On 28 November 1988, Paul Ingram, a police officer, was arrested by colleagues in his office in Olympia, Washington State. His daughters, Ericka and Julie, had accused him of sexual molestation. Ingram made no attempt to deny the charges. He couldn’t remember doing anything, but he said: ‘My girls know me. They wouldn’t lie about something like this.’ He then started to build up the case against himself. Being a deeply religious man, he prayed feverishly for God’s guidance. He’d read in a magazine that there was a way of sending yourself into a trance. You had to imagine yourself entering a warm white fog. He tried this out, and the images came to him.

‘I would’ve removed her underpants or bottoms to the nightgown ... I would’ve told her to be quiet and uh, not say anything to anybody and threatened to her ... to say that I would kill her if she told anybody about this.’

His colleagues thought the repeated conditionals were only a way of dodging the issue:

‘Do you mean would’ve, or did you?’ they asked.

‘I did,’ said Ingram, quite calmly.

A psychologist, Richard Peterson, was brought in to help interrogate Ingram: his role was vital because he gave Ingram an explanation of what was happening to him. When Ingram asked why he had no memory of what he’d done, Peterson told him that it was ‘not uncommon for sexual offenders to bury the memory of their crimes because they were simply too horrible to consider’. Ingram accepted this; so did the detectives. They told his sons and his wife that they had repressed their memories of what had happened and must try to recover them. The family’s pastor became involved, trotting backwards and forwards from the police station to the family house with Paul’s latest confessions. As the investigation progressed, the Ingrams produced ever more elaborate accounts; they said there’d been buggery and gang rape. Julie Ingram said two of Paul’s colleagues had joined in when they came over to play poker. The colleagues claimed not to be able to remember anything of the kind. The accounts weren’t consistent. The family members even contradicted themselves.

Shortly after the arrest Peterson asked Ingram if he’d ever been involved in any kind of black magic. Ingram admitted that he used to look at his horoscope in the paper, but didn’t seem to understand what Peterson was driving at. One of the police officers explained what Peterson meant: ‘The Satan cult kind of thing.’

The Ingrams belonged to a fundamentalist Pentecostal sect, the Church of the Living Water. They would have been familiar with prayer in tongues, with divination, with apparently miraculous healings, and with public confessions of guilt and testimonies to their redemption. They would also have had a fervent, lively belief in Satan. It was natural, therefore, that Ingram should fear he might be possessed by evil spirits and ask his pastor to exorcise him. Pastor Bratun obliged, and expelled several evil spirits, including those of sexual immorality and gluttony. It was after this that Ingram’s ‘memories’ changed. In the trance state, he saw people in robes kneeling around a fire, then a corpse. He saw a person in a red robe who was wearing a helmet of cloth: he thought this might be the Devil. People were wailing. He remembered standing on a platform and having to sacrifice a black cat.

The Ingram girls heard about these revelations from the pastor. At first Ericka said her father was talking too much, saying things she didn’t want to remember. However, at the end of December she came up with a similar story. She said that from the time she was five years old to the time she was 12, her father regularly took her from her bed in the middle of the night and carried her out to his barn. There would be many men there, and some women; they all wore gowns and hats ‘resembling a Viking hat with horns’. There would be blood every-where, and pitchforks in the ground. A baby would be placed on a table and all the people there – including her mother and father – would circle the table and stab the baby with knives until it died. The corpse was then buried in a pit: Ericka said all the babies were about six to eight months old, though sometimes the cult used aborted babies. They would threaten Ericka, telling her they would kill her in the same way. Then they would chant, ‘you will not remember this’ over and over again. Between them, Ingram and his daughter had produced an account of satanic ritual abuse.

The month before Paul’s arrest the whole family had sat down to watch a documentary called Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, which described rituals in the course of which children were not only abused themselves but made to take part in the sort of ritual murders that Ericka had described. Belief in satanic ritual abuse was on the increase in the United States: Peterson had recently sent a questionnaire about it to therapists in Seattle and Tacoma and found that a quarter of his respondents had treated people who claimed to have been abused in this way in childhood.

The first survivor story, by Michelle Smith, a Canadian, had been published in 1980. It gave an account of memories she had recovered when she was having therapy after a miscarriage. Most of these memories had been accessed in a hypnotic trance. She said her mother had taken her to the satanic cult’s ceremonies, where she had been tortured and raped and had witnessed infant sacrifice. After that, there were several allegations of large-scale satanic abuse of toddlers at day-care centres in California and Washington State, and an explosion of stories from alleged survivors. These stories are now being told in Britain, too. Ericka Ingram’s story is very similar to an anonymous account published in summer 1994 in the British teenage girl’s magazine Mizz. The narrator describes a network of cults whose members sexually abuse children and practise infant sacrifice. The infants are the children of the cult’s adolescent girls, who are used as ‘brood mares’.

The police dug all over the Ingrams’ small-holding to search for bones, but the only one that surfaced was an elk bone. The doctor who examined the Ingram girls could find no evidence of physical abuse. In fact, there was no evidence apart from the depositions of the Ingram family, and these were contradictory and confused. Paul Ingram never managed to remember anything straightforwardly. At one stage, the detectives thought he might have been brainwashed by his fellow-satanists, so they brought in Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist who was an expert on cults. Deeply suspicious of the family’s recovered memories, Ofshe tried an experiment of his own. He told Ingram that one of his sons and one of his daughters had accused him – they hadn’t – of making them have sex with each other in front of him. When Ofshe asked the children if they remembered anything like this, they said they didn’t. Ingram went into his white-foggy trance state and, duly beaming, produced a complete, pornographically-detailed scenario.

According to Lawrence Wright, the author of Remembering Satan: Recovered Memory and the Shattering of a Family,1 Ingram had always been given to extremes. A disciplinarian to his children, fanatically thrifty, absorbed in his Church; over-zealous in his work, he handed out more tickets for minor traffic offences than any of his colleagues. Even so, he was harsher with himself than he had ever been to anyone else. He was not charged with any exotic offences connected with satanic abuse, but only with third-degree rape, to which he insisted on pleading guilty. After that he decided that all his confessions had been false, but it was too late. His daughter Ericka appeared in court and demanded the maximum sentence. Other men convicted of the same offence would have got six months with the option of treatment. Since Ingram was now denying his guilt, the judge decided treatment wouldn’t be helpful. He was sent down for 20 years.

In 1613, a young German girl, Maria Ostertag of Ellwangen, came to the authorities, confessed that she was a witch and implicated 34 other people. She had copulated with Satan in horrific secret rituals – his penis, she said, was hard, cold and hurtful. She also claimed she had desecrated the sacrament by mixing it with dung and using it in magical potions. It is impossible to know what exactly brought her to confess, but her aunt had been burned, and witches’ families were highly suspect. Her reward was to be executed with the sword rather than burned alive. She was luckier than some. A nine-year-old German boy, Johannes Bernhardt, was supposed to have been initiated into witchcraft at school. He said he had signed himself over to the Devil with his own blood, then flown to the diabolic sabbat, where Satan had intercourse with him: this had recurred on many occasions. He also said that the Devil was ‘hard as horn’. Young Bernhardt was treated as a full-fledged heretic and burned with four others. Had the Ingram case come up at this time, the entire family might have been executed.

