From Evidence Of Abuse To Abuse Of Evidence

Roger Sandell
Magonia 38, January 1991.

A few months ago the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) endorsed stories of satanic abuse in a press conference highly publicised in the national press (a position from which it appears to be trying to back down). Such claims were featured prominently at a national conference on child abuse held this summer, attended by police, psychiatrists and social workers.

A number of children have been taken into care in a case in Rochdale that the parents claim involves false allegations of satanism. Most surprising of all, Beatrix Campbell, a well-known feminist and radical journalist, has endorsed such claims in a TV documentary and articles in the New Statesman and the Communist Party publication Marxism Today. In order to examine what is going on it is best to take the questions arising one at a time.

First of all: are there any satanists? The stereotype that is being presented, of groups in highly civilised societies who kidnap and murder children as part of sinister rites, is a very old archetype. As far back as first-century Rome the Catelline conspirators were said to have sealed their plans with an oath on the body of a murdered child. Since then similar stories have been told about the early Christians, medieval heretics, the Knights Templar, and the victims of the witch mania. Such accusations against Jews occur repeatedly in medieval history and apart from their revival in Nazi Germany were also prominent in the 1905 Russian pogroms (in this context it is striking that the emergence of ritual abuse stories in Britain has coincided with the revival of such claims in literature produced by British neo-Nazis). (1)

However, Jews, Templars, etc. were certainly not imaginary in spite of the fabricated stories told about them. With satanists and witches the position is more complex. The revival of witchcraft in the twentieth century can be traced to the writings of Dr Margaret Murray who argued that the victims of the witch trials were practitioners of traditional paganism, surviving as a widely popular religion until at least the seventeenth century. Although this view has found little favour with serious historians it has exercised a big influence over popular accounts and stories about witches. In all probability it inspired the writings of Gerald B. Gardiner who in the 1940s and 50s claimed to be the high priest of a surviving coven, of whose rituals he gave guarded descriptions in his book Witchcraft Today. (2)

Gardiner’s work seems to have inspired the whole proliferation of modern witch groups, with a variety of different features. To judge by some elements of the (presumably self-devised) rituals he describes, Gardiner seems likely to have been a flagellant sado-masochist for whom witchcraft served as an element of sexual theatre. Other witch groups have simply served to confer some historical element to vague pantheist beliefs; while since the 1960s others have been explicitly based on the idea of witchcraft as a feminine religion worshipping a mother goddess and preserving the memory of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women victims of male inquisition – an idea which makes the involvement of the feminist Beatrix Campbell in promoting fear of witchcraft highly ironic.

While the terms witchcraft and satanism have generally been used interchangeably in recent controversies, the record concerning satanism is somewhat more confused. Many aspects of modern occultism owe a large part of their origins to the occult revival in late nineteenth-century France. In particular to the spectacular hoaxes of Leo Taxil, the author of such works as Satan in the Nineteenth Century. Taxil attracted large amounts of publicity in 1890s Paris with his claims to be a renegade Freemason, revealing the true secrets of how Masons worshipped Satan, who in his turn manifested himself at Lodge meetings.

The clergy and political right took Taxil seriously enough to buy his books and attend his meetings in large numbers, and to subscribe money for him to rescue 'Helen Vaughan', a young woman he claimed was under threat of human sacrifice from the satanic Masons. They were seriously embarrassed when Taxil confessed his hoaxes, which parallel closely some more recent anti-satanic claims. (3) (A recent figure very reminiscent of Leo Taxil is the confidence trickster Denley Mainwaring-Knight who a few years ago was sent to prison for having defrauded several clergymen and wealthy church-goers out of large sums of money by claiming he needed it for his crusade to expose a satanic ring led by Lord Whitelaw.)
Taxil attracted large amounts of publicity in 1890s Paris with his claims to be a renegade Freemason, revealing the true secrets of how Masons worshipped Satan, who in his turn manifested himself at Lodge meetings

It is not clear whether Taxil was responsible for the vogue among the clerical right of the period for believing that their enemies were directly inspired by Satan or whether he played on already existing beliefs, but such beliefs were not confined to France. In Czarist Russia, the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of Zion first appeared as an appendix to a work on the coming of the Antichrist by Sergei Nilius, a religious mystic. The antisemitic Russian Black Hundred gangs of 1905 took St Michael slaying the dragon from the Book of Revelations as their emblem, a device later copied by the Romanian Fascist iron Guard.

