

  • questioning of children who, according to investigators, reported being the victims of SRA
  • "recovered memory therapy" of adults who discover allegedly repressed memories of satanic ritual abuse in adulthood (they also often exhibit multiple personality disorder).

Stories of SRA have included many different elements. These elements share a common theme of shocking and disgusting behavior, inappropriate and violent sexuality, and the suggestion of imaginative cruelty:

Some self-appointed experts on SRA have appeared on popular television programs. Wiccan investigators have pointed out that reports of the supposed procedures of Satanic abusers are inconsistent between these individuals, leading some investigators to believe the promoters are lying and/or mentally ill.

Specific SRA cases

One famous false case of SRA involved a large number of children at McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Under interrogation techniques designed for adults, small children told police they had been sexually abused, forced to murder infants, and drink blood (see blood libel). They also recalled being flushed down the toilet and abused in sewers, taken into an underground cavern beneath the school, flying through the air, and seeing giraffes and lions. The original accuser was a paranoid schizophrenic. Eventually the case collapsed under its own weight, but several completely innocent people were ruined financially and in the eyes of the community.

Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere, mainly in the United States, but also in Martensville, Saskatchewan. Several "mass child abuse" scares took place in Germany (in Coesfeld, Worms and Nordhorn), where violent rituals and underground tunnel networks were sometimes alleged; all the accused were later acquitted.

Three widely publicised cases in the United Kingdom were in the Rochdale, the Orkneys, and Nottingham. In the Nottingham case, social services investigations into a family with multigenerational child sexual abuse and neglect became sidetracked into a wildgoose chase looking for satanic cults, with wilder and wilder allegations being investigated. Nottingham council organised an inquiry into the events of this case, which cast so poor a light on the competence of the social services that the council attempted (unsucessfully) to block distribution of the final report.

The legal defense team of Scott Peterson, charged in the murder of his wife Laci Peterson, has alleged that the real killers may have been members of a satanic cult. They have not yet produced any evidence for these claims.

Questioning children

The key problem in cases of SRA relying on children's testimony is the methodology by which such testimony is obtained. Children are very suggestible and will generally try to please the adult who interacts with them. On the other hand, social workers and therapists working with children believed that children would not openly talk about the abuse they suffered because of shame, or that they might even have repressed the memories of the abuse and that these memories would have to be recovered. In general, investigators worked under the assumption that the abuse had happened and needed to be discovered through aggressive questioning over a prolonged period of time. Investigators also sometimes relied on "diaries" where children were supposed to relate their experiences, or on the interpretation of drawings and of doll play. All these techniques are now regarded as highly problematic as they rely strongly on the interpretation of the investigator and encourage the child to mix fantasy and reality.

The questions asked were typically yes/no questions: "Did person X touch you there?" Even if the child answered no, the next question might be something like "When he touched you, did you like it?" No matter what the child answered to the second question, it was taken as evidence that the abuse had appened. Negative answers, on the other hand, were interpreted as "denial" and had to be penetrated. As such, the children's testimony was in reality very much based on the adults' belief system.

Some perpretrators of the SRA panic were themselves mentally ill. Diana Napolis, an outspoken SRA advocate online (under the pseudonym "Curio") and personally involved in several SRA investigations as a social worker, was committed to a mental institution in 2003 for harassing and threatening Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Love Hewitt and claiming that she was controlled through "psychotronic weaponry." There is little doubt that a person with such delusions would be entirely unsuitable to reliably produce any kind of child testimony and, in fact, likely to project her own fantasies upon the child.

SRA, hypnosis and false memories

Beyond the satanic ritual abuse scares which were directly based on questioning children, a large number of adults came forward in the 1980s and 1990s and claimed to have recovered memories of severe, often satanic ritual abuse in their childhood. These adults also often suffered from multiple personality disorder. While criminal charges were rarely pressed because of the long time that had passed since the alleged abuse, these adult testimonies nevertheless formed part of the picture given by the media that satanic abuse was, in fact, a widespread phenomenon.

