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Child Abuse and Witchcraft?  Perspective on the 15th and 20th Centuries

by Zachary Bravos

ABSTRACT: Examination of the trial records of witch prosecutions in the 15th century indicates that the current approach toward child sexual abuse allegations has many parallels with the prosecutions of witches.  This is particularly evident when the allegations are of satanic, ritualistic abuse.  These parallels include the role of confession, the assumption that children's statements must be true, the adoption of special rules for prosecution, the presumption of guilt, the naming of others, the belief in conspiracies involving multiple victims and perpetrators, and the growth of the allegations to include child murder and cannibalism.

Cases alleging sex abuse are becoming increasingly common not only as they involve accused parents but also in the so-called mass-molestation cases alleging organized molestation of children on a mass basis in day care.  Additionally, more and more cases are now encountered in which it is alleged that children have been the victims of a type of abuse labeled as "satanic" or "ritualistic," complete with stories of child murder, cannibalism, black masses, secret rituals, and so forth.  A group of self-proclaimed experts has been giving seminars and training sessions to law enforcement personnel, judges, and child protection workers regarding the satanic, ritualistic abuse of children.Child sexual abuse is the most socially repulsive behavior imaginable.  If you met someone at a party and were told that he or she were accused of sexually molesting a child, odds are that you would not want to hang too tight with the person.  Most people, no matter how open-minded, would not care to associate with the accused.  You certainly wouldn't choose such a person as your baby sitter.  You believe in the presumption of innocence and all that.  It's just that the alleged behavior is so offensive that even shaking hands with someone who may have done it makes you feel uneasy and unclean.One of my clients was the personnel manager for a large company and when he found out that one of his employees was accused of child sexual abuse he forced the person to quit.  He just couldn't feel comfortable being around the guy and he shed no tears when he left.  Imagine how he felt when he found himself accused of molesting a family friend.Often, I have heard the term "witch hunt" used in connection with these prosecutions.  So just what is a witch hunt?  Webster's Third International Dictionary defines a witch hunt as:

An investigation of or campaign against dissenters conducted on the pretext of protecting the public welfare and resulting in public persecution and defamation of character.

Sometimes it seems that everyone who perceives that he has been treated unfairly claims that he is the victim of a witch hunt.  To answer the question I have gone back and looked at the actual trial records of witch prosecutions and researched the law and legal procedures utilized in their prosecution.


In the year 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the Papal Bull known as the Summis Desiderantes, thereby officially authorizing the prosecution and punishment of witchcraft and sorcery.  In England, the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcraft was issued by King James I in the year 1563.  This was replaced by a more severe act in the year 1604 issued by King George II and not repealed until the year 1736.  The Papal Bull of 1484 was followed two years later by the publication of the Malleus Maleficiarum.  This work, written by inquisitors appointed by Pope Innocent VIII, was and remains the most authoritative work on demonology ever published.  Part II of the Malleus described the Maleficia, the evil deeds committed by witches.  The last major prosecutions for witchcraft ended in New England in the year 1692 with the events in and around Salem, Massachusetts.  On the European continent, the last executions for witchcraft occurred in the year 1723.