The Romans accused the Christians of practising orgies and child sacrifice. The Christians, once established in power, made similar accusations against the Jews and many sects they deemed heretical. Michael Constantine Psellos, the Byzantine philosopher, wrote about the Bogomils:

In the evening, when the candles are lit, at the time when we celebrate the redemptive Passion of Our Lord, they bring together, in a house appointed for the purpose, young girls whom they have initiated into their rites. Then they extinguish the candles, so that the light shall not be witness to their abominable deeds, and throw themselves lasciviously on the girls; each one on whomever first falls into his hands, no matter whether she be his sister, his daughter, or his mother ... When this rite has been completed, each goes home; and after waiting nine months, until the time has come for the unnatural children of such unnatural seed to be born, they come together again at the same place. Then, on the third day after the birth, they tear the miserable babies from their mothers’ arms. They cut their tender flesh all over with sharp knives and catch the stream of blood in basins. They throw the babies, still breathing and gasping, onto the fire, to be burned to ashes. After which, they mix the ashes with the blood in the basins, and so make an abominable drink, with which they secretly pollute their food and drink: like those who mix poison with hippocras or other sweet drinks.

Psellos had heard about these rites from a Thracian – he had no first-hand knowledge of them. Believing that the Bogomils worshipped Satan, he saw their rites as deliberate attempts to spread the kingdom of Antichrist on earth. Heretics and Jews were regularly accused of infanticide, unnatural sexual practices and devil-worship in the Middle Ages, but in the 15th century, the pattern changed: instead of accusing existing dissident groups, the Inquisitors asserted that there was a new heretical group operating covertly within the population. These were the witches.

Before the Great Witchhunt, witches were not thought to be part of any organised group or conspiracy. The local witch, who was usually but not invariably a woman, was supposed to possess maleficium, an evil power that enabled her to raise storms and thereby wreck ships and crops; to destroy cattle, spoil butter and beer; and to bring about sudden and inexplicable illness and death, especially among young children and babies. Her victims sometimes turned to the village cunning person or witchdoctor for help; the tougher course of action was to take the witch to the religious or civil authorities and have her tried. (After prosecutions for witchcraft came to a halt in the late 17th century, communities sometimes lynched their witches themselves.) But from the 15th century onwards, a woman who was accused of witchcraft by her neighbours would find that the judges had a new agenda: they wanted to ascertain, not whether she had harmed her neighbours, but whether she had dedicated herself to Satan.

They would press her to admit that she belonged to an organisation of devil-worshippers, that she had sealed her allegiance by having intercourse with Satan and with her fellow witches (even her own sons or father). She was also likely to be accused of sacrificing infants to her Master. If she denied these allegations, she would be questioned under torture. The panic spread across the country. As soon as a witch confessed that she had been present at such an occasion the inquisitor would want to know who else had been there. The witch might then name women in other towns – women she knew from marketing, or with whom she wanted to settle scores. No doubt she often simply guessed at names to stop the torture.

The best-known episode, and one of the last, occurred at Salem in Massachusetts Bay Colony – it was the subject of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It began when the minister’s nine-year-old daughter, Betty Parris, and her cousin, Abigail Williams, complained that they were being tormented by invisible beings. Three local women, convicted of bewitching them, named other witches; then more girls – as well as adults of both sexes – accused their neighbours of conspiring with the Devil to afflict them. The witch-hunt spread out into the colony when the accusers were taken to other towns to identify witches. Nineteen people were hanged at Salem, and, because the judges decided to spare the lives of ‘confessours’, many more were imprisoned for life. The concept of the sabbat was crucial to the panic: Abigail Williams asserted that ‘the Witches had a Sacrament ... at a house in the Village, and that they had Red Bread and Red Drink.’ Another accuser, Mercy Lewis, said: ‘they did eat Red Bread like Mans Flesh, and would have her eat some: but she would not.’ Like Psellos, the Salem authorities believed that they had stumbled on a diabolic conspiracy: ‘These witches, whereof above a score have now confessed,’ Cotton Mather wrote in Wonders of the Invisible World, ‘have met in hellish rendezvous, wherein the confessours do say they have had their diabolical sacraments, imitating the baptism and the supper of our Lord. In these hellish meetings these monsters have associated themselves to do no less a thing than to destroy the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ in these parts of the world.’

By the 18th century the ruling classes had become sceptical about witchcraft and the laws against witches were revoked or allowed to lapse. The sabbat became a historical curiosity. In this century, witches have become feminist and New Age icons, revered as victims of a Christian patriarchy’s persecution and misrepresentation. ‘Wiccan’ cults of nature-worship have sprung up, as have a small number of Satanist cults. Now the belief in the satanic sabbat seems to have returned.

Belief in ‘ritual’ abuse and satanic ritual is many-layered, however. At the extreme end are American fundamentalists, who believe that

an international network of secretive ‘hard-core’ satanic cults are linked together to infiltrate the higher levels of societal power structures in all societies, enabling the destruction of that society by undermining its moral standards by making snuff movies and trading in narcotics. They gain their members by a hierarchical structure of recruitment, first catching teens through their dabblings in rock music and games, and selecting the best for initiation into witchcraft cults, from which the ‘hard-core’ are chosen. The ultimate aim is to induce world chaos which will encourage the populace to accept Satan – in personified form – as the earth’s ruler.

This writer believes in Satan: the next step down is to believe in Satanic cults, and many American therapists and psychiatrists are convinced that such cults exist. Britain, too, has its high-profile believers. One of them is Joan Coleman, associate specialist in Psychiatry at Heathlands Mental Health Services in Surrey. She is a founder of RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support), which has upwards of 150 members. Writing in last June’s issue of Child Abuse Review, a journal edited from the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, she describes five patients whom she presents as satanic ritual abuse survivors. Other psychiatrists had diagnosed them as, variously, depressed, schizophrenic, hysterical or suffering from personality disorder. Three of the women are described as heavy substance abusers; all of them suffered from perceptual disorders, ranging from ‘moderately severe and more frequent’ to ‘severe and frequent’. They had hallucinations, believing, for instance, that they were in a room full of fierce dogs, or that they were seeing the demon Lucifer, or a man with a flame torch. They also experienced ‘abnormal tactile sensations’ – spiders and snakes on their bodies or inside orifices. They had appalling nightmares and some felt it was only safe to sleep in the daytime. Two visited cemeteries during the night and one admitted desecrating graves; two were arsonists. They also had periods when they ‘lost time’, periods which might last minutes or hours. The women talked about the ‘ordinary’ sexual abuse that they had experienced in childhood long before they began to float details of ritual abuse. They all claimed to be initiates: they told Coleman that they had taken ceremonial vows of silence which they were fearful of breaking. Two of them also claimed to have reported to their satanic covens that they had broken their vows and told their therapists about their abuse.

Joan Coleman does not report any attempt to consider alternative explanations, though she says that one of the patients retracted her story many times. There is no evidence that the women’s mental states improved once their stories were accepted: ‘for a time’, Coleman says, their behaviour became more disturbed.

Valerie Sinason, consultant child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, a regular columnist on the Guardian and the editor of a book called Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse,2 is another believer. The book contains contributions from mainstream psychiatrists, therapists and social workers: Sinason says she wanted to ‘put the subject legitimately in the professional arena’. She is ready to concede that some cases – and the Ingram case in particular – were disastrous, and although her colleague, Rob Hale, freely admits to being a descendant of Sir Matthew Hale, the last Chief Justice to hang a witch in England, she has the intensity of the embattled campaigner rather than the obsessional quality of the zealot.

In 1990, Sinason was contacted by a Swedish psychologist, Anders Svensson, who was working with a mentally handicapped woman who might have been raped. Svensson had heard about Sinason’s work with sexually abused mentally handicapped people, a ‘taboo’ issue in Sweden. She became his supervisor, receiving faxed (translated) transcripts of his interview with ‘Ingrid’, the woman in question, and she spoke to him on the phone for an hour each week. It was her job to help him deal with his own emotional responses to the case.