An important part in moving satanism from such obscure milieu to public consciousness has undoubtedly been the novels of Dennis Wheatley, whose fictions clearly owe something to the world of French right-wing clerical antisemitism. His heroic fighter against satanism is the Duc de Richelieu, a French aristocrat, and his satanic foes are quasi-political figures engaged in fomenting revolution. Michael Goss has pointed out that one Dennis Wheatley novel, The Haunting of Toby Jugg concerning a youth who gradually realises that his foster parents’ strange fancy-dress parties are witchcraft rituals, strikingly resembles satanic abuse tales.

Once a stereotype has been established there are those who seek to live it out as a means of profit or self-publicity. In the case of satanism the pioneer of this was Aleister Crowley, who compensated for a childhood spent in a Plymouth Brethren household obsessed with the Antichrist, by spending much of his life titillating the popular press with hints of orgies, human sacrifice and black masses. The black mass, though central to many popular images of witchcraft, played little role in the witch-trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and seems to owe its origin to eighteenth-century tales of the Hell Fire Club and similar groups. It did not emerge into its present stereotype until the nineteenth-century French anti-satanic scares, and its present predominance as a stereotype of witchcraft appears to be due once again to Dennis Wheatley, and to the 1950s book The Satanic Mass by T.F. Rhodes, a work full of misinformation. (4)

The most prominent recent imitator of Crowley has been Anton Sandor LaVey, a Californian (of course) self-publicist who founded the Church of Satan in the 1960s. Since then he has frequently been featured in the press for activities such as demanding the US Government appoint satanist chaplains for his followers in the armed forces. Many modern anti-satanist books contain lurid accounts of LaVey’s activities. In addition, satanism seems to be a popular theme for pornography. Antony Summers and Steve Dorrell’s book on the Profumo affair refers to orgies with a satanist theme taking place in London in the early 1960s. (5)

So much for the origins of modern witches and satanists. Are they abusing children? There is nothing inherently improbable in the idea, since sexual exploitation of disciples is a recurring theme in the more cultist and leader-oriented varieties of religion. Among many examples of this are the careers of Ron Hubbard and the Bhagwan Sri, the recent sexual scandals around US evangelists, and the child sexual abuse practised at the evangelically run Kincora Boys’ Home in Northern Ireland.

The Independent on Sunday, a newspaper that over the past few months has shown a commendable readiness to examine satanic abuse claims in a serious and critical manner, has found that in the past decade some six or so self-proclaimed satanists have been found guilty in British courts of sex offences against children, a figure which should be set against the thirty or more Christian clergymen found guilty of similar offences in the same period. However, the facts in the cases bear as little relation to what is being alleged by anti-satanist crusaders as the reality of village charms and curses bore to the tales told at witch trials. The cases concerned involved single individuals and the forms taken by the abuse differed little from what is commonly reported in other child sex-abuse cases.

By contrast the idea of ritual abuse, as being put around by its proponents, involves mass ceremonies with elaborate rituals at which babies and other children are habitually sacrificed. This is apparently present to a degree that permeates all society. According to Gordon Thomas, the author of the widely available recent book Enslaved, there are 100,000 satanists in Britain who include senior police officers and Salvation Army members. At American seminars claims have been made that 50,000 human sacrifices take place every year in the USA – twice the FBI figures for murders of all types.

What evidence is produced in support of these claims? At seminars 'experts' claim to have anonymous informers who tell tales that bear suspicious resemblance to long-established apocryphal stories. The NSPCC press statement included an anonymous claim of a sacrifice at which a dead baby was cooked in a microwave, a claim that pretty clearly derives from a US rumour concerning a baby-sitter who puts a baby into a microwave while under the influence of LSD.

The Nottingham case, which was the subject of Beatrix Cambell’s Dispatches programme provides a lot more detail in support of such claims than is generally given, but merely succeeded in underlining the problems with such evidence. Briefly, the case centres on a group of children on a Nottingham housing estate, members of an extended family, several of the adults of which were in 1988 sentenced to prison for a variety of child sexual abuse offences. Under the subsequent care of foster parents some (but not, sceptics claim, all) of these children started to tell strange tales and exhibit curious phobias.

Foster parents and social workers deny claims made in an official enquiry into the case that they were involved in prompting the children. But it seems fairly clear, even from Beatrix Campbell’s account, that a fair degree of selectivity has been needed to fit them into supportable claims of satanic abuse. Some stories featured not only witches, but sinister Santa Clauses and clowns (sinister clowns seem long-established figures in urban legends; Loren Coleman has recorded several such cases in America). One child was apparently afraid to take a bath because the water might contain sharks, an idea that can hardly be based on real experience.