Witchcraft Defined

Among the different ways of looking at the world, there are two which seem directly opposite to each other — the magical and the religious.  The magical view of the world presumes that we can affect the universe, that by some incantation, charm, or other method we can harness and control the forces of nature.  In this sense it can be argued that the magical world view exalts us to the highest.  With the power of magic we can control the winds and rain, travel in time and space, and even gain power over life and death so as to achieve immortality.  On the other hand, the religious world view presumes that we are subject to the universe.  We are seen as controlled by whatever god or gods we believe have ultimate power.Magical practices and beliefs have been with us throughout human history.  They have never been prosecuted with any vigor.  What distinguishes witchcraft in particular from magic in general and what accounts for the enthusiasm of the prosecutions is simply this: the witch was thought to have made a pact with the devil.  Therefore, witchcraft was essentially a religious crime.  This is why it was punished as heresy under the Papal Bull.  In a world where the Christian religion gave order to society the practice of witchcraft was a direct assault upon the society at large.There are some historical misunderstandings about the witchcraft prosecutions.  They were not a largely English phenomenon.  English law never accepted the concept of witchcraft as religious heresy.  In England witchcraft was prosecuted by the civil authorities and it was only the harm to people or property which was prohibited.  The law felt that it was no different to kill or injure a person with a curse than with a knife.  In each case injury occurred and the instrumentality used was essentially irrelevant.  Thus in England witchcraft was illegal as was any other intentional harm to person or property.  Neither were witches burned in England or New England.  They were hanged.  During the entire period of the prosecutions only about 1000 persons were executed under the English system.To see the real extent of the horror you need to look at the prosecutions of the ecclesiastical courts in continental Europe and Scotland.  These cases conform more to the popular conception.  Approximately 300,000 persons were executed during recurrent waves of witch horror between 1484 and 1723 A.D.  They were burnt at the stake but usually only after strangulation.  Burning alive or roasting over slow fires was reserved for exceptional cases, those who sought to retract the confessions that they gave under torture.The treatment of witches also differed in England and New England from that afforded them in Europe.  In the European prosecutions sanctioned by religious authority only those who confessed to witchcraft were executed.  Various tortures were employed using gruesome instruments in order to extract confessions from those accused.  No known record exists of anyone who was able to withstand the tortures imposed and all who were accused confessed.  All who confessed were killed.This was not an act of cruelty, but rather one of mercy.  Upon the confession of sins, the witch was deemed to be in a state of grace.  Execution before the opportunity to reengage in evil acts insured the salvation of the person's soul.  Therefore, execution following quickly upon the heels of confession was considered an act of charity and salvation.In England and New England, however, execution was reserved only for those so deeply enmeshed in the devil's ways that they would not confess their sins.  Those who continued to assert their innocence (torture was rarely used and never officially sanctioned) and proceeded to trial, were, upon conviction, executed as unrepentant and unredeemable agents of evil.  On the other hand, those who confessed their witchery were accorded lesser forms of punishment, sometimes as mild as a release upon bond for continued good behavior.  Other forms of punishment ranged from various penances to varying terms of imprisonment.  Of the 20 persons hanged in and around Salem, Massachusetts, none confessed their guilt.  Of the approximately 100 who did, not one was executed (Burr, 1914, p. 374).

Confession is the First Step on the Right Road to Redemption

Here we come to the first parallel between child abuse and witchcraft prosecutions.  Most alleged familial child abuse is dealt with in the family or juvenile court system.  Every state has such a court system whose asserted goal is to reunite children with their families.  Typically the alleged abuser, usually the father, is asked to leave the home.  However, it is also necessary for the spouse to acknowledge the abuse.  This presents a problem if the spouse really does not believe the abuse occurred.  If the spouse does not acknowledge the abuse then the child is said to be "at risk" and the child protection workers cannot be certain that unauthorized contact will not occur.  Therefore, in order to protect the child, the child is removed from the home and placed in foster care.  If there are other children in the home then they too are placed in foster care since it is thought that an abuser will sexually molest each of his children in succession.  This placement into foster care is often made even if other family members are available if they too do not believe in the abuse.In one of my cases in the St. Louis area, a kindergartner told a playground supervisor that another child (a developmentally delayed 6-year-old) told him that another classmate had touched her in the lunch line.  When questioned she would not speak and finally the teacher asked her if anyone had ever touched her anywhere on her body, "on her arms, her shoulders, anywhere."  When she responded "my Daddy," he was accused of sexually molesting his daughter.  Since his wife did not believe in the abuse, when threatened with foster care placement they sent their three children to live with the Dad's parents in Chicago.  But the grandparents did not believe in the abuse either so the children were placed into foster care even though there was a 300-mile separation and my clients offered to be the subject of any monitoring desired.  However, no foster care could be found for the three children together so they were separated and placed into different families (in case you don't believe this I have the transcript in my office).In every case I know of a service plan is prepared by child protection which goes into effect while the case is pending adjudication in juvenile court.  The essential features of the service plan are sexual offender treatment for the parent, intensive sexual abuse therapy for the child, sexual abuse awareness training for the spouse, and visitation with the children under supervision.  If you refuse treatment you are still a risk to your children and are said to be "in denial."  If you go along with the program, attend therapy, cooperate, etc., child protection will indeed work toward reunification and chances are the case will never reach court.  Instead, a plan for family supervision will be worked out, reunification under supervision will proceed, and eventually the case will be dismissed.For the real child molester this is a dream come true.  However, for those who protest their innocence the nightmare is only beginning.  If the claim of innocence continues then the visitation with the children is halted or curtailed.  The claim is that visitation is harmful if the parent is still "in denial."  If the parent continues to assert innocence, the case proceeds to court and if a determination of abuse is made the child is usually made a ward of the court.  Again a service plan is put into effect.Now remember that these proceedings are civil in nature.  The burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence, that is, greater than 50%, not beyond a reasonable doubt.  Thus the legal system itself recognizes that error can be made in the adjudication of abuse.  However, if the parent continues to deny that the abuse occurred then this is considered sufficient grounds to terminate parental rights and give wardship to the state with the power to consent to adoption.  Further, if the spouse still maintains disbelief in the reality of the abuse the spouse's parental rights are terminated because this is an indication of unfitness as a parent and the inability to protect and provide a safe environment.  Finally, because it is assumed that if you abuse one child you will abuse the others and if the spouse does not believe in the one incident of abuse she will not believe in others, parental rights to all children are terminated and all the children are adopted out, separated from both parents and often times from each other.There have been cases where after this whole process was gone through and the couple gave birth to another child the authorities immediately took possession of the newborn infant, claiming that since the other children were abused there was a 99% chance that the new baby would be too.  Is the pressure to confess and redeem any less in these child abuse cases than in the witch prosecutions?  Is the loss of your life more important than the safety of your children?  Who would ever want to be faced with such a hydra's choice.  What rational legal system would force parents to so choose?  Who can blame the innocent if they ultimately submit?The confession is then used to validate the original finding of sexual abuse in a kind of "I told you so" way and the circle of victimization goes on.  For those who do not confess the destruction of their lives is guaranteed.  Even a favorable adjudication in court usually results in financial ruin due to the costs of defense.