Ingrid came out with her story very cautiously: if Svensson responded to anything she said with incredulity, she would immediately say, ‘I don’t know.’ But she kept talking. She told Svensson about special robes, about a child with no breasts who was hurt, about being given shit to eat, and ‘red drink’. She used the word ‘devil’ a lot. But it was Sinason who provided the interpretation. ‘This sounds like ritual abuse,’ she said. Sinason was nervous: it didn’t help that when she mentioned the case to other colleagues, they were sceptical.

Sinason describes the survivors of satanic ritual abuse as ‘invisible refugees’. ‘People were going through hell – literally,’ she says, ‘and no one was willing to accept it. Patients were coming, saying things like, “I am being tortured,” or “I have committed a murder,” but as soon as the word ritual was mentioned, nobody wanted to know.’

Sinason makes sure that Rob Hale, a forensic psychiatrist, sees all the satanic ritual abuse survivors who are referred to her at the Tavistock. His judgment is that these patients are not suffering from delusions of persecution or of demonic possession which, both he and Sinason insist, they are able to recognise. Nor do they believe that everyone they see is speaking the literal truth. Sinason tells the story of an Asian child who was referred to her: she was told the girl had been ritually abused and was possessed by a devil. In therapy, Sinason discovered that the child had been abused by her own father. The family interpreted her disturbed behaviour as possession. For Sinason, the main issue is political. ‘Anything that is going on within a country that is above the law and hasn’t been found out,’ she says, ‘has a kind of corrosive, corrupting effect. If you haven’t got justice, therapy is peanuts.’ She and Rob Hale are trying to have a select committee set up in Parliament; they also want to instigate a high-level police investigation. She feels that the police haven’t done enough to investigate such cases because the ‘ritual’ element scares them off.

Sinason believes in the sort of extensive satanic cult that Joan Coleman describes in Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse. Its hierarchy is said to be made up of doctors, politicians, ambassadors, teachers, clergy, aristocrats, and, significantly, lawyers and police. ‘One point especially requires emphasis,’ Coleman says: ‘satanic ritual abuse is not confined to ceremonies, but is a way of life. Most of the procedure regarding indoctrination of children is carried out at home, much of it by their mothers ... many are involved from the cradle to the grave.’

These Satanists are apparently organised in ‘lodges’ or ‘circles’ of seventy or eighty adults which are subdivided into covens of 13. Like those of Anglican or Catholic clergy, their ceremonial costumes are usually red, black or purple, and ‘for some special ceremonies important members wear gold, silver, or other colours.’ Their rites are carried out in barns, churchyards, churches, crypts, cemeteries, derelict houses. They worship within a circle which may be drawn or marked on the ground or made with string or twine. Their rites include prayers and chants to Satan, but they also carry out ‘child sexual and physical abuse, smearing and consumption of body substances (blood, faeces, semen and urine) and sexual orgies’. Adults and children have intercourse with live animals.

They usually offer a blood sacrifice to Satan, often a cockerel or small animal, less frequently a large animal or person. They sacrifice foetuses ‘usually resulting from criminal abortion of female cult members; occasionally obtained from private abortion clinics by doctors, nurses or technicians within the cult’. But they also sacrifice babies and young children: Coleman says these are unregistered children of cult members. Sometimes they are sacrificed at birth, and the parents simply tell the outside world that the baby was stillborn. If the cult sacrifices an older child, they might escape detection by doing it at the same time as the parents move house or separate. Runaway children – who Coleman says may not have been reported missing – are also sometimes murdered. Tramps and travellers are killed, or ‘adult members who have stepped badly out of line and are considered a security risk’. The Satanists believe, Coleman says, ‘that Satan is more powerful than God and will ultimately triumph and rule this world and the next.’

The central concern here is not abuse but blood sacrifice, specifically of infants. This is why Valerie Sinason wants the police to search for the remains of human sacrifice with the equipment that was used at Frederick West’s house in Gloucester. The accounts of adult survivors usually mention infant sacrifice. Where the social services have investigated cases of suspected ritual abuse of children, the suggestion of infant sacrifice has also come up on numerous occasions (though it has never been substantiated). Animal sacrifice was alleged in the Orkney case, and recently at Bishop Auckland. However, in the inquiry that followed the Orkney case, the social workers involved were subjected to repeated questioning by counsel about their understanding of the term ‘ritual’ abuse. Many of them denied that they had believed there was any ritual abuse carried out at Orkney, but those who accepted the term said they considered that the ritual was used purely for the purpose of intimidating the children and facilitating the abuse. One who was specifically questioned about ‘cultic’ abuse said she had not considered the Orkney case to be of that nature.

Valerie Sinason’s book came out a few months before Jean La Fontaine’s Government-sponsored report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse.3 Professor La Fontaine is careful. ‘I have a deep reluctance,’ she told me, ‘to take something on as a matter of belief. I want rational argument and evidence.’ Among 211 cases of alleged abuse (all involving children) in England and Wales, she did find three cases where the abuse had been ritualistic: in each of these cases the police searched the perpetrators’ houses and found objects the children had described to them. There was no similarity between methods, nor were covens of 13 involved: one man was working on his own, the second had a male associate, the third had two female associates. La Fontaine’s report draws a clear boundary between this kind of abuse and abuse by a satanic cult: the ritual here was secondary to the abuse, not the other way round.

Most of the unsubstantiated cases involved poor people, manual workers or unemployed. They lived in run-down estates and a substantial proportion had criminal records, in some cases for sexual offences. Teenagers produced allegations of abuse that were as detailed as the accounts of adult survivors, and they were more likely than young children to mention infant sacrifice. These stories were not, however, more likely to be corroborated by other evidence. Where younger children made allegations, these came in response to questioning from social workers – and La Fontaine is critical of the techniques used to obtain these disclosures. In four cases, she says, mothers were alleged to have committed ritual abuse in the course of custody disputes. Overall, La Fontaine writes, ‘the proportion of cases where there is corroborative evidence [of sexual abuse] for none of the children is more than three times as great among those in which ritual abuse was alleged as in the other cases.’

Her report suggests that the diagnosis of abuse by a satanic cult makes it possible for carers and foster-parents to ‘care for very damaged children with patience and sympathy’. However, she says,

the belief has also encouraged fears of an unknown evil among child protection workers ... and seems to generate an obsessional desire to find out what happened ... which added to their own stress and obscured the children’s needs ... People are reluctant to accept that parents, even those classed as social failures, will harm their own children ... but involvement with the devil explains it. The notion that unknown, powerful leaders control the cult revives an old myth of dangerous strangers. Demonising the marginal poor, linking them to unknown satanists, turns intractable cases of abuse into manifestations of evil.

I asked La Fontaine whether the police were reluctant (in the way Sinason suggests) to investigate cases of alleged satanic abuse. ‘They’d just love to have a really spectacular case and make their names,’ she replied, ‘but they don’t find anything, so they give up. Where there was evidence, they found the stuff.’

In a recent case of alleged ritual abuse, at Bishop Auckland, there is every sign that the allegations were taken very seriously indeed. The case began in August 1993, with several children complaining of having been sexually abused by an older boy. Medical examination showed that they had indeed been abused; the boy admitted he had done it and he is now undergoing therapy. Then the allegations swelled to include several adults living in the street; gradually the children began to say they had been abused in a ritual setting, that they had been threatened with the arrival of the devil, that the ceremony had included the sacrifice of a rat, and that the adults had forced them to take stupefying drugs. The children also said they had sat naked in a circle and played a game with a ball: if the ball landed on them, they had to perform sexual acts. The first mention of what the Crown Prosecution Service calls ‘voodoo’ came on 25 January 1994. The children had made allegations against adults in early December but these had only concerned sexual abuse and drugs. However, in November, the children had attended a Halloween party in Hamsterly Woods. The adults dressed up, and one of the party, called ‘Witch Smeg’, is said to have looked like one of the defendants. The first child to talk about ritual elements in the alleged abuse by adults said that they were ‘like Halloween’.