A tunnel leading off a local cemetery was found to have signs
that candles had been lit, and vague scratchings on walls that
were claimed to be 'satanic signs', even though they included
a cross and a CND emblem

Beatrix Campbell attempted to produce evidence in support of the idea of satanic abuse. This included a visit to Wollaton Hall, where children were claimed to have told of being abused (an aspect of the story that only seems to have been hinted at in published accounts is suggestions that 'powerful people' were involved). No mention was made of the fact that the Hall is now a museum rather than a stately home, but the camera lingered over a statue of a satyr and a mural of signs of the zodiac, features that could be found at many old houses. A tunnel leading off a local cemetery, apparently a popular resort of prostitutes, tramps and glue-sniffers, was found to have an 'altar' (a small alcove in fact), signs that candles had been lit, and vague scratchings on walls that were claimed to be 'satanic signs', even though they included a cross and a CND emblem.

Regular Magonia readers may have been struck by the resemblance all of this seems to bear to the hunt around various stately homes and old paintings for clues to the treasure of Rennes le Chateau, or Andy Collins’s psychic questing, in which mysterious messages and artifacts guide Collins and his followers as they travel the country to do battle with the spirits of long-dead magicians, and it is certainly hard to take it any more seriously. (6)

What really happened in Nottingham remains obscure, since most media descriptions have given little basic information such as an account of evidence given at the trial of family members. It is certainly quite possible that the abuse carried out involved the watching or making of pornographic videos with a witchcraft theme, or threats to children that the 'bogeyman' or similar figures would punish them if they told anyone what was happening. The abuse may have involved drugs, or left the children so traumatised as to be unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.

However, the proponents of the satanic stories seem to have attempted to conceal major problems. One child’s story as recounted by Beatrix Campbell describes having her stomach cut open – something which would presumably leave scars. The satanic rituals, including mass chanting and human and animal sacrifices are said to have occurred in a council house on a large estate, without attracting the attention of neighbours. Proponents are fond of pointing out that there are many ways of abusing children that go unpunished because of the difficulty of proving them in court. This is probably true, but child abuse of the type alleged in Nottingham hardly comes into this category, since it involves claims of sacrifice of babies, of whose birth one would expect some record, and the use of costumes and ritual equipment, some of which one would expect to have turned up in the normal post-arrest search of a suspect’s house.

So where are these stories coming from? The genesis of the popular fears of satanism can be traced back to the late sixties and early seventies. The counter-culture of the period saw a revival of occultism and similar beliefs,and the Manson gang case exposed the more sinister side of the cultist beliefs that this might lead to. The early seventies, with Watergate, US defeat in Vietnam and the 1973 Middle East War followed by energy crisis, led to a more general climate of uncertainty.

It was against this background that the revival of fundamentalist Christianity began. Its earliest manifestation, Hal Lindsay’s best-selling paperback The Late Great Planet Earth was marketed to resemble the occult paperbacks of the period, but came with a new message. (7) US weakness was a sign of apocalyptic times. Changes in social customs and the rise of occultism were the work of Satan. Moves towards European union were preparing the way for the coming of the Antichrist. Middle East crises were the first signs of Armageddon. Similar messages were the themes of the 1970s wave of films about Antichrist and satanism, such as The Exorcist and The Omen series, which centred on the theme of satanically possessed children, expressing the feeling of many parents that, as a result of the cultural changes of the sixties, their children were beyond their understanding.
The story that the Proctor and Gamble
'Man in the Moon' trademark represented Satan became so widespread as to constitute a major embarrassment to the company
As well as books and films these ideas began to express themselves in the field of rumour. The wave of mysterious mutilations of cattle led to tales not merely of alien landings and sinister government experiments, but to stories of secret groups of satanists. Other anti-satanist rumours began to proliferate. The story that the Proctor and Gamble 'Man in the Moon' trademark represented Satan became so widespread as to constitute a major embarrassment to the company. (This rumour, incidentally, is very reminiscent of the belief of Sergei Nilius that trademarks resembling stars were sinister signs of Jewish control.)

The book Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Padzer, a Canadian Catholic psychiatrist, was published in 1980. (8) He described how a patient, Michelle Smith, a young woman with a disturbed family background (whom he married after publication of the book) was hypnotically regressed. She told how, at the age of five, she had been consecrated to Satan in a series of ceremonies involving sexual abuse, human sacrifice and ultimately the appearance of Satan. Dr Padzer amplifies the story with a series of fantasies of his own. The Church of Satan is an organised body centuries old with its headquarters in Geneva. Satanic priests can be recognised because their middle fingers are cut off (a claim later anti-satanists appear to have dropped, presumably because it could easily be checked).