Children Don't Lie

The service plans imposed upon the accused and the family are perhaps appropriate if, in fact, child molestation or abuse has taken place.  The real problem is that the initial indication of abuse is often made by poorly trained investigators without adequate information and with little or no actual investigation into the facts.  The linchpin of the system appears to be the belief that "children don't lie" about sexual abuse.  The thinking behind this statement is that children could not make statements about sex abuse unless they had experienced it because such activities are outside the normal knowledge of a child.  Therefore, when an investigator does elicit statements of abuse from a child or believes that the child made statements of abuse to others even if he cannot elicit them, the presumption of abuse is made without regard to the circumstances surrounding the interrogation.In much the same manner, it was believed that children's statements about witchcraft held particular value.  This belief was based upon the biblical pronouncement in the Book of Solomon that "out of the mouths of babes cometh forth truth" (Seth, 1969, p. 10).  Most especially important was the belief that children could not testify about matters of witchcraft unless they had observed or experienced them since they were outside the range of normal knowledge for a child.  With regard to matters of witchcraft children were therefore considered "innocent."  How, it was argued, could children testify to acts and events which they had no knowledge of unless these acts were actually experienced?  Therefore, any information which a child might be able to give regarding an act of maleficia was accepted as true and was considered sufficient to convict because it was given by an innocent child. (Seth, 1969, p.14).One aspect of the witchcraft prosecutions often overlooked and little regarded today is the role that children played as witnesses for the prosecution.  Throughout the history of the witchcraft prosecutions, children gave testimony describing acts of maleficia committed by their parents.  Many examples of this can be given (E'Estrange Ewen, 1933, p. 118; Robbins, p. 94-96).

Special Rules of Prosecution

Repeatedly, society is advised that child abuse cases require special rules of prosecution.  It is argued that child abuse cases are difficult to prosecute because the activity is secret, occurs in the home, and often involves threats in order to maintain secrecy.  In response to the demands of self-avowed experts in the field, special legislation has been passed by most states applicable only in child abuse cases.  In Illinois, for example, in abuse cases only, a child is presumed to be competent to testify.  This changes the normal rule of witness qualification.  Additionally, a child's out of court statements about abuse are, by special statute, competent evidence and can be admitted into evidence even though they are hearsay and the child does not testify.  This true even if the child is not competent to testify in court.  These out of court statements alone are sufficient to convict and imprison an accused.  The rationale behind admitting these statements is again that "children don't lie" about sexual abuse.  Most states have now adopted similar legislation.Special rules of prosecution were also used in witchcraft cases because, as the great French witchcraft Judge Jean Bodin stated:

One must not adhere to the ordinary rules of prosecution for proof of such evil is so obscure and difficult that not one out of a million would be accused and punished if regular legal procedure were followed (Robbins, 1960, p. 54-55).

Also, as the prominent lawyer Henri Boguet stated:

Witches work at night and in secret, and a clear proof of such deeds is impossible (Robbins, 1960, p. 177).

In the special circumstance of witchcraft alone, many of the normal legal procedures otherwise applicable were eliminated.  The legal impediments to children's testimony were suspended and children were presumed to be competent to testify.  The rationale behind the allowance of children's testimony was again the belief that out of the mouths of babes comes truth.  Among the other special rules applicable in witchcraft cases, cross examination of witnesses was not permitted nor was it required that the accuser confront the accused unless the accuser so wished (Robbins, 1960, p. 177).  It was common and accepted practice in witchcraft cases for the parents to testify to the statements of their children even though they were clear hearsay and cases can be found where this was the principal evidence against the accused (Mather, 1692 p. 92-98).