As time went on the children’s accusations grew wilder: they picked out a lorry driver who was delivering goods in the town, and even a woman police officer involved in the investigation: these people were cleared. The once-quiet street was riven by the allegations. The defendants’ cars were attacked, trees at the front of one house were chopped down, another house had all its windows smashed. It is said that there were exorcisms going on in the street. Comparisons were made with Salem.

The Crown Prosecution Service paid careful attention to the children’s allegations. They were well aware of the fact that children will not disclose everything about sexual abuse at once. In fact, they said in court that the children ‘have almost certainly been abused by adults, thus accounting for their introduction to drugs and more esoteric sexual practices’. But they added that the psychologist who had advised them on the case ‘entertains strong anxieties about the correct identification by the children of the real perpetrators’. It was concluded that six of the defendants certainly had no case to answer and that there was no chance that a prosecution against the other two would be successful. The CPS also said that whether the children had been ‘abused in the ritualistic way which they later described, is, in our view, open to very much more considerable doubt’. The children claimed that they spent considerable periods of time away from home being abused in various people’s attics. In the course of the abuse they were supposedly urinated on, covered with blood, and smeared with powder. Yet their parents (none of whom was accused of abuse) hadn’t noticed anything. ‘Given the appalling nature of the allegations,’ the psychologist commented, ‘the children seem to have remained extraordinarily undisturbed in their general behaviour.’

Collusion was another problem. All the children knew one another and talked to each other about the case. For example, Child A alleged that he had seen Child B naked in the house of one of the defendants. Child B had already been interviewed and denied that anything had happened to him. But when Child B was re-interviewed he said he now remembered being in the house with no clothes on, and said he had been drugged. When asked why he hadn’t told this story before, he said he had been talking to Child A and another child and it had ‘come into his head’. He wasn’t able to give any further details of the incident.

The solicitor for the defendants, John Turner, puts the blame on the investigating team: ‘Evidence that tended to disprove what had happened was pushed to one side, evidence that seemed to fit was gleefully seized on. And every time there was a negative, it was twisted. Normally, if there’s no evidence, you’d think it hadn’t happened, but with these people it became: there’s no evidence, therefore they are incredibly clever, how did they manage to cover it up?’

Joan Coleman certainly believes in this cleverness. She says cult objects are whisked away after ceremonies and stored separately in places, such as bric-a-brac shops, where they won’t seem unusual. As for the traces of sacrifice or murder, she says that prior to a satanic ceremony ‘the ground is prepared with a tarpaulin or a large sheet of polythene, in order that no traces of blood or other body substances will be left.’ She doesn’t say what happens to the tarpaulin. ‘We have heard, too,’ she continues, ‘of devices for rapid concealment of incriminating material in the event of interruption.’ These are not specified. Corpses are apparently disposed of in baths of acid and huge industrial mincers, dumped in riverbeds or buried in newly-dug graves. ‘Some of these methods seem incredible,’ she concedes, ‘until one remembers the wide variety of occupations of cult members.’ The fact remains that the only evidence for the satanic cult comes from the accounts of the survivors.

‘The deeds of witches in conjunction with devils are done in secret,’ wrote the inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger in the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘and the accuser cannot in this case, as in others, have definite evidence by which he can make his statements good.’ Thomas Brattle FRS was a sceptical observer at Salem. ‘Even the Judges themselves,’ he observed,

have, at some times, taken these confessours [i.e., the persons confessing themselves witches] in flat lyes, or contradictions, even in the Courts; by reason of which, one would have thought that the Judges would have frowned upon the said confessours, discarded them, and not minded one tittle of anything that they said; but instead thereof ... the Judges vindicate these confessours, and salve their contradictions, by proclaiming, that the Devill takes away their memory, and imposes upon their brain.

Recovered memory is one of the most contested areas in the field of child sexual abuse. As public awareness of abuse has increased over the past fifteen years, adult survivors have felt able to speak out about what they experienced in childhood. Among them are some who say that they had no previous memory of abuse until suddenly, somehow or other, they remembered what happened to them. Families have been divided; parents protesting their innocence have blamed their children’s therapists and christened the phenomenon False Memory Syndrome. Public and media perception of this phenomenon is that it occurs only during therapy and that the memories are always recovered under hypnosis. A true believer will seize on any evidence for the accuracy of recovered memory and say it proves that every recovered memory must be factually correct. An unbeliever will say that memory cannot be repressed, and therefore all recovered memories must be fraudulent. There are therapists so eager to ‘prove’ abuse that they will put pressure on their clients to produce disclosures, misuse hypnosis to ‘help’, and persuade them that symptoms such as eating disorders are conclusive proof of childhood abuse. A further complication in the USA is that a therapist is legally bound to report any allegation of sexual abuse, even if they don’t believe it. If they don’t report it, they can be prosecuted themselves. This means that any therapy dealing with hitherto undisclosed abuse must also become a forensic investigation.

A recent British Psychological Society report gives the results of a survey on the topic of recovered memories. It was carried out among 810 chartered psychologists who see non-psychotic clients: of these 90 per cent had seen clients in the past year who reported sexual abuse as children. A third of the respondents said they had seen clients who had recovered memories from total amnesia, and that this had occurred before the people concerned had entered therapy. More than one in five had had at least one client in the past year who recovered a memory of child sexual abuse, and nearly a third had clients who’d recovered the memory of a traumatic experience other than sexual abuse. Nine out of ten of the group thought recovered memories were sometimes or usually ‘essentially accurate’. The report points out that some sexual offenders have admitted to using techniques similar to hypnotic control during abuse: they may have programmed their victims to forget.

On the other hand, two-thirds of the therapists the BPS surveyed thought that it was also possible to recover false memories, and more than one in seven believed that this had been the experience of their own clients. ‘Where there is extensive rehearsal of an imagined event, the person can begin to believe that the event actually happened.’ Therapists working in this area, the report concludes, should ‘be alert to a range of possibilities, for example that a recovered memory may be literally true, metaphorically true, or may derive from fantasy or dream material.’

Descriptions by adult ‘survivors’ of the satanic cult frequently come from recovered memories. The British Psychological Society’s conclusions suggest a variety of possibilities: that they may have been implanted by unscrupulous therapists; that they may be substantially true and that the previous amnesia may be due to hypnotic techniques used by the perpetrators; that they may be reporting confused memories of actual abuse – perhaps because drugs and ritual were used to frighten them into obedience, perhaps because they were very young victims and their memories are not retrievable in a narrative form. The BPS report mentions a small child who was found (thanks to pornographic photographs confiscated by US Customs agents) to have been abused in a day-care home between the ages of 15 to 18 months. When the parents were told about what had happened to her, they realised that she had been sketching naked adults from the moment she had begun to draw.

The other possibility is that of metaphorical truth, and there is no reason allegations of satanic ritual abuse should differ in this respect from any other ‘memories’ of trauma. When I was eight years old my mother was taken away by ambulance one night. I can remember, with the utmost clarity, hearing a noise, creeping out of bed, and seeing a huddled shape carried down the stairs in darkness. In fact, I didn’t witness my mother’s removal. What ambulanceman would carry a woman downstairs in the dark? But I was bewildered, frustrated because nobody had told me what was happening, and distressed by the separation from my mother. She was away for a month after that and we were not allowed to visit her. I constructed the memory to ‘correct’ the separation, but it was true, in the sense that I was a helpless witness to events beyond my control. I was in the dark.

