Research

Satanic ritual abuse

Since 1980 a growing amount of women in the United States al­le­ge that they have been ritually abused in a satanic cult for years. They say that they have been abused, tortured and raped, had to participate in orgies and have been forced to prosti­tution, child sexual abuse, murder and cannibalism. They also say that much of this sata­nic ritual abuse has been re­corded on film and video and that pictures have been taken. Several of these women claim to have been deliberately im­preg­nated. Some of their babies are claimed to have been sacrificed to Satan during rituals, while other babies would have been kept alive in order to brainwash them from childhood through sexual abuse, torture, and psychological and physical abuse into sa­tanists or to have them breed their own children for cult pur­poses later. Because the most influential satanists of the cult are said to be part of the higher echelons of society, they would have easy access to key positions in e.g. politics and legal practice and as a result would have carried on undistur­bed for de­cades, according to some, for centuries.

These women differ from most victims of sexual abuse and other vice crimes in that they have never been aware that they were abused by satanists in their childhood and sometimes also later on in life. The vast majority has recovered these memories only in therapy, mostly when they were under hypnosis. After some of them have gone public with their stories and their psycho­the­ra­pists have confirmed the authenticity of the recovered memories in scienti­fic articles and books, people started to think that this satanic ritual abuse is not incidental but that it is a struc­tural form of abuse. This idea was picked up by the media. Soon in and by the media it was alleged that sa­tanic ritual abuse is committed by satanic cults, which are part of an in­ternational underground, tightly organized and covert organi­zation. In the United States alone these cults would have been responsible for more than 50,000 human sacri­fices a year. After these stories have become known in the Netherlands at the end of the 1980s, the first Dutch case of satanic ritual abuse was reported a few years later.

Both in the United States and in the Netherlands, scientists from several disciplines, social workers, policemen and people of the justice department have been discussing the authentici­ty of the stories of these victims in the media and in scienti­fic literature. In the United States this discussion has re­sulted in a polarization between believers who believe the vic­tims unconditionally and non believers who deny the exis­tence of satanic ritual abuse. Also through this discussion a modern witch hunt has arisen in the course of the 1980s. During this satanist hunt, tens of thousands of men and women were accused of committing satanic ritual abuse, thousands of these men and women were actually prosecuted for that matter and at least one hundred of them were convicted to long, sometimes even li­felong prison sentences. In the Netherlands a similar discus­sion was initiated and the same distinction between belie­vers and non believers has been made there, albeit that this dis­cus­sion was less vocal, less polarized and was of much shor­ter durati­on than the discussion in the United States.

In my dissertation I extensively explore the developments of the discussion about satanic ritual abuse in the United States and the Netherlands. The discussion is of exceptional character because of all doubts about the veracity of the victims’ stories. Hardly any thought is given as to how the social problem satanic ritual abuse can be solved effectively and adequately. People are too busy looking for answers to the question if there actually is a real problem. The object of discussion is not the solution of the problem, but the phenomenon itself that underlies the problem whether it is real or not. Further it is striking that in the last decades a lot has been written about satanic ritual abuse, and that this literature almost always concerns developments on a specific social field, for instance psychotherapy and social work. Furthermore, the literature discussing the people and organizations who have profiled themselves from within the fields of psychotherapy and social work, media, politics and legal practice, is all about the situation in the United States. Finally, all satanic ritual abuse literature I know of that has been published so far in the United States, the Netherlands and other countries, without exception, has been written from a believer or a non believer point of view. Apparently it is such a morally and emotionally laden issue that one simply cannot afford to take an unbiased view on it.

As far as I know there has never been a comparative study of the entanglements around satanic ritual abuse in the United States, the Netherlands or in any other comparable country. My dissertation has changed that, because it describes, analyzes and compares the discussion about satanic ritual abuse in the United States and the Netherlands. Moreover, I thoroughly discuss the similarities and differences in the social, religious and political structure of the United States and the Netherlands, because that structure seems to a certain extent have been decisive for the way in which these societies have responded to satanic ritual abuse and other moral issues. I have not given an opinion upon the (non) existence of the phenomenon satanic ritual abuse itself, because it was of no importance to my research. My purpose was to elucidate the reasons why moral issues like satanic ritual abuse are approached so divergently in the United States and the Netherlands. On the other hand, my dissertation delves into the perceptible consequences of the discussion, because satanic ritual abuse has been defined from there as a social problem: people are going in therapy, there is extensive media attention about it, people are being prosecuted, so there is, apart from the authenticity of the phenomenon, a ‘social’ problem for which solutions are being sought.

I have used the social construction method for this research to investigate, analyze and explain the course of the discussion about satanic ritual abuse, because this methodology offers a theoretical framework from which not alone the course of the discussion can be described, but also the factors which played an important role in this discussion can be investigated. By unravelling the defining process that underlies the discussion, I have ascertained on what social fields the discussion took place, if some fields were represented more than others in the discussion and which persons and organizations (they are called actores in scientific literature) were prolific in the discussion.

Those who have followed the discussion about satanic ritual abuse will have noticed that it was and is conducted by a limited number of actores. They are a constant factor in this discussion. It is true that some participants have contributed on their own behalf and that the number of participants has not stayed the same during the discussion, but the social fields where they came from did not change: psychotherapy, media and legal practice. Further Christian fundamentalism has played an important role, because the worldview of this denomination, especially its vision on good and evil, has created to a certain extent the soil from where ideas about satanic ritual abuse could have been grown.

I have divided the course of the social construction of satanic ritual abuse in periods. This way it was possible to deal with the developments at the different social fields simultaneously, in an integrated way and chronologically. So little by little it became clear which actores of the different social fields took the initiative, which actores stipulated to a large extent the course of the discussion and what kind of interests were involved in it. In doing so, I was better able to show how the actores of the different social fields influenced each other, both in the United States and the Netherlands separately and during contacts between actores of these countries.

Chapters 1 and 2 are the theoretical foundation of my dissertation. Chapter 3 discusses some similar moral issues like satanic ritual abuse which caused feelings to run high regularly in the United States and the Netherlands in the 20th century, but which moral issues always caused the same reaction in both countries. Chapter 4 discusses a few historical developments that contributed to a large extent to the origin of ideas about satanic ritual abuse in the United States and the Netherlands. Chapters 5 up to and including 8 reproduce the into several periods divided discussion about satanic ritual abuse in the United States and the Netherlands. In each of these chapters I discuss the most relevant developments, the role of the above-mentioned actores in it and the interests that could have played a part in the background. Further, I discuss extensively some sensational (criminal) cases which have had great influence upon the course of the discussion, such as the affair around the McMartin Pre-School and the perils of the Amirault family in the United States, and the debauchery scandal in Oude Pekela and the incest affair in Epe in the Netherlands. After an analysis of the social construction of satanic ritual abuse, in chapter 9, I answer the question why exactly moral issues with regard to human weaknesses are approached so divergently in the United States and the Netherlands. To explain these different approaches in both countries I discuss extensively the phenomenon moral panic, the social, political and religious structure of both countries and I compare these to each other.

For those who like to have an impression of the style of my book, on this website I have put my article Massa­hyste­rie in de Vere­nigde Staten en Neder­land: De affaire rond de McMartin Pre-School en het on­tucht­schandaal in Oude Pekela, that was published in 2004 in the book Mediahypes en mo­derne sagen: Sterke verhalen in het nieuws. The editors of the book were Peter Burger and Willem Koetsenruijter and the publisher was Stichting Neerlandistiek Leiden.