The Presumption of Guilt

Although not legally recognized, there is a practical presumption of guilt in child abuse cases.  The charges are so onerous and the prejudice against the accused so great that the accused, whether in family court or criminal court, has, as a practical matter, to prove his innocence.  The fear seems to be "what if the charges are true?"  In the witch prosecutions the presumption of guilt was openly acknowledged.  Most witches were denounced by other "witches" after interrogation and torture.  The presumption was that the allegations were therefore correct.  Nor was mere reasonable doubt of guilt sufficient to secure acquittal.  As Judge Bodin stated in the year 1580, "Wherefore it is that one accused of being a witch ought never to be fully acquitted and set free unless the calumny of the accuser is clearer than the sun ..." (Robbins, 1960, p. 14).  Needless to say, no one ever satisfied Judge Bodin's standard for acquittal.

"Consistent With"

Many of the case workers and other professed experts involved in the prosecution of child abuse are fond of saying that such and such is "consistent with abuse" even though the term "consistent with" has no probative meaning.  This error in thinking is called the covariance fallacy.  It appears to arise because once the assumption is made that a child has been abused then every behavior or fact must be made to fit into the scheme of an abused child.  The alternative is to admit that no abuse has occurred, however this alternative is not acceptable because the child has (it is believed ) been abused.  The presumption of the truth of the premise (this child has been abused) leads to a form of circular thinking in which all evidence must be made to fit in or "be consistent with" abuse.  Thus a normal medical exam is said to be consistent with abuse since many children who have been abused show no physical symptoms.Even contradictory behavior can be accommodated.  For example, if a child talks about abuse this confirms abuse but if a child refuses to talk about abuse this also confirms abuse because abused children often refuse to talk about it.  If a child is afraid of the accused this confirms abuse, if not this also confirms abuse because abused children often love the abuser.  If the accused admits abuse it is confirmed, but if he denies it abuse is also confirmed because those who abuse children usually deny it.  In one of my cases the prosecution expert opined that if a child was smiling or laughing when talking about abuse or hurtful activities this would be an indication that the child was not talking about something that actually happened to her.  On cross examination when it was pointed out that the child was "laughing and laughing" when discussing the alleged abuse (this fact was not included in the written reports and was testified to by the prior witness) the expert immediately opined that:

It seems to me that her laughing, her giggling could very well have meant embarrassment, could very well have meant awkwardness.  I think all that goes into her not being able to talk about abuse with a straight, serious face.

Put simply, every fact or behavior can be viewed as consistent with sex abuse.Russell H. Robbins in his monumental work, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, writes that "Once an idea has obsessed a person, a group, or a nation, then every deed, no matter how disparate or irrelevant, serve to confirm the mania."  In the witchcraft cases every fact is somehow incorporated into the belief system as consistent with witchcraft.  The witchcraft prosecutions utilized a concept called "alternative questions" in which any fact was indicative of guilt:

Is the accused in bad repute?  If so she is a witch.  If not, she is undoubtedly a witch for witches always seek to be well thought of.  Is the accused frightened?  If so she is a witch, if not she is undoubtedly a witch.  Does the accused admit guilt?  If so she is a witch, if not, she is undoubtedly a witch for witches always represent themselves as innocent (Robbins, 1960, p. 17-18).

There was no fact, act, or deed which was considered indicative of innocence or inconsistent with witchcraft.

The Repeal of Occam's Law

Coincident with the special rules used in witch prosecutions was the reverse application of Occam's Law (known today as the KISS "keep it simple stupid" principle) in which the most roundabout, tortuous, illogical explanation of any simple action was considered the best so long as it was consistent with witchcraft.  As an illustration, the Italian friar Guazzo in the year 1608 commented on a 90-year-old priest waiting to be burned as a witch who chose to cut his own throat instead.  Rather than accept that an old man, after torture, and in desperation took his own life, Guazzo explains that:

A demon appeared to him and tempted him so that ... he cut his own throat with his knife, and although the wound was not serious enough to cause instant death, yet the demon, in that very act of desperation, seized violently on this soul and carried it to hell, to the great astonishment of all.  I saw the man dead, and still warm, lying on the straw; and as he had led the life of a beast, so he lay on the provender of beasts.  For so did Divine Justice dispose, which rewards every man according to his works; and God willed that he who had for ninety years lived a follower of Satan should also end his life at the hands of Satan (Robbins, 1960, p. 18).