Jean La Fontaine suggests that the motif of infant sacrifice in satanic rituals derives from anxiety and guilt about abortion, which has been part of human consciousness since time began. It is significant that Michelle Smith’s memories surfaced after she had suffered a miscarriage. It is also interesting that the cult is said to obtain babies from private abortion clinics, and that one of the MPs who has taken the topic up at Parliamentary level is an antiabortion campaigner, David Alton.

The stories the Romans told about the Christians have often been attributed to misunderstandings about theology, specifically, about the nature of the Eucharist. But Christian imagery, divorced from its conventional context, is startling: Abraham and Isaac; the murder of the Holy Innocents – the children who died so that Christ could live and become the ultimate saviour. In the substitutionary theology that I was taught as a young Anglican, God figures as a vengeful despot whose lust for punishment was assuaged by the perfect, innocent sacrifice of Jesus. In the Malleus the Host, stolen and hidden by a witch, cries like a baby for help. Catholics believe that the Eucharistic bread is transformed by consecration into the physical flesh of Christ. When you consider all this, the idea of the consumption of flesh and blood from sacrificed infants begins to look rather more mainstream than it did at first.

Both Ericka and Julie Ingram claimed that their bodies were horrifically scarred, yet when they were examined the doctor found nothing. Perhaps they were not lying: after all, we know that anorexics look in the mirror and believe themselves to be grossly fat. The problem is that (even with a psychologist involved) Paul Ingram’s colleagues didn’t understand such subtleties. ‘Do you know how badly damaged your daughter is?’ Peterson asked Ingram. ‘She shakes at the thought of having to talk about this stuff ... She’s frightened of you.’ But it may be that she always had been. When Ingram led his family into the Church of the Living Water he refused to let his children join in sports or any other extracurricular activities that might interfere with their chores or their schoolwork. Rock and roll music was forbidden. Ironically, these prohibitions may have been rooted in the Evangelical fear that ‘dabblings’ in rock music and sports would draw the young into Satanism. ‘They weren’t allowed to have a childhood,’ said one neighbour. There were darker suggestions. A neighbour remembered hearing that Ingram had made one of the sons ‘lie down in the driveway’ while Paul ‘had driven the car over the top of him’. Whether or not this was true, Chad Ingram had been arrested for shop-lifting candy: he said that the moment when he was taken to prison in handcuffs was the proudest in his life. The eldest son, Paul Ross, had run away from home. He told detectives about an incident (substantiated by neighbours) in which his father had thrown an axe at him in a fit of temper. ‘I’d like to shoot my dad,’ he said, ‘I’ve always hated him.’ A deaf girl who was fostered in the house for a while described the family as ‘full of hate’. Ingram was supposed to be ‘always yelling’ at the girls, and after his conviction he said that the only thing he was really guilty of was emotional abuse. The only social life the family had was in church.

Ericka’s original accusation was made at an Evangelical summer camp, where she was a counsellor. A healer called Karla Franko had come to talk to the girls, and had a vision while she was speaking. She saw a little girl first hiding in a coat closet, then locked in.

At that, a girl in the audience stood up, heaving with sobs, and cried out that she had been that little girl. Franko then ... said that somebody in the audience had been molested as a young girl by a relative. Suddenly, a deaf girl rushed out of the room ... In this charged atmosphere, a number of other girls came forward to say that they, too, had been abused ... Late in the afternoon of the last day ... Ericka remained in the conference centre, sobbing disconsolately. She sat cross-legged on the floor of the stage with her head hanging between her knees ... Finally, according to one of the counsellors, she declared: ‘I have been sexually abused by my father.’

Franko’s version was different. As she was getting ready to leave for the airport, a counsellor came to her and asked her to pray over Ericka.

‘What does she need prayer for?’ Franko asked. The counsellor shrugged. Franko went back to the stage, where Ericka was sitting Indian-style, a portrait in dejection, Franko stood over her and began praying aloud. She felt the Lord prompting her with information. The word ‘molestation’ presented itself to her. ‘You have been abused as a child, sexually abused,’ Franko announced. She then received another divine prompting, which told her: ‘It’s by her father, and it’s been happening for years.’ When Franko said this aloud, Ericka began to sob hysterically. At no time, says Franko, did Ericka utter a word; she was so devastated by the revelation that she could do little more than nod in agreement.

Clearly, Ericka needed attention. Her family was widely regarded as Christian and hardworking, despite the axe-throwings and the yelling. Several people tried to model their own families on the Ingrams. Who would have listened to Ericka’s complaints about her father’s behaviour? Abuse was something different: nobody argued with that. But it was Paul himself who produced the first account of satanic ritual abuse. Paul was a lapsed Catholic: he had once considered becoming a priest. Now he belonged to a sect that believed in demonic possession. He believed he was an abuser, yet he couldn’t remember what he’d done. He’d seen a programme about the satanic cult. What sort of devil’s brew did all these factors cook up in his brain?

The Salem Afflicted, like Joan Coleman’s patients, suffered what might be called visual, auditory and sensual hallucinations – and were similarly considered sane by a community which knew what it meant by madness. They sometimes had fits of Affliction at home, but they invariably had them in the courtroom. At these times they saw the Devil offering them a book, which he urged them to sign and so end their torments. They saw yellow birds lighting on the accused (these were supposed to be the witches’ familiar spirits); they cried out that the accused had bitten them, whereupon bite-marks were found to have appeared in their flesh (the rare sceptical observers believed they bit themselves). They said the Devil was sticking pins in them, and brought the pins out to show the horrified bystanders. Their jaws locked so that they were unable to eat for days on end.

Mercy Short saw the Devil in the form of an American Indian: his hair was straight and his skin tawny. When this fiend came to her, she imagined herself to be in ‘a desolate cellar, where Day or Night could not be distinguished’. The voices of the demons ‘ordinarily caused her to say “Haah!” or “How!” or “What do you say?” and listen and oblige them to repeat before she could understand’. Her tormentors also obliged her to drink a ‘Whiteish Liquor ... holding her Jawes wide open in spite of all the Shriekings and Strivings wherewith she expressed a Reluctancy to Taking of it’. Mercy Short had seen her parents and a brother and sister killed by Indians, who took her off into captivity among them. She had been kept prisoner among people whose language she didn’t understand, and she was probably forced to eat food she found loathsome. It seems cleat that her Affliction, at least, stemmed from the trauma she had undergone. Sometimes she underwent ‘another sort of plague’, during which she was ‘excessively Witty ... Insolent and Abusive to such as were about her’, and ‘extravagant as a Wild-Cat’. She would mock anyone who whose clothes smacked of ‘Curiosity or Ornament.’ No one tried to stop her, and she later retained no memory of what she had said. Her Affliction had given her a language to express both grief and anger.

During the period of the Witchhunt, witchcraft became the crimen exceptum, which meant that the witch, once arrested, might well be denied all information about her accusers. It was even possible that she would not be told what she was supposed to have done. If she managed to get an advocate, he could expect the judges to threaten him with excommunication for defending heresy; failing that, he might be treated like the witch herself and have all the evidence withheld from him. The judges would only give him access to information about the case if they were satisfied that he was on their side – which was a poor look-out for the witch. On the other hand, she might expect the prosecution to take evidence from excommunicated persons, from associates and accomplices in the crime (i.e. other witches under torture), from her own servants or employers, or her children. Even the evidence of known perjurers was accepted – it was presumed that they were speaking out of zeal for the faith. In fact, evidence was accepted from all sorts of people whose testimony would not normally be admitted in court. Nor was internal consistency required of these witnesses. ‘In exceptional crimes,’ opined the Freiburg Legal Faculty, ‘agreement as to time and place are not required.’