Many of the women who reported such memories had previously attended therapists specialized on child sexual abuse, or read books like The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, which encouraged them to "recover" their allegedly existing memories of severe abuse in their childhood. Many times, both happened at the same time -- the patient attended a therapist, and was given a book like The Courage to Heal (the "Bible" of the recovered memory movement) to further explore their own past.

The therapists in question typically use the controversial technique known as recovered memory therapy. The underlying assumption is that the abuse that the patients suffered was so severe that the memories of it were unconsciously "repressed" in childhood and have to be recovered by a specialist. In these therapy sessions, hypnosis and drugs are often employed.

Critics of RMT like Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters. False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria) view the whole practice as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:

  • Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed" -- they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
  • The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
  • The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient denies this, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy.
  • During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that an abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.

According to these critics, RMT techniques used for "reincarnation therapy" or "alien abduction therapy" are functionally equivalent to RMT used for satanic ritual abuse therapy. To verify the false memory hypothesis, researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have successfully produced false memories of various childhood incidents in test subjects. This is viewed as further evidence that comprehensive false memories can be produced in therapy.

RMT critics point to the bizarre nature of satanic ritual abuse stories and highlight that in many cases, the stories were provably untrue. They claim that all or most SRA memories are produced by the therapists through extensive suggestive questioning over a prolonged period of time. They also view disorders that only surface in therapy, such as multiple personality disorder, as products of that therapy. Therapists deny these accusations, or hold that they are only true in a minority of cases, but that RMT as a whole is a sound practice if done properly. Critics respond that therapists have failed to describe the methods by which "professional" therapists can distinguish false from real memories.

SRA claims concerning popular culture

Some believers in SRA have targeted role-playing games, especially Dungeons & Dragons, claiming that these games are secret instructions for suicide and Satanic abuse, or a "back door to Satanism." Science fiction writer Michael Stackpole wrote an extensive report about one of the most prolific of these investigators. (This investigator had launched a nationwide crusade against Dungeons and Dragons after her son committed suicide. [1])

SRA in literature

One of the first books on the subject of ritual satanic torture was entitled Michelle Remembers and was published in 1980 by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist (and later husband) Laurence Pazder. It was accompanied by features in People magazine and National Enquirer, and numerous radio and television shows. Michelle had memories of seeing ritual human sacrifice, various forms of torture, and contact with supernatural beings. There was no corroborating evidence of these allegations, and both of Michelle's sisters and her father have denied everything in the book.

This book was followed in 1987 by Nightmare: uncovering the strange 56 personalities of Nancy Lynn Gooch. This was a collaboration by Nancy with E. Peterson and L. Freeman. Nancy recovered her memories of satanic abuse after reading a Stephen King novel. It was followed in 1989 by Suffer the Child by J. Spencer, who described a patient with similar memories. Both of these books were best-sellers.

Meanwhile, Lauren Stratford in 1988 wrote an account of her supposed childhood satanic abuse. The book was autobiographical, and entitled Satan's Underground. This was the first book to describe how cultists force young women to serve as 'breeders' of babies. The babies are then taken from them and sacrificed, unless the women manage to have a coat-hanger abortion in that time.

Lauren's account is one of the most thoroughly investigated accounts of such abuse, and contains many flaws. Lauren claimed to have given birth to three children in her teens and early twenties, yet none of her friends, relatives, or teachers recalled these births, or ever seeing her pregnant. However they did recall her engaging in self-mutilation, while Lauren claimed that her scars were the product of her torture at the hands of Satanists. The year of her father's death was also variously reported: Laurence claimed it was 1983, everyone else, and the official record, claimed it was 1965. The team of journalists who discovered these counter-claims wrote them as Satan's Sideshow in 1990. Satan's Underground was subsequently withdrawn by the publishers.

Many other personal accounts of Satanic ritual abuse exist, some of which allege the existence of an SRA conspiracy. With the rise of the Internet, stories of satanic abuse can be found online. Many of these accounts are extremely graphic and disturbing.

External links

Further reading

Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn: an account of the centuries old legend of secret, inhuman, baby-sacrificing cults.