In one of my cases a young, 6-year-old girl operating at an age 4 level with speech and language difficulties (incidentally, many of the children in my cases have been mildly retarded or developmentally delayed) was interrogated many times over a period of many months.  Because she masturbated at bedtime (she put a pillow or sheet between her legs and "made the motion") it was assumed that she was sexually abused.  Child protection was called by the father (he suspected the older daughter of his former wife) and by the former wife (she suspected the father).  When the focus of the investigation was on the stepsister the child named the stepsister as the abuser.  When the focus was on the father, she named the father as the abuser.  When there was no focus (at a hospital interview by persons who did not know the alleged suspect) she named her imaginary friend "Little Pat" as the abuser.  When asked whether or not the most reasonable explanation for the varying responses was a reaction to the leading questioning and influences of the examiners, the prosecution expert said:

A The significance may be that Amy was touched by Jane (stepsister) and was touched and further abused by father.
Q What about Little Pat?
A Little Pat as an imaginary figure may be carrying out the same kind of victimizing abuse that Amy had been subjected to by other people.
Q Now that's pretty contorted reasoning isn't it doctor?
A Not at all.
Q Now isn't the moist straightforward explanation simply the scientifically established fact of interviewer bias and influence?
A No.

Mass Molestation Historical Counterparts

Some professed experts in sex abuse believe that there are groups of people who systematically abuse children in day care settings.  They believe that young preschool children are systematically and ritualistically abused on a daily, mass basis in day care centers around the country.  The evidence for this abuse comes from the stories the children tell to the investigators after repeated sessions of questioning.  The lack of physical evidence corroborating the children's statements as well as the implausibility of the actions alleged are characteristic of these cases.  Most major metropolitan centers have established so-called mass molestation task forces to deal with this perceived problem.

A review of the witchcraft cases sheds some light on historical antecedents for the current mass-molestation cases.  Remember that the existence of witchcraft was an established fact for the general society at the time of the persecutions.  To even suggest that witchcraft did not exist was tantamount to heresy.  Remember also that children were thought to be especially choice victims for witches.  In the villages surrounding Mora, Switzerland beginning in the year 1669, a witch panic occurred which supposedly uncovered the systematic seduction of young children to the ways of the Devil.  Young children were believed to have been taken from their homes at night by witches.  The witches carried the children,. dressed in red or blue, on goats, sticks, or sleeping men.  They flew through windows, the devil previously having removed the glass "so they had room to go."  They assembled at a place called "Blocula," a beautiful meadow, in which they engaged in seven specific acts:

1. Denial of God, by cutting the finger and writing in the Devil's book.
2. Baptism by the Devil.
3. An oath of fidelity to the Devil in which the witches threw filings of clocks into water and recited "as these filings of the clock do never return from the clock from which they are taken, so may my soul never return to heaven."
4. A Banquet of broth with colewarts and bacon, oatmeal, bread, butter cheese, and milk.
5. Dancing ending with fighting one another.
6. Music and sexual intercourse.
7. The building of a stone house to preserve the witches at the Day of Judgment.  However, the walls kept falling down (Robbins, 1960, p. 350).

Most striking to the investigators was the consistency of the stories told by the children from one location to the next down to the exact rituals engaged in.  How could a child from one village produce the same accounts as a child from another?  Even though questioned separately their stories agreed in every particular (Mather, 1692, p.135-139).  There being no other available explanation, the conclusion was that the children were telling the truth.

... the SUFFERING CHILDREN, were first Examined; and tho' they were questioned ONE by ONE apart, yet their DECLARATIONS ALL AGREED.  THE WITCHES Accus'd in these Declarations, were then Examined; and tho' at first they obstinately DENIED, yet at length man of them ingeniously CONFESSED the Truth of what the children said; owning with Tears, the DEVIL, whom they called Locyta, had STOPT their MOUTHS; but he being now GONE from them, they could No Longer Conceal the business.  The things by them ACKNOWLEDGED, most wonderfully Agreed with what other Witches, in other places had confessed (Mather, 1692, p. 136).

As a result of these investigations, 300 children were determined to have been seduced to the Devil and 85 people were burnt (including 15 children) after first being forced to confess the truth of the children's accusations (Robbins, 1960, p. 348-350).

The Naming of Others

Because the therapists and investigators in mass molestation cases assume that mass molestation occurs, it logically follows that other victims exist.  They therefore question the children with this belief system in place, and produce statements from the children which concur.  The new "victims" are then interrogated and when they produce statements which are consistent with abuse allegations they are used to further validate the belief in mass molestation and the cycle continues.  Among the many examples which could be used are the verbatim transcripts of the initial interrogations in the McMartin Preschool case in California.  For example:

Q Do you think, do maybe — I'll tell you what.  Maybe you could show me with this, with this doll (putting hand on two anatomical dolls, one naked, one dressed) how the kids danced for the naked movie star.
A They didn't really dance.  It was just like, a song.
Q Well, what did they do when they sang the song?
A They just, went around singing the song.
Q They just went around and sang the song?
A (Nods head up and down.)
Q And they didn't take their clothes off?
A (Shakes head negative.)
Q I heard that, I heard from, several kids, that they took their clothes off.  I think that (classmate's name) told me that.  I know that (second classmate's name) told me.  I know that (third classmate's name) told me.  (Fourth classmate's name) and (fifth classmate's name) all told me that.  That's kind of a hard secret, it's kind of a yucky secret to talk, of — but, maybe, we could see if we could find —
A Not that I remember.
Q — another puppet.  This is my favorite puppet right here.  (Reaching, picking up and putting on the bird puppet.)
A I get to be that puppet.
Q You wanna be this puppet?  Okay.  Then I get to be Detective Dog.
A (Makes a sound.)
Q Okay, let's see if we can figure this.  Let's see.
A (Grabs the dog puppet's nose that the interviewer is wearing, using bird puppet's beak.)
Q Yeah.  Let's be friends.  Let's (unintelligible).  I know that we're gonna figure this out — all this stuff out right now.  Okay, when that tricky part about touching the kids was going on, could you (reaching for marker from can on the table, handing it to girl) could take a pointer in your mouth and point, on the, on the doll over here, on either one of these dolls, where, where the kids were touched?  Could you do that?
A I don't know.
Q I know that the kids were touched.  Let's see if we can figure that out.
A I don't know.
Q You don't know where they were touched?
A Huh-uh.  (Slight of head, negative.)
Q (Unintelligible.)  Well, I (unintelligible) some of the kids told me that they were touched sometimes.  They said that it was, it kinda sometimes it kinda hurt.  And sometimes it felt pretty good.  Do you remember that touching game that went on?
A No.
Q Okay, let me see if we can try something else and —
A Weeeeee.  (Spinning the bird puppet on right hand above her head.)
Q Come on bird, get down here and help us out here.
A No.
Q (Girl's name) is having a hard time talking.  I don't wanna hear any more "no's."  No, no, Detective Dog and we're gonna figure this out.
A No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.  (To musical cadence, spinning bird puppet over head.)
Q Do you wanna not play with the puppets?  Would you rather talk to me directly?  Is that easier for ya?
A No.
Q Okay.  How can I help you?
A (Makes sound.) gosh.
Q (Girl's name), look at me!  (Putting puppeted hand on bird puppet.)  How can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets?  How can we help you to tell them, so they can go away and not bother you any more?  What would be the best way that we could help you do that?  I don't think the puppets are working really well.  And I think that you're real scared to tell.  And I understand why you're scared.  'Cause I heard all about the threats and all the tricks that he tried to make the kids be scared so they wouldn't talk. Those were all tricks, they were lies.  They weren't true.  None of those things happened to anybody.  And none of that stuff that happened at school were the kids' fault.  That was all the it, Ray's fault, it wasn't the kids' fault.  And I know the kids are scared to talk about it, but I need you to tell me.  How can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets?  What's the best way for me to help you do that?
A (Looks upward with pointer dangling from mouth.) (Cody, 1989, p.28).

Witchcraft was thought to be a group activity and it was believed that witches were organized in groups or "covens."  The investigators put great effort into discovering additional members of a witches group.  In Europe, the preferred method was interrogation followed, if unsuccessful, with torture.  It must be remembered that the investigators were absolutely convinced in the reality of witchcraft and the use of torture did not seem incongruous.  Since they were dealing with a real witch and since real witches are members of a group then the failure or refusal of the witch to name others only meant that the person was being obstinate.  I suppose you could say that the alleged witch was "in denial."  Therefore when torture revealed the names of new witches they were only extracting information which was known to exist in the first place.  Within itself, the logic is sound.  When the new witches subsequently confess, the process becomes self-validating and the cycle of victimization continues.

Unique in the history of the witch purges is a letter smuggled out of jail by 55-year-old Burgomaster Johannes Junius to his daughter, Veronica, in the year 1628.  He had undergone two interrogation sessions without torture.  Two days later "the aforesaid Junius was again exhorted to confess, but again confessed nothing.  Whereupon since he would confess nothing, he was put to the torture":

And then came also — God in highest Heaven have mercy — the executioner and put the thumbscrews on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood spurted from the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from my writing.

Thereafter they stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up on the ladder.  Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end.  Eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony.  I said to Dr. Braun, "God forgive you for thus misusing and innocent and honorable man."  He replied, "You are a knave."

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I had to bear the torture.  When at last the executioner led me back to the cell, he said to me, "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake, confess something, whether it be true or not.  Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow another until you say you are a witch.  Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials for one is just like another. ..."