Followers of the abduction debate will be well aware of the controversies concerning the use of hypnotism. Although it seems possible that Michelle’s story was triggered by some suppressed memory of more mundane abuse as a child, many of the details closely parallel UFO abduction claims. She remembers being tied down on a table surrounded by strangely garbed figures. Ointments were smeared over her, her body cut, and blood drained out. At the climax, when she describes Satan wrapping his tail round her, a mysterious mark appeared on her neck. A photograph of this resembles some of the marks that are claimed as evidence in UFO abduction stories. It seems likely that had Michelle approached Budd Hopkins instead of Lawrence Padzer she would have been cited as one of his abductees.

Similar experiences and half memories crop up in other contexts. The book Operation Mind Control by Walter Bowart, seeking to prove claims of mind-control experiments by the US Government, includes the testimony of various former US soldiers who tell of abductee-type gaps in their memories. One involves an ex-soldier who claims to have a curious memory of standing in a room with others and watching while a robed man (described as “an Arab” in the context, but had the frame of reference been different could equally well have been a satanic priest) beheads another soldier. The witness claimed that this was an experiment to see if he had been reduced to a state too passive to intervene, but could just as well be described as a human sacrifice.

While US anti-satanist beliefs are spread on two different levels, both as popular rumours, and by so-called experts at seminars, so far in Britain it is largely confined to the latter level and has not achieved a wider public resonance. While professionals have been influenced by US reports (largely, one suspects, unaware of their more bizarre aspects) popular fears and rumours have recently focused not on satanism but on the equally strange wave of reports and tales of attempted abductions of children by 'bogus social workers'. (9) As a result, while some US allegations have involved individuals respected in their communities, the two major British allegations, at Rochdale and Nottingham, have involved working-class people living on council estates.

Whether these tales will have as wide an impact in Britain as in the USA remains to be seen. According to the Independent on Sunday some evangelical groups are running counselling organisations in which people suffering from a variety of traumas are told that these result from suppressed childhood memories of satanic abuse, in a manner strongly recalling the equally dubious activities of some UFO abduction researchers. According to the IoS one woman has committed suicide while undergoing this counselling.

There are other possible developments. The establishment of satanic abuse stereotypes may lead to real-life abusers being influenced and copying such reports (something which may already have happened). Another possible future development may be a political scandal in which a prominent politician is accused of being a satanist (already some American fundamentalists have accused George Bush on the basis of his membership of the Yale University secret society, Skull and Bones).

Satanic abuse stories and abduction reports may move closer together: Whitley Strieber’s Communion has made the theme of sexual abuse, hinted at in many abduction cases, explicit. One American satanism case has involved tales of a 'mystery aeroplane' used to fly children from a day-care centre to rituals in a desert.

What is clear is that ufology and the abduction stories throw considerable light on a matter of social importance. However, this fact will probably play little role in future developments as a result of the low status and seriousness that is usually assigned to such reports, and the uncritical attitude those who collect them take to their own data.

Notes and References:
  1. A comprehensive work on the history of the great European witch-hunt is Europe’s Inner Demons by Norman Cohn (Paladin, 1976). Cohn is also the author of Warrant for Genocide, a study of the Protocols of Zion forgeries. Both books are highly recommended.
  2. Gardiner, Gerard B. Witchcraft Today, Rider, 1954
  3. For a fuller account of the remarkable career of Leo Taxil, see: Webb, James. The Flight from Reason, Macdonald, 1971
  4. Rhodes, T.F. The Satanic Mass, Rider, 1954
  5. Summers, Anthony and Dorrell, Stephen. Honeypot: The Secret World of Stephen Ward, Weidenfeld, 1987
  6. For a typical account of ‘psychic questing’, see for instance Andrew Collins’s The Black Alchemist, ABC Books (i.e. Andrew Collins), Leigh-on-Sea, 1988
  7. Lindsay, Hal. The Late Great Planet Earth, Marshall Pickering, 1987
  8. Smith, Michelle and Padzer, Lawrence. Michelle Remembers, Michael Joseph, 1981, originally published in New York, 1980
  9. Recently, some police investigating the ‘bogus social worker’ cases have suggested that some incidents may have been caused by local ‘vigilantes’ checking out families they suspected of cruelty or abuse following previous highly publicised cases of alleged negligence by official social workers.

SEE ALSO: Somewhere a Child is Crying, by Peter Rogerson, and The Lessons of Folklore by Michael Goss from this special edition of Magonia