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Satanic abuse and McMartin: a global village rumour



new statesman   
27 February 1998             


Speak of the Devil: Tales of satanic abuse in contemporary England by Jean La Fontaine, Cambridge University Press, 1998


THE IDEA THAT WE ARE are surrounded by a secret, highly organised cult of satanists intent on the sexual abuse and murder of young children is a relatively recent one. This idea first appeared in California in the early 1980s and was exported to Britain towards the end of the same decade. But the general notion that Christian society might be under threat from a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping witches is much older.


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many scholars accepted the existence of a society of witches who flew through the air astride rams, pigs or broomsticks and gathered together to engage in the orgiastic worship of their master Satan. In continental Europe these ritual orgies were sometimes imagined in vivid sexual detail. The handbooks of witch-finders and the testimony of those who confessed often had an overtly erotic or obscene character. They became, in effect, a body of legitimate pornography for an educated elite of bishops, ministers, magistrates and judges.

By turns fascinated and horrified by its vivid
sexual content, many of those who heard evidence of witchcraft suspended their critical judgement. They unsceptically accepted accounts of crimes which were unlikely or impossible and came to believe unreservedly in the reality of an evil conspiracy which did not in fact exist. As a result countless innocent men and women were convicted of offences they had not committed and many were executed or burned alive.


Some twenty-five years ago a new form of testimony, which initially seemed to bear no resemblance to the kinds of fantasy which enthralled our Christian forebears, began to fascinate the educated classes of America and Europe. It emerged when social workers and therapists began to focus their most urgent attention on the crime of child sexual abuse.


Once child sexual abuse had been redefined not simply as a social ill, which it undoubtedly was and is, but as the supreme evil of our age, it was perhaps inevitable that ancient demonological fantasies would be mobilised once again. The potency of such fantasies was illustrated in 1980 with the publication in the United States of a book containing a very unusual case history.


In Michelle Remembers, the patient Michelle Smith, writing with the help of her Canadian psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Pazder (whom she eventually married), gives a vivid account of how she was supposedly imprisoned during her childhood by a satanic cult. The members of the cult supposedly tortured her, forced her to defaecate on a crucifix, raped and sodomised her with candles, butchered still-born babies in front of her and imprisoned her naked in a snake-filled cage. After a year of captivity her Christian faith eventually triumphed over the power of Satan and she was allowed to return home. She is then supposed to have entirely repressed the memory of her ordeal until she entered therapy with Dr Pazder more than twenty years later. The book that they wrote together almost immediately became a bestseller.

Partly because its sexual and sado-masochistic content was masked by its holy intentions, Michelle Remembers appealed powerfully both to evangelical Christians who were anxious about the revival of Satanism, and to what might be termed 'sleeping Christians within the caring professions. It also appealed to therapists who believed that it was possible to repress the memories of horrific sexual assaults. As Pazder's ideas gradually coalesced with general anxieties about religious cults and sexual abuse, the notion of a large-scale conspiracy to abuse children began to seem plausible.

THE EVENTS WHICH LED to a full-scale satanic panic in California took place in Manhattan Beach during the summer of 1983. It was here that a thirty-eight-year-old mother, Judy Johnson, who was both devoutly religious and psychiatrically disturbed, concluded on the basis of no firm evidence that her two-year-old son had been anally abused at his daycare nursery by a male teacher. Her own anxieties were officially communicated to two hundred other parents and soon counsellors began to subject young children to a barrage of leading questions designed to elicit 'disclosures'. Then, as Judy Johnson's claims became increasingly bizarre, the word spread that the school at the centre of the panic - the McMartin Preschool - was actually the cover for a sex ring.

After a TV reporter had filed a sensational story on these Californian horrors an outside consultant was called in. He was none other than psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder. His theory that McMartin was the visible tip of a vast international satanic conspiracy was eagerly adopted by some parents and therapists and used to obtain yet more 'disclosures' from children. Before long the McMartin case had become a coast-to-coast TV sensation, and a full scale national satanic panic had been launched. (Eventually all charges against the accused in the McMartin case would be either rejected by a jury or dismissed.)

Given the porousness of our own therapeutic and social work cultures to American influence, it was only a matter of time before this Californian rumour began to have effects here. The first allegation involving satanic sexual abuse appears to have been made in Congleton in Cheshire in 1987. It was followed in 1988 by two better known cases in Nottingham and in Rochdale and by a series of other cases totalling more than eighty. In a number of regions of Britain groups of social workers became seized by the conviction that they had a high and holy duty to protect innocent children against an evil conspiracy whose tentacles stretched deep into the establishment, into free-masonry and even into the police forces who were supposed to be investigating it. 

As was the case in America, versions of this fantasy were taken up by powerful advocates in the media. One of the most significant voices was that of the journalist Bea Campbell. Campbell was closely associated with Judith Dawson, one of the social workers involved in the Nottingham case. With Dawson she now became one of the leading apologists for the satanic panic which had been unleashed. During the course of 1990 the New Statesman itself published four articles, three by Campbell and one by Dawson, bearing titles such as 'Satanic Claims Vindicated' and 'Vortex of Evil', in which belief in the reality of satanic cults dedicated to child abuse was fervently canvassed.


ONE SCHOLAR WHO MIGHT have been expected to side with Campbell was the anthropologist Jean La Fontaine. Like Bea Campbell she had emerged during the early 1990s as an influential defender of the social workers and paediatricans who had been involved in the Cleveland crisis. Here, during the summer of 1987, more than a hundred children had been diagnosed as having been sexually abused on the basis of an 'anal dilatation test' which would subsequently be medically discredited.