Then I had to tell what people I had seen at the sabbat.  I said I had not recognized them.  "You old knave, I must put the torturer at your throat.  Say — was not the chancellor there?"  So I said Yes.  "Who besides?"  I had nor recognized anybody.  So he said: "Take one street after another.  Begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next."  I had to name several persons there.  Then came the long street.  I knew nobody.  Had to name eight persons there.  Then the Zinkenwort — one person more.  Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides.  Knew nobody again.  Did I know anybody in the castle — whoever it might be, I should speak without fear.  And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more.  So they gave me to the torturer, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture.  "The rascal knows one on the market place, is with him daily, and yet won't name him."  By this they meant Burgomaster Dietrneyer: so I had to name him too.  Then I had to tell what crimes I committed.  I said nothing.  "Hoist the knave up!"  So I said that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead.  It did not help.  I had also taken a sacred wafer and had buried it.  When I said this, they left me in peace.  Now my dearest child, here you have all my acts and confession, for which I must die.  And it is all sheer lies and inventions, so help me God.  For all this I was forced to say through dread of torture beyond what I had already endured.  For they never cease the torture till one confesses something; be he ever so pious, he must be a witch.  Nobody escapes, though he were an earl.  If God sends no means of bringing the truth to light, our whole kindred will be burned.  God in heaven knows that I know not the slightest thing.  I die innocent and as a martyr.  Dear child, keep this letter secret, so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded. ... Dear child, pay this man a thaler. ... I have taken several days to write this — my hands are crippled.  l am in a sad plight.  Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more (Robbins, 1960, pp. 12-13).

Cannibalism, Child Murder, and Ritualistic Abuse

In their unholy Sabbats, the witches were supposed to kill and eat newborn and unbaptized children (Parrinder, 1963).  This theme of ritualistic murder, mutilation, and cannibalism is recurrent throughout human history.  At various times, different groups have been singled out for accusation.  The early Christians were reputed to engage in these practices.  At other times, Germans, Gypsies, Catholics, and Jews (as recently as the Hitler era) were accused of practicing child and human sacrifice.  Today, accused child molesters have been added to this list.

Aside from the settings, the stories have not changed in any essential form in hundreds of years (Hicks, 1990).  The most disturbing fact is that in spite of repeated investigations, there is a complete absence of evidence corroborating the existence of these cults or the alleged activities of human sacrifice, cannibalism, sex and death orgies.  Putman (1991) points out that despite hundreds of investigations in the United States by local police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there has never been a single documented case of satanic murder, human sacrifice, or cannibalism.  Similarly, the police in Holland and England, despite intensive investigations, have failed to find any evidence substantiating allegations of satanic ritualistic abuse.

The best evidence for the existence of these activities is said to be the similarity of the reports of the alleged victims even though separated by time and space.  In the same manner, the similarity of the stories is also the best evidence for the belief that earthlings are abducted, examined, and then returned by aliens piloting UFOs.  Further evidence for the existence of satanic ritualistic abuse is contained in the so-called behavioral characteristics of those who are said to have been so abused.  These include sleep disturbances, enuresis, sexualized behaviors, swearing, aggression, isolation and anxiety.  As Putman (1991) notes, these behaviors are in no way distinguishable from the effects of many types of stress and trauma in children and in no way constitute the specification of a unique satanic ritualistic abuse syndrome.  Nevertheless, the diagnosis is often made on the basis of such behaviors without input from the accused.

The similarity of the stories told by the alleged victims and the belief in these stories as evidence presents a naive and simplistic view of the contamination of information.  The fallacy in this idea lies in the belief that individuals must be in direct contact with each other in order to share common information.  Study of the patterns of rumor spread has demonstrated that rumors, urban legends, and other folk tales can be rapidly disseminated throughout our society and are shared in common by large numbers of people who have never directly met each other.  The child abuse community is particularly susceptible to such a rumor process since there are multiple, interconnected communication and education networks shared by therapists and patients (Putman, 1991).  As anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern points out:

When one concentrates the research focus on discovering the specific ways in which therapists come to "believe" the reality of satanic/ritual abuse one immediately uncovers a remarkable myth-making network of therapists, patients and investigators blending together specific idiosyncratic data into one a-temporal analytic grid.  I say this because, when one examines specific adult survivor stories, it becomes immediately apparent that initially patients were not saying the same things but came to say similar things over time (reported by Hicks, (1990, p. 383).


The dark days of the witchcraft prosecutions show disturbing parallels with what is happening today.  In many cases substitution of the words "child abuse" for "witchcraft" leaves the reader unable to distinguish between the 15th and 20th centuries.  The willingness to make any leap of logic no matter how contorted or absurd in order to maintain a position is the hallmark of the fanatic.  Perhaps the most disturbing recent development is that we have now come full circle.  Some who believe in modern satanic, ritualistic abuse assert that the witchcraft prosecutions were founded in fact and claim historical antecedents for present alleged practitioners of the black arts.  They believe that groups of related persons have practiced witchcraft and handed the beliefs from parent to child for generations.