The conduct of the Salem judges shows how easily the relatively moderate English Witchcraft Act could be bent to serve the needs of a more thoroughgoing panic. Thomas Brattle set it down that the accusers, who were supposed to be so afflicted by their demonic visitors that they were ‘wasted, consumed and pined’ (as defined by the Act), were perfectly healthy outside the courtroom. Brattle heard the judge instruct the first jury that this was irrelevant to the case.

The witch was almost always required to confess, however, conversely, suspected witches who maintained their denials often escaped death, though the use of torture made this an uncommon occurrence. Such acquittals were a clear defeat for the judges, who arrested only those who they were sure were guilty. Not everyone who spontaneously confessed was convicted: they might be medically examined, declared insane and released. The Salem judges did not act on all the accusations of the Afflicted: when they cried out against the mother-in-law of Judge Corwin (one Margaret Thacher), no charges were pressed. (There is a curious parallel here with the Bishop Auckland case, when the accusations against the policewoman engaged in the investigation were ‘proved to be complete nonsense’.)

Judges sometimes tried to trick their prisoners into confessing by promising that they would be merciful in return. If the witch did confess, the judge might then abandon the case to another judge who could condemn her to death with a clear conscience. Or he might figuratively cross his fingers, saying to himself that what he had meant was that he would be merciful to himself or to the state. Very occasionally, confessors were given life imprisonment. This happened at Salem, where those who persisted in their denials were hanged. The accused were not told of this policy, and it was a little while before they understood how they should behave, if they wanted to live.

Cotton Mather maintained that the Salem Afflicted made their accusations against the witches quite spontaneously, but his contemporary Robert Calef, who went to watch him at work on Margaret Rule, has left a rather different account. Margaret Rule’s Affliction occurred about six months after the Salem witchhunt had subsided, but Mather presents it as a manifestation of the same diabolical activity. According to Calef, Margaret Rule was lying in bed ‘of a healthy countenance, about seventeen Years old, lying very still and speaking very little, apparently light-headed.’ Mather put her through her paces:

‘You have seen the Blackman, haven’t you? Now the Witches Scratch you and Pinch you and Bite you, don’t they? ... What, do there a great many Witches sit upon you?’

  He [Cotton Mather] put his hand on her Breast and Belly, viz on the Cloaths over her and felt ‘a Living Thing’, as he said, which moved the Father also to feel and some others. ‘Don’t you feel the Live Thing in the Bed?’

  ‘No,’ said Margaret, ‘that is only fancie.’ But Mather wrote the Live Thing up as fact in Another Brand Pluckt Out of the Burning.

‘Do you have an erection?’ the police asked Paul Ingram at one session where he was trying to reconstruct a scene of abuse. ‘I think so,’ he said. ‘Are you rubbing yourself against her?’ (‘Her’ = Julie) ‘Uh, yes,’ said Paul. ‘Is someone taking pictures?’ asked a detective. Paul obediently ‘saw’ a camera. This situation was probably exacerbated by the fact that the police suggested to Paul at the outset that he dispense with a lawyer. Paul ‘willingly’ agreed.

The last witch to be hanged in England died in 1682. The Witchcraft Act remained on the Statute Book till 1951, but it was used only to prosecute fortune-tellers and clairvoyants. There is no modern offence of witchcraft and satanic ritual abuse is not an offence as such. On the other hand, some child protection workers seem to behave like witchhunters from the moment they suspect ritual abuse. They ignore or distort children’s own words. Jean La Fontaine cites a little girl who, when asked where she was when she was abused, answered, ‘in the shadow’, then: ‘In the trees.’ Her interviewer rendered this as ‘going to the woods at night’.

Asked about the danger of putting words into a client’s mouth, Valerie Sinason pointed out that a child often needs to be asked enabling questions. True enough, and a parent can at least go and do the washing up, write her novel, empty the airing cupboard, with the words: ‘If you want to talk about it, I’m here.’ The therapist or social worker has a child brought to her who has already been removed from home; there are specific appointment times and the budget may be limited. The conditions are artificial from the start.

Child protection workers are well aware of the tricks abusers use to confuse and silence their victims. They know that an abused child may be too terrified to speak out: their problem is how to facilitate disclosure. They also know that corroborative evidence may be hard to come by. The child’s evidence is all they have to present, and most of them see abusers get off again and again because the child witnesses cannot stand up to cross-examination. ‘You wet the bed every night,’ a defence counsel asked one child, ‘and you think someone would want to sleep with you?’ It is easy for a child protection worker to feel that the scales of justice are weighted against children.

‘The moment you’re looking at how something is laid out or the procedures,’ Valerie Sinason said to me, ‘you’re not looking at “has something happened to these children?” The minute you’re asking, “Should someone have gone in at four in the morning or four in the afternoon,” and that’s the only focus, you’ve lost your bearings, when you should be thinking about the children.’

In 1986 a father of 15 children who were living on South Ronaldsay was convicted of physically abusing them and sent to prison. Once the father was gone, one daughter found the courage to repeat what she had told police months previously – that he had sexually abused them as well. At the time of the first ‘disclosure,’ several of the children were examined, but no evidence of abuse was found. This time, however, a medical examination did find symptoms of abuse, and the father was sentenced to another five years in prison. At this stage, the mother, who on her own admission had been ‘obsessed’ with her husband, decided she never wanted to see him again. She changed her name and the children’s (all reports have referred to the family as W and so shall I).

The Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSSPCC) suggested to the local children’s panel that the younger children in the W family be taken into care because they were in danger from the older children, who had been abused by their father, and were thus, according to prevailing theories, certain to become abusers themselves. The social workers interviewed one of the girls, a school-refuser who allegedly accused her brothers of gang-raping her (she now denies saying anything of the kind). All the children under 16 were taken into care, but the youngest two, aged three and four, were released after three days. The others came home six weeks later. However, 18 months after that, the children were removed again – dragged screaming from school in full view of their classmates.

A peripatetic teacher, Mr M, was appointed tutor to the school-refusing W girl, but in addition, he and his wife were asked by Orkney’s Chief Educational Psychologist to befriend the whole family. The Ms, and other families on the island, were deeply uneasy about the way the case had been handled. Mr and Mrs M wrote to the Social Services alleging that the guidelines laid down for taking children into care had been breached. On the day this letter was sent, police and social workers carried out the infamous ‘dawn raid’, removing the two M children, as well as seven other island children. None of these children had ever made any complaints of sexual abuse, a fact noted by Robert Black in his book Orkney: A Place of Safety?4

The W children had been undergoing ‘disclosure therapy’; and in the course of their interviews they allegedly said that the local minister was the head of a ritualistic abuse ring, and that he held ceremonies in the local quarry. During the ceremonies he would hook children out of the circle with his staff, and then abuse them. When the children were asked who was there, they were said to have named the nine children who were snatched away at dawn, and some of their parents.

At that time, the Scottish Office had produced two sets of guidelines for handling child abuse cases. Both state that the local doctor must be approached and asked if any of the children has been presenting unusual symptoms. This was not done. Nor were the children’s teachers approached for reports. After the removal, the Social Work Department got ‘pen-portraits’ of seven of the children from their head teacher, but did not approach their class teachers. It is normal practice in cases of suspected abuse to hold a multi-disciplinary case conference – which would normally include doctors, teachers, district nurses, play-leaders, and anyone else directly involved with the family. No case conference was held. The guidelines also set down that social as well as medical assessments should be made. No home or social background reports were prepared. Also – and again in contravention of the guidelines – no contact with the parents was permitted. That meant no letters, no phone calls. One of the families was Quaker, another Jewish. Rabbis were not allowed to visit, even if they had no connection with the family, nor were Quaker Elders. The children were not allowed to take any of their toys with them. They were subjected to an intimate medical examination for signs of abuse (this proved negative). They underwent frequent questioning: Liz McLean of RSSPCC carried out 40 interviews with five of the children over 13 days.

