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Ritualistic Abuse -- Fact or Fantasy?

by Zachary Bravos

DCBA Brief, a publication of the DuPage Bar Association.
Vol. 3, Issue 4, pp.13-22. December 1991

"The existence of ritualistic child abuse has not been demonstrated with positive evidence.  Until it is, for the sake of the lives at stake, all persons involved should proceed with caution."

The October 1991 issue of the DCBA Brief included an article by Barbara R., a person who calls herself an adult survivor of satanic, ritualistic child abuse.  There is another side to this subject which deserves careful review and study.  The very existence of ritualistic abuse is highly controversial and the subject of a deep division in the mental health community.  As attorneys, we must reason critically and resist being caught up in current societal manias, fads, and myths.  As persons involved in the truth‑seeking process, we must carefully assess the evidence pro and con before accepting as true, concepts and scenarios which can have devastating effects upon families and children.


Those who believe in ritualistic abuse claim the existence of widespread, organized cults who systemat­ically and sadistically abuse their children in the most horrid manners imaginable as well as engage in the tor­ture and murder of numerous other victims.  These cults are inter‑generational, intermarry, and have resisted detection to date.  The victims are young children between two and five years of age.

A note of caution is necessary.  There are some people who may apply the label of "satanist" to themselves, as do some teenagers and some psychopathic murderers.  The activities described by the ritualistic abuse proponents however allege mass abuse by seem­ingly normal citizens who live a secret life and are organized in a nationwide and worldwide conspiracy.

The stories told by the alleged adult survivors of the abuse detail the most severe abuse imaginable.  Children forced to kill other children, repeated sexual assault by parents and others, being drugged, cannibalism, children forced to drink urine and eat feces, forc­ing children into graves, all at the hands of parents and others in the cult.  Satanic rites are employed with human sacrifice, the killing of babies, black robes, etc.  Every conceivable type of abusive behavior has been alleged.  So extreme and bizarre are the memories that one adult survivor who lectures extensively on the topic states: "ritual child abuse is such a bizarre form of abuse that it is literally unbelievable" (R., Barbara, 1991).


The current belief in the satanic or ritualistic abuse of children is a recent phenomenon and dates from the publication of the book Michelle Remembers, in 1980 (Smith and Pazder).  While the widespread belief in ritualistic abuse is new in our society, there are historical antecedents.  The subject of ritualistic murder, mutilation, and cannibalism is recurrent throughout human history.  It is known historically as the "blood ritual myth" and dates from ancient times (Victor, 1990).  In times past, different groups have been accused.  The early Christians were reputed to engage in these practices.  At other times Germans, Gypsies, Catholics, witches, and Jews (as recently as the Hitler era) were accused of practicing child and human sacrifice.  Aside from the settings, the stories have not changed in hundreds of years (Hicks, 1990).

The belief in ritualistic abuse is now fueled by the stories of celebrities disclosing sexual abuse as children which they did not previously remember.  A net­work of support groups for survivors of abuse has arisen and is available in most communities.  Workshops and seminars are given by "adult survivors" of abuse to law enforcement, attorneys, judges and legislators.  Special legislation has been passed.  Being opposed to child abuse is good, laudable, and socially acceptable.


There is no physical evidence: the evidence for ritualistic abuse comes from the adult survivor stories of former victims who had no prior memories of these activities until engaging in extended therapy.  Thereafter, the memories are said to be recovered little by little until restored.  It is asserted that the extreme and repeated nature of the abuse causes the children to repress the memories which then resurface many years later under therapeutic settings.  The absence of physical evidence corroborating the stories is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the ritualistic abuse dispute.  Local law enforcement, the FBI, and other agencies internationally have investigated literally hundreds of ritualistic abuse allegations and in no case has any physical evidence been found (Putman, 1991).

After careful analysis, Special Agent Kenneth Lanning, head of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, has concluded that there is simply no physical evidence to support the allegations of ritualistic abuse (Lanning, 1989).  The search for evidence has been extensive.  Whole fields have been dug up, forests searched, and homes dismantled.  In the infamous McMartin Pre-School case, the entire vacant lot next to the school was excavated without results.

Those attorneys who have been involved in homicide cases realize the extreme difficulty in killing any living thing without leaving the smallest indication detectable even years later by modem forensics.  The idea that torture, mutilation, and murders can be committed on a grand scale involving large quantities of blood and bodily fluids without the slightest trace is a concept which requires close scrutiny and conflicts with what is known about such activities.


It is the similarity of the stories told by the alleged victims, even though separated by time and space, which is said to be the best evidence of their accuracy.  The belief in these stories as evidence reveals a naive view of the way in which information is contaminated.  The fallacy lies in the belief that individuals must be in direct contact with each other in order to share common information.  The spread of rumor patterns has been studied and demonstrates 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 as there are multiple, interconnected communication and education networks shared by therapists and patients (Putman, 1990).