Those who persecuted witches in Salem and elsewhere were as intelligent as we.  Human evolution has made no significant progress in the development of our mental abilities in a scant few hundred years.  How can people continue to make the same errors time after time?  Why is ignorance such a burden for us?  Is there really no limit to our capacity for self-delusion?

The fundamental problem is that some child abuse professionals cannot understand how a child can talk about things that never happened.  How, they ask, can a child talk about abuse if it never occurred?  Because they cannot explain how this could happen, they assert that it cannot be explained.  Therefore the stories told by the children must be true.

This position assumes a limit to human knowledge, that we have reached the apex of our understanding.  Just because something cannot be explained now does not mean that it cannot be explained.  History is replete with examples of phenomena which could not be explained in the past and were therefore attributed to the supernatural or bizarre and which upon the gathering of additional knowledge became explainable in normal terms.  The recent research into the effects of leading questions, modeling, suggestibility, behavior modification, and adult social influence upon children is disturbing and indicative of just how easy it is to get children to talk about things that never happened.  The history of human thought teaches that if you have a choice between the supernatural, bizarre, or unbelievable on the one hand and human error and ignorance on the other, no one has ever gone broke by betting on human shortcoming.
In my argument to a judge that accompanied a motion to terminate treatment where the child was encouraged in play therapy to act out scenarios of satanic and occult practices, child murder, mutilation, and cannibalism, I said:

It now seems we have come full circle and after a lapse of some three hundred years, an attorney is again charged with the responsibility of defending a person accused of satanic or occult activities.  (The child) relates stories of being bound, mutilation, murder, death, cannibalism, and sexual abuse.  This is indeed a child who has been kidnapped, restrained, hurt, and tortured by the system). ... The longer the separation from her father continues, the worse she becomes.  She is already taking substantial steps on the road toward insanity.  Every link with her father is being severed one by one.  Mr. (father's name) well knows that if he confesses to abuse and engages in a course of therapy calculated to cure him, he can obtain the release and return of his daughter.  If he persists in his denial, he well knows that the persons involved will seek to terminate all of his parental rights and have his daughter adopted by another family, just as in Salem, Massachusetts, confession was considered to be the first step on the right road of redemption.  Continued denial will only result in the most severe sanctions.

However, the real focus here is on the child.  The longer she is separated, the worse she becomes.  The worse she becomes, the more the so-called experts believe her conduct validates their initial opinion.  In reality, the trauma of separation is destroying this young child.

(The child's) father is supposed to be the one who slays the dragons and chases away the monsters.  His power to do so has been taken away.  I, as his attorney, have no power to help her.  Only you as the judge can do so.  My client is begging you to help his daughter.  Order an immediate cessation of this so-called therapy.  Order that no one involved with (the child's) care be allowed to talk to her about sexual abuse, satanic abuse, or any other related topic.  Order that both (father and daughter) be seen by an independent neutral therapist whose goal is to assess their relationship and functioning together as a family unit.  Remove (the child) immediately from the foster home she has been placed in.  She is surrounded only by persons who believe that she has been sexually and ritualistically abused by her father.  Only those who share this belief are allowed to interact with her.  Under such an environment, a child cannot help but inculcate these beliefs and be further harmed.  Any temporary disturbance to (the child's) stability by her removal from her foster family will be offset by the safety and security of her new environment and mental health.

(The father) desires his daughter to live in the 20th Century, not the 15th.  Thank you very much.


Burr, G. L. (1914). Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706 (Out of Print). New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Cody, K. (1989, May 25). The McMartin question: A prescription for hysteria? Easy Reader, pp.1, 19-29.

E'Estrange Ewen, C. (1933). Witchcraft and Demonianism (Out of Print)(Out of Print). London: Heath Cranton Limited.

Hicks, R. D. (1990). Police pursuit of satanic crime, Parts I & II. Skeptical Inquirer, 14, 276-286, 378-389.

Hope, R. (1960). The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology(Out of Print)(Out of Print)(Out of Print). New York: Robbins, Crown Publishers.

Mather, C. (1692). Cotton Mather on Witchcraft(Out of Print). Originally Published in Boston 1692, Republished by Bell Publishing Company, New York.

MacFarlane, A. (1970). Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (Paperback Reprint edition). New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Parrinder, G. (1963). Witchcraft: European and Africa. London: Faber and Faber.

Putnam, F. W. (1991). The satanic ritual abuse controversy. Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 175-179.

Seth, R. (1969). Children Against Witches(Out of Print)(Out of Print). New York: Taplinger Publishing Company.

Zachary M. Bravos
Law Offices Of Zachary M. Bravos
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