The RSSPCC interviewing technique sounds curious: the social worker asked a small child what it felt like to have her vaginal area touched. She replied that it felt funny. When asked if there was anything else she said that it tickled. ‘Who touched you there?’ they asked, and she said: ‘Mum.’ When asked, ‘what with?’ she said: ‘Hand.’ You might wonder what mother hasn’t touched her children’s genitals to wash them, change their nappies, or wipe their bottoms.

The children denied that anything bad had ever happened to them, but the social workers ignored that. If a child said nobody had hurt them, they would simply ask them again and again who it was. One child was asked to draw a picture of a circle with her family in it. There had to be a man in the middle, and she had to add herself and her best friend. The social workers were concerned about circles, because the minister was supposed to abuse children within a circle, but this drawing was anything but spontaneous. The foster mother who looked after two of the girls said they had been pressured into admitting that they were abused; that the interviewers had drawn a picture of the younger girl, and asked her to point to the parts the minister had touched. The child told her foster mother that she’d pointed to her genitals because she thought that was what the social workers wanted her to do. The social workers showed the elder girl a picture too, but she said she didn’t know who the minister was, and that he had never touched her. Another girl said ‘I was asked so often I got fed up with being asked, so I just said yes.’ One of the boys lost his temper with the interviewers and threw things at them.

I have read through transcripts of the actual interviews, but I am not allowed to quote them verbatim as they are subject to a legal moratorium ‘for the protection of the children’. I can only say that the questioning was so intrusive that it amounted to abuse; indeed, the transcripts are almost as horrifying to read as Coleman’s account of the satanic cult’s activities. One child protested that he didn’t like the interviews, but was told he had to keep coming to them. When this was raised at the subsequent inquiry, Liz McLean said: ‘There are times when the child can say no and when he will look at you and indicate that he wants to come.’

During the inquiry, counsel for Paul Lee (who was then Director of Social Work in Orkney) put it to one of the social workers that the child protection worker had an investigative role, and that the ritually abused child was one of the most difficult types of child to reach in an interview. The counsel suggested the children might be suffering from dissociative states – meaning that they would have erased the abuse from their conscious minds. These might have arisen from fear or been induced by the deliberate use of conditioning techniques. The social worker agreed, and added: ‘I think that the deeper the fear and the conditioning of a child then the more difficult they are to reach.’ Clearly, these were the assumptions that drove the questioning of the children. But how could the Orkney social workers tell the difference between a child whose trauma was hidden behind dissociative barriers and a child whose denials of abuse were the simple truth?

At the inquiry Paul Lee claimed that he did not regard the Orkney case as one of ritual abuse, but many documents concerning the case used the term and the headmaster of a school where one of the children was sent was specifically told that the boy’s possessions were being withheld because they might contain secret messages or have been used for ritual purposes. He was also told that letters and phone calls were being withheld because ‘there was concern about secret messages or coded messages possibly being included in any communication.’ In Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, Joan Coleman endorses the Orkney social workers’ actions, saying that objects, toys, letters or cards can act as warnings to silence children. However, the refusal of social workers to allow communication can cause dreadful trauma to children who have been removed from home with no warning and for no reason that they can understand.

There are ample signs that this case was seen as a crimen exceptum, a situation so awful that it excused all irregularities. Yet no evidence was ever discovered at Orkney, and the children were returned to their parents after Sheriff David Kelbie declared the proceedings invalid. Two of the children had said things which bore a marked similarity to certain things said by the W children, but according to Sheriff Kelbie, they had been said with the active encouragement of those conducting the interviews. The families were left to deal with their own feelings, as well as those of their traumatised and angry children.

‘A lot of pressure was put on the kids to “confess”,’ one of the mothers told me. ‘They were telling the truth to the police and the RSSPCC, who said they were lying, and it had a terrible effect on them.’ I asked her about the compulsory medical examination. ‘They had no choice. They were told we had consented, which we had not.’

The Bishop Auckland case was very different from the Orkney case. There is no doubt that the children involved in Bishop Auckland had been sexually abused, and their parents were not under suspicion. Far from being coerced, these children were willing participants in the investigation. Still, John Turner describes interviewing techniques similar to those used with the children of South Ronaldsay. He says one of the children was asked the same question 11 times until he gave the right answer. Another was asked: ‘Is there anything else you can tell us that can help us get them?’ The children were also repeatedly questioned by their parents, who were understandably anxious to discover exactly what had happened to them. Inappropriate questioning deprived three Ayrshire travelling families of their children for five years when a wife’s suspicions of her husband were elaborated into suggestions of ritualistic sex games. Social workers, among them Liz McLean, and police believed that a group of up to ninety adults was involved. This month the allegations were dismissed because the interview techniques were found to be improper. One of the children has said that she hated McLean. The younger children are now being returned to parents whom they no longer recognise.

‘I have seen transcripts of questioning that is incredibly primitive and awful to read,’ Sinason told me, ‘but one has also to bear in mind that when people are hearing children or adults saying things like this, it is so awful that it can make them behave in a way they wouldn’t normally in terms of insensitive questioning.’

I have no doubt that any suggestion of ritual child abuse, whenever it comes up, provokes deep anxieties. The investigators may say they don’t believe in the existence of satanic cults, but in any case that involves ritual, this possibility must always lurk scarily in the shadows. The results can be catastrophic. When I was researching my novel about the English witchhunt, Malefice, it became clear to me that the individual small-scale witchhunt, however barbaric, functioned as a mechanism to release pressure in the community. The large-scale witchhunts, by contrast, ended in exhaustion and disillusion. Both the Orkney and Bishop Auckland cases have features of the latter. An original accusation was elaborated to draw in a large number of people. In each case there were suggestions of sabbat-style rituals – in Orkney they were sorry ones, with the participants dressed as Ninja Turtles. At Bishop Auckland they were more impressive, with animals being sacrificed, children tortured, and even the devil putting in an appearance.

‘If you see people you care about not getting justice,’ says Sinason, ‘it is your duty to bring that to the attention of the proper structure.’ She also compares denial of satanic ritual abuse with Holocaust denial. I was brought up by people who had lived in Nazi Germany and I can see her point: my mother told me how easy it was to dismiss stories about the concentration camps as atrocity stories similar to those put about in the First World War. But no one wants to live in a society where the informer rules. There are many more ways than one of tormenting a child.

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Vol. 17 No. 8 · 20 April 1995

To judge by her article on ‘Satanic Child Abuse’ (LRB, 23 March), Leslie Wilson seems genuinely to believe satanic abuse is a myth and that the many people working in this field are fanatical extremists engaged on a modern witch-hunt. The truth is that this abuse happens and most of us are more involved with helping the victims than with catching the perpetrators. But unless it is exposed, there is little hope of doing either effectively.

Ten years ago, I was as sceptical as she appears to be. I regarded the subjects of witchcraft and black magic as boring mumbo-jumbo. However, I was forced to accept the reality of satanist abuse from hearing my own patients’ accounts and those from other members of Rains (Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support). These survivors have no contact, yet their descriptions of abuse are remarkably similar to each other and to those given by children. My account of cult practices was a compilation of this information and was confirmed by many sources.