In the article Police Pursuit of Satanic Crime, the author, Robert Hicks, states:

"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.  When one examines specific adult survivor stories, it becomes immediately apparent that patients were not saying the same things and only came to say similar things over time.”  (Hicks, 1990)

The similarity of stories is also the best evidence for the belief that aliens piloting UFO's have abducted and returned people after examination.  The UFO abduction stories are widespread and support groups exist for hundreds of supposed survivors of the experience (Lanning, 1989).  While either ritualistic abuse and UFO abductions may or may not reflect reality, the two subjects share common problems.  First, there is a complete absence of physical evidence in circumstances where such evidence can be reasonably expected.  Secondly, the stories told are literally too bizarre to be believed.


Ritualistic abuse is said to be inter-generational meaning that it is passed from one generation to the next.  Adult survivors believe that their parents, grandparents, and other family members abused them and were in turn abused by their predecessors.  The families are members of a numerous and widespread cult.  The abusers seem to be normal, well-adjusted citizens.  They may also occupy positions in law enforcement, politics, or other positions of influence which assist in their concealment.  How such a family structure survives from one generation to the next is unclear.  How such activities are passed on when memories are repressed is unstated.

The concept that there exists a large, well‑organized, secret society throughout this country whose adherents are externally law-abiding and legitimate members of the community yet abuse and murder children in mass numbers, escaping detection for generations, runs counter to experience.  Moreover, those attorneys who have handled conspiracy cases realize the difficulty of maintaining secrecy with only a few people.  These difficulties are immensely compounded when more members are added and time passes.  Historically, the organization of secret societies has never remained secret for long.  For example, within months of its organization, the Ku Klux Klan became known and members identified.  If true, the stories of ritualistic abuse would involve perhaps the greatest criminal conspiracy in history (Lanning, 1989).


The evidence does not exist for the numbers of children and infants alleged to be murdered across this country by ritualistic abusers.  The proponents assert that tens of thousands of infants and children per year are ritualistically murdered (Lanning, 1989).  In point of fact, an average of between 52 and 58 children per year are abducted and killed by strangers.  Of these, nearly two‑thirds are between 14 and 17 years of age (Lanning, 1989).  The number of available victims simply does not correspond with the extent of the alleged activities.

In order to account for the discrepancy, the con­cept of "breeder women" has been advanced.  These women supposedly bear children secretly and specifically for the purpose of ritualistic abuse and sacrifice.  Our society has no knowledge of the birth of these children.  Such a scenario requires not only an underground network of medical care but also raises other complications, such as the hiding of large numbers of pregnant women, which a conspiracy would have to deal with.  Accordingly, the practical problems involved seem immense.


The science of psychology provides useful information in evaluating the existence of ritualistic abuse.  Adult survivors uniformly have no memory of the abuse until after engaging in "therapy".  It is asserted that the extreme and repetitive nature of the abuse causes repression of the memories.  The science of psychology simply does not recognize that human memory can be repressed in this fashion.  What has been established is that memory is a process of reconstruction, not recollection, of past events.  Much research indicates that it is possible to "remember" events which never occurred especially when the subjects are suggestible and improper techniques are used (Lindesmith, Strauss & Denzin, 1996).

In (he field of ritualistic abuse, the literature shows that a small group of therapists is encountered who uncover abuse in their patients through the use of hypnotic regression often assisted by sodium pentothal.  Hypnosis is by definition a state of heightened suggestibility.  These techniques are highly controversial and a substantial body of psychologists consider them unethical.


To some extent, the movement toward a national belief in widespread organized ritualistic abuse is self-perpetuating.  The ritualistic abuse experts and their agencies are interrelated, share information between themselves, and are largely responsible for the workshops and seminars which have spread the current perception of ritualistic abuse.  The adult survivors participate in training seminars teaching mental health workers, law enforcement agencies, attorneys, legislators and judges the reality of ritualistic abuse and the signs to look for in young children they believe are victims.  The search for victims has been fruitful and consists of the stories told by very young children after removal from the family and extensive "therapy" often lasting one or more years (R., Barbara).  The finding of victims self-validates the concept of ritualistic abuse and fosters uncritical belief in the phenomena (Victor, 1991).


The uncritical acceptance of the existence of widespread, organized ritualistic abuse coupled with the spread of the warning signs and alleged behavioral indicators of children who have been ritualistically abused has lead to the diagnosis of ritualistic abuse by child protection workers across the country.  Typically the children are removed from their families and arc engaged in a course of therapy with a so-called expert who has been trained to deal with satanic, ritualistic abuse.  Adults who now remember abuse as children are being trained as therapists to seek out and help other "victims."

Go back and re-read the October article by Barbara R.  In the strange world of abuse investigation, the denial of abuse is itself an indication of abuse.  The process by which the children's stories become more detailed and revealing as the therapy continues may not be the process of the truth being revealed but the teaching of a child to confuse fact with fantasy.  The "flat affect" described by Barbara R. with the children speaking mechanically as if they are not talking about something that really happened is no indication of the reality of the abuse.  The children may, in fact, be talking about things that did not occur.  Consider that just as when something is too good to be true it usually is not, so it is that if something is too strange to he believed it is not usually worthy of belief.