Jean La Fontaine's book Child Sexual Abuse, which was published in 1990, opened with an account of the Cleveland crisis. From this account it was clear that her sympathies, like those of Bea Campbell, lay with the social workers and the paediatricians who had 'diagnosed' the children and, in many cases, removed them from their parents. More generally her book was evidently deeply influenced by what might be called 'the Californian model' of child protection. Clearly expressing her own view that 'children do not often make false allegations of sexual abuse' she completely ignored the various criticisms of 'disclosure therapy' which were made in the Butler Sloss report on Cleveland - which implied that children might be pressurised by adults into making false allegations.


She also appeared to accept, without any reliable empirical evidence, many articles of Californian lore, including the idea that traumatic memories of sexual abuse could be repressed and subsequently recovered through therapy. 'Some victims,' she wrote 'have dealt with the pain of the experience [of child sexual abuse] by burying it deep in their memories and it takes time for the therapeutic process to reveal it.'


Although the tone of La Fontaine's book was more moderate and less strident than that of Beatrix Campbell in her account of the Cleveland crisis (Unofficial Secrets), their attitudes towards allegations of sexual abuse were strikingly similar. Yet from 1990 onwards what seemed to be a natural alliance gradually began to break down. The main factor in what eventually became a dramatic parting of  ways was the gradual dissemination among British social workers and therapists of the belief in satanic ritual abuse.


As an anthropologist, La Fontaine approached the stories of satanic abuse from a privileged perspective. Having studied witchcraft-beliefs in Africa she knew about the role of fantasy. At the same time she was acutely aware of the lack of evidence for satanic rites in modern Britain. These rites supposedly involved human sacrifice, child murder and cannibalism. But, as Rosie Waterhouse wrote in the Independent on Sunday in 1990, 'Investigations have produced no bodies, no bones, no bloodstains, nothing.' When Jean La Fontaine was commissioned by the Department of Health to undertake research into the allegations she effectively reached the same conclusion. For although she did substantiate three cases where ritual had been used during the sexual abuse of children these did not involve any organised satanic cult.


La Fontaine's 1994 government report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse, was brief and to the point. Speak of the Devil, contains a fuller account of her research. Having introduced a historical and anthropological perspective she goes on to analyse the geographical distribution of the satanic abuse cases in Britain from 1987-92.


A discussion of the lack of evidence for any of the allegations leads on to an account of the role played by social workers and children in the emergence of satanic scares. She goes on to make it clear that although satanic fantasies have all but disappeared from social work stories told by adult 'survivors' of satanic cults are still current. These stories are usually elicited by eager therapists and La Fontaine is particularly perceptive in her analysis of the effects of credulity on those who tell such stories: 

Sympathetic acceptance of a story slides easily into a curiosity to learn more. When the listener is eager to hear more, gratitude for support may impel the young person to . . . find ever more dramatic memories to recount. This approach to abuse gives no indication of how to tell when the account has ended; the victim's claim to have no more to tell may not be accepted but be interpreted as a refusal to tell something even worse than what has already been recounted. 

She also writes well about the role played by children in satanic abuse scares. Having given an example of a substantiated case of sexual abuse in which more than a dozen children gave perfectly accurate evidence at their first interview, she stresses that she does not believe that child witnesses are necessarily unreliable or that they habitually lie. Instead she argues that what is presented as the testimony of children in most satanic abuse cases is almost always an adult construction. This comes about either because of selective over-interpretation of innocent remarks or through coercive or suggestive interviewing. She quotes the words of one girl who retracted her original untrue account and was asked why she had given it: 'You lot are into those things and the police and social workers wanted to hear them so I thought I had to say something and I went from there.'


THESE ARE MERELY SOME examples of this book's strengths and many more could be given. Speak of the Devil, however, also has a number of serious weaknesses. Nobody reading La Fontaine's book would ever suspect that the original Broxtowe satanic abuse case in Nottingham had led to the commissioning of a report from a Joint Enquiry Team of social workers and police officers. The report was completed in June 1990. It anticipated almost all Jean La Fontaine's later conclusions and warned that if ritual abuse presentations did not cease there was a likelihood of a witch-hunt developing which might result in grave injustice. The report was suppressed and the presentations continued. Satanic scares spread across Britain and in June 1994, in Pembroke, west Wales, six men whose solicitors believed them to be completely innocent were sentenced to a total of 53 years in prison.


Speak of the Devil remains silent both about the Nottingham JET Report and about Pembroke. Since many of the satanic elements had been carefully edited out of the Pembroke trial in order to secure convictions, it could conceivably be argued that this was not a case of satanic abuse. But the omission of any mention of the JET report seems both odd and inexcusable.


Another weakness of La Fontaine's study is its narrow focus on England and Wales. One effect of this is to exclude the Orkney and the Ayr cases altogether. Even more serious however is the decision to exclude from consideration the Californian origins of the modern satanic abuse fantasy. For what happened in Britain from 1987 onwards was not a national phenomenon. It was the result of a global village rumour whose specific origins, brilliantly documented by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in their outstanding book Satan's Silence (Basic Books, New York, 1995), can actually be examined.


From studying those origins we may learn the important lesson that national, or international moral panics do not generally have diffuse beginnings. They usually have a specific source. They often involve the construction of a compelling narrative by a small number of individuals. And they can involve the demonisation of a particular institution.


This lesson has far more than academic significance. For as Jean La Fontaine's analysis of one moral panic is published it is reasonably clear that we in Britain are already in the midst of another - this time involving children's homes. If we are to avoid the current panic about children's homes having yet more catastrophic consequences in this country than the satanic abuse scare had in America it is vitally important that we should learn this particular lesson quickly. The publication of Speak of the Devil serves as timely reminder of some of the other historical lessons we also need to learn.


A shorter version of this review appeared in The New Statesman, 27 February 1998



Richard Webster, 2002