Both my written pieces from which she quoted were strictly limited in length. Hence not everything is explained. Had Leslie Wilson interviewed me before writing her article, answers and some evidence would have been provided. For instance, the clinical outcome after disclosure was improvement in all cases with a steady reduction of symptoms. Were she a clinician, she would know that both retraction and an initial increase in disturbance, when first disclosing, are common features of abuse survivors and do not imply that the allegations are false. As she has mentioned the so-called ‘False Memory Syndrome’, whose proponents dispute the validity of any recovered memories, I must point out that none of my patients had forgotten their involvement in satanism, although some traumatic memories had been repressed. These were not recovered through hypnosis.

Why is it so hard to believe that professional people could be members of satanic cults? Religious and political extremists have been members of most professions from time immemorial. All the criminal activities, such as child abuse and pornography, child murder and drug-dealing, allegedly performed by satanists, are committed by others who are not satanists. Other cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh have brought about mass slaughter. Personally, I, too, have difficulty with the concept of satanic worship and I am no nearer to believing in black or any other sort of magic than I ever was, but it is almost equally hard to understand how grown men, mostly from the professional classes, can go along with the extraordinary initiation rites involved in Freemasonry.

Joan Coleman

I was impressed by Leslie Wilson’s article. In the course of reading the British and American literature on the subject I have been astonished and appalled by the willingness of writers and specialists with impressive qualifications to repeat manifest falsehoods and absurdities, and their failure to recognise grotesque, transparent and wicked miscarriages of justice. However, there are some points in her article that are worth going into in more detail.

Leslie Wilson briefly mentions the 1980 book Michelle Remembers as providing the main impetus for the anti-satanism panic. This book is so totally fantastic that it is hard to understand how anybody, let alone responsible professionals, could have taken it seriously. Its claims of involvement in a satanic cult closely parallel Rosemary’s Baby and Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. It is written from the standpoint of ultra-traditional Catholicism and includes claims of supernatural events such as the appearance to the satanic cultists of the Devil himself (who prophesies that Armageddon will come in the Eighties as a result of a Soviet-Iranian alliance, an idea that was then popular with US right-wing Christians). Like the two other best known US ‘satanist survivor’ books, Lauren Stratford’s Satan Underground and Mike Warnke’s The Satan Seller, it includes autobiographical information that is demonstrably false. There are two similar British works by Doreen Irvine and Audrey Harper, chiefly sold in evangelical bookshops. Neither is checkable at any point and neither of the authors states that she has contacted the police although they both claim to have witnessed serious criminal offences.

Wilson mentions the US day-care centre satanism cases as being parallel to the British ones. The recent Ayrshire case, where a group of children in care were returned to their parents, gives clear indication of cultural contagion of British investigations by these earlier US cases. One allegation in Ayrshire was of sexual abuse in a hot air balloon, a detail that occurred in the 1988 Edenton North Carolina day-care satanism trial. This latter case, incidentally, was remarkable – even by the standards of such cases – for the highly bizarre nature of the allegations. Robert Kelley, a day-care centre proprietor, was imprisoned after children told tales of his shooting babies, taking children in his car as he robbed banks, throwing them to sharks and taking them for rides in a spaceship.

The parallels between Britain and the US should not be pressed too far, however. There is a major difference in that, while most of the British accused have been members of what it is now fashionable to call the underclass, the US cases have mostly taken place in middle-class settings and have originated not in interventions by the authorities but in acts of moral vigilantism by parents against alleged abusers. This difference is probably due to the fact that while the British satanism panic is largely confined to professionals in social and psychiatric work, and is spread by books and seminars aimed at a limited audience, the US panic is more general and popular, being spread by other means including rumours, sermons and TV talk shows.

Wilson is certainly correct to point to historical parallels such as the witch mania and allegations made against heretics. But she misses the most relevant of all historical parallels: that of Jewish ritual murder of Christian children.

These stories, common in the Middle Ages, were revived in the 1905 Russian pogroms and by the Nazis. In the latter cases they were combined with tales of a Jewish plot to overthrow society. Some modern anti-satanists make similar allegations. Dr Joan Coleman, who is quoted in the article, believes that Satanists are involved in drugs, arms smuggling and ‘snuff movies’ (another contemporary myth). Even more disturbing than Dr Coleman’s ideas are the fantasies of Dr Corydon Hammond, a US abuse specialist who claimed at a conference endorsed by the American Medical Association that satanism had been brought to the US by one Dr Greenbaum, allegedly a Hasidic Jew who had shared Kabbalistic secrets with the Nazis and had been brought to the US by the CIA in 1945.

When nonsense like this can be taken seriously it is not surprising that attempts are being made to use the satanism myth to revive other images of child sacrifice. Apparently British neo-Nazis have recently been circularising nurseries with leaflets about ‘Jewish ritual murder’. Those who, like Valerie Sinason, compare satanism sceptics to Holocaust deniers might care to reflect on those parallels. One can only hope some of the believers will read Leslie Wilson’s historical summary, since the ignorance their own writings show about the witch mania seems as total as the confidence with which they proclaim that ritual abuse dates back hundreds of years. Children for the Devil, a book by the British journalist Tim Tate which is taken seriously by many professionals, attempts to prove this claim in a section that cites as evidence confessions made during the witch mania as well as blatant historical forgeries.

There is another historical parallel worth pursuing. Although the Malleus Maleficarum was written by two Dominicans, Protestant witch-hunters used it as a manual and their works were in turn quoted by Catholics. The modern satanism panic is kept alive by a similarly bizarre set of allies. On one hand there are evangelical Christian groups such as the Outreach Trust; on the other liberal professionals. Nor does this exhaust the list of strange bedfellows. The group Accuracy About Abuse, which champions the accuracy of recovered memories, is taken seriously in the media in spite of being run by Marjorie Orr, whose main credentials as a therapist consist of being the astrologer to the Daily Express.

Particularly disturbing is the role played in maintaining the panic by some feminists such as Beatrix Campbell. It is hard to imagine the reason for this since in many of the cases women have been accused (unlike cases concerning genuine child sex rings, which rarely involve women); at least one US case, that of Kelly Michaels, was clearly influenced by anti-lesbian prejudice.

The satanism panic in the last decade has been so clearly irrational that one cannot help speculating on the motivation behind it. While many of its proponents may be well-meaning, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some of them are people harbouring sadistic fantasies which they project onto others. Certainly, Wilson’s quote from one professional who justifies oppressive questioning of children by saying that some children really want to continue even when they say no is disturbingly similar to the rationalisations of real-life child abusers.

Roger Sandell
Richmond, Surrey

Vol. 17 No. 11 · 8 June 1995

Joan Coleman (Letters, 20 April) is quite wrong to suggest that I might regard the subjects of witchcraft and black magic as boring mumbo-jumbo, as she apparently once did. I find them fascinating. Nor did I set out to prove that the extreme satanic cult she describes doesn’t exist: I went into the area with an open mind. I have no problem believing that people belong to dubious cults, and I am unsurprised by any cruelty that human beings carry out on each other. But this is meant to be a cult of mass murder, and there is no evidence that its members exist or ever have existed, or that they have ever killed anyone. There is ample evidence that during the Great Witch-Hunt the authorities, convinced of the cult’s reality, killed thousands of people.

‘Why is it so hard,’ she asks, ‘to believe that professional people could be members of satanic cults?’ She has misread me. Of course professional people can belong to all sorts of strange organisations. However, as she well knows, people who believe in satanic ritual abuse explain the lack of evidence by the hypothesis that well-placed satanists are actively involved in a conspiracy to suppress it. If she were to reread my piece, she would see that conspiracy theory is part of belief in the satanic sabbat. I don’t think she and her colleagues are necessarily fanatical witchhunters, but the evidence of history is that ordinary decent people can commit the most appalling injustices: all it needs is an ideology powerful enough to wreck their sense of proportion.

Leslie Wilson

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