Most disturbing is the lack of concern over a false assessment.  There is no recognition of the harm that can be done to a child if that child is incorrectly identified as a victim of ritualistic abuse.  Aside from the trauma caused by separation from family, the therapy teaches the child that their parents arc mean, evil, and to be feared.  In the words of Dr. Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield, noted researchers in the field of child sexual abuse:

"The child is taught that the world is full of evil, that powerful forces can hurt us and destroy us and we cannot stop it.  It is to train a child to distrust others, to believe in the most macabre, disgusting and horrifying events.  It is to train a child to live in an irrational world in an irrational manner and to steal from the child the ability to live a life of reason and logical coping skills.  It is to verify a child's most terrifying fantasies and force a child to grow into an adult whose world remains at the level of a constant night terror.  It is to run the risk of training a child to be psychotic, not able to distinguish between reality and unreality.  It is to irrevocably and likely irretrievably damage a child and induce a lifelong experience of emotional distress" (Underwager and Wakefield, 1991).


Barbara R. included recommendations to attorneys interviewing young children who are suspected of being victims of ritual abuse.  I also feel compelled to make recommendations.

The first is simple.  Never, under any circumstance, attempt to interview a young child about ritualistic or any other abuse.  The alleged victims in these cases are generally pre-schoolers, two to five years old.  As attorneys, we are not qualified to interview young children.  We can unintentionally do great harm by irretrievably confounding the data.

Do insist that any interaction with a suspected victim be video- and audio-taped.

The supposed experts referenced by Barbara R. are some of the same people involved in the infamous McMartin Pre‑School and other mass molestation cases.  Attached to this article is a verbatim transcript of a portion of an actual interview conducted in the McMartin case.  It is neither unusual nor exceptional but represents the type of question­ing usually employed.

Do keep an open mind.


Has the greatest conspiracy in history finally been uncovered?  Have we proven that a vast network exists which leaves no trace of its existence, commits horrors untold, and passes down through its generations extraordinarily deviant behavior while maintaining an outward facade of good mental and emotional health?

Or, is it true that "there is no verifiable evidence for the satanic cult ritual abuse conspiracy theory.  However, there is abundant evidence that more and more professionals are creating a form of deviant behavior, which exists only in their preconceptions to see what they want to see" (Victor, 1991).

More importantly, are Underwager and Wakefield correct when they say that serious damage is being done?  That people who were not victims are taught to believe they are victims?  Indeed they are.  They are not victims of satanic, ritualistic, abuse.  They are victims of common garden variety human stupidity, the cause of the vast majority of human suffering" (Underwager and Wakefield, 1991).

It is difficult to establish that something does not exist.  However, the burden should be upon the proponent to demonstrate the existence of phenomena outside the realm of normal experience.  The existence of ritualistic child abuse has not been demonstrated with positive evidence.  Until it is, for the sake of the lives at stake, all persons involved should proceed with caution.


     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 off7

     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 tile 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 about 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 want to hear anymore "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 a 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 fid of those yucky secrets?  What's the best way for me to help you do that?  (Cody, 1989, p. 28).


Cody, K. (1999, May 25).  The McMartin question: A prescription for hysteria'?  Easy Reader, pp. 1, 19‑29.

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

Lanning, K.V. (1989, December).  Child sex rings: A behavioral analysis.  For criminal justice professionals handling cases of child sexual exploitation.  Washington, D.C.: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, U.S. Department of Justice.

Lanning, K.V. (1991).  Ritual abuse: a law enforcement view or perspective.  Child Abuse and Neglect, 15, 171‑173.

Lindesmith, AK, Strauss, A.L., & Denzin, N.K. Social Psychology (7th Ed.).  Englewood, NJ: Prentice‑Hall.

Putnam, F.W. (1990).  The satanic ritualistic abuse controversy.  Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 175­179.

R., Barbara (last name withheld at request of author), (1991).  Ritual Child Abuse.  DCBA Brief, a publication of the DuPage Bar Association.  Vol. 3, Issue 2, 10‑15.

Smith, M., & Pazder, L. (1980).  Michelle Remembers.  New York: Congdon and Lattes. Republished by Pocket Books Division of Simon Schuster, New York, 1981.

Underwager, R., and Wakefield, H. (1991) Cur Allii Prae Alliis (Why Some and Not Others).  Issues in Child Abuse Allegations, 3 (3) 178‑193.

Victor, J.S. (1990).  Satanic cult rumors as contemporary legend.  Special Issue: "Contemporary Legends in Emergence" Western Folklore, 49 (1), 51‑8 1.

Victor, J.S. (1991).  The Satanic Cult Scare and Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse.  Issues In Child Abuse Allegations, 3 (3) 135‑143.

Zachary M. Bravos, with offices in Wheaton, Illinois, practices throughout the country.  He received his J. D. degree from Northern Illinois University where he graduated magna cum laude in 1978.  He has extensive experience in child abuse cases and other cases involving mental health or scientific evidence, including both civil and criminal trial proceedings, appellate practice,  and consultation to other attorneys and experts.  He is currently the legal editor for the journal Issues in Child Abuse Allegations.  Married, with two children, he has practiced in DuPage County since 1981.

Zachary M. Bravos
Law Offices Of Zachary M. Bravos
600 W. Roosevelt Rd., Ste. B1
Wheaton, IL 60187

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