Click here for Debbie Nathan's pioneering article about ritual abuse.








In addition to Michelle Remembers,  two other influential “satanic” autobiographies were  The Satan Seller, by Mark Warnke, and Satan’s Underground  by  Lauren Stratford.  All three of these books have been exposed as fiction -- the incidents portrayed in these books did not happen.  These tales of satanic torture -- mostly they are pornography disguised as religious tracts -- were widely regarded as reliable, authentic accounts of life in the coven.  Michelle Remembers and similar books influenced thousands of lives, with disastrous and costly results. (Click here for more about Michelle Remembers).


In the Woods with a Hood: See also Repressed Memory -- a psychiatric fad that was influenced by the book Michelle Remembers.




The Ritual Abuse Panic:
A Timeline








































"When Tim Robbins and the Dixie Chicks complain about a “witch hunt”, they should try running a nursery in Massachusetts. These were real witch hunts, utterly irrational but phenomenally destructive of many individual lives, and a disgrace to a civilized society."

-- Mark Steyn

The "Ritual Abuse" Panic

  • When does "child abuse" become "ritual abuse"? Allegations of ritual abuse have certain recognizable symptoms -- in addition to accusations of sexual abuse, there’s animal abuse and mutilation, bondage, use of urine, feces and vomit, accompanied by physical threats and sometimes torture, even accusations of infanticide and grave robbing.  The abuse is often said to be conducted as part of satanic worship.

  • The modern ritual abuse panic started in the 1980’s, with widespread fears of satanic, evil conspiracies against innocent children involving organized groups infiltrating daycares and churches.  Many believe that a single book, Michelle Remembers, was influential in spreading the panic.
  • One difference between child abuse and ritual abuse is that child abuse is real and well-documented, but there's no evidence for the existence of an international, inter-generational network of secret practitioners of ritual torture and sex abuse. When extensive investigation by law enforcement failed to produce any sacrificed humans, high altars, or a single self-confessed cult member, believers explained that the cults were kept secret through the use of terror.

  • Ritual abuse accusations strongly resemble psychotic delusions of mental patients -- but were taken seriously.

  • Ritual abuse accusations sent hundreds of people to prison for imaginary crimes.

  • Social workers and cult “experts” believed that when children denied that abuse happened, it meant that they were afraid to "disclose." So children needed to be questioned repeatedly.

  • Subsequently, researchers demonstrated that children can be easily influenced to make false statements and even come to believe them.

  • In the aftermath of the debacle, the child saving experts get defensive -- but where is the public apology for the harm done? And what about those still in prison?

Ritual Abuse -- more sinister than "regular" child abuse

Much has been written about the ritual abuse panic, but in a nutshell, in the late 1980’s, dozens and then hundreds of people -- parents and grandparents, daycare operators or employees, bus drivers and teachers, were accused of sexually abusing young children in strange and horrible ways.  The accusations often included animal torture, forcing children to eat feces, urine and vomit, insertion of various objects into children’s bottoms, the making of child pornography, and sometimes baby killing. Often, the sexual abuse was said to be part of satanic worship. But the types of perversions the accused were supposed to indulge in, The New Republic noted in 1999: “corresponded more.... to a toddler's notion of unspeakable transgression rather than to any known profile of adult sexual perversion.”  In the Halsey case, for example, the accused was supposed to have stuck candy up his own behind and stuck fish up the children’s bottoms.

Anatomy of a Panic

"Claims about satanic cult ritual child abuse (SRA) arise from the convergence of two different moral panics: the child sexual abuse scare and the satanic cult scare," sociologist Jeffrey Victor explained in Skeptic Magazine. "Social scientists use the term 'moral panic' to refer to a social condition in which a great many people in a society over-react to a newly perceived threat to their well-being from social deviants, even though the actual threat is either non-existent or greatly exaggerated.... Examples of past moral panics include the European witch-hunt, outbreaks of anti-Semitic persecutions, the white slavery scare and the 1950s Red Scare in the U.S."

In 1980, a psychiatrist and his patient published a book, advertised as a true story, about her experiences as a five-year-old child in a satanic cult in the genteel seaside Canadian city of Victoria.  The book, Michelle Remembers, became a bestseller.  In it,  Dr. Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith Pazder (for she became his wife as well as his patient) related the sexual and other tortures inflicted on the young Michelle by a secret coven of Satanists.  Dr. Pazder believed that his patient, whom he had been treating for depression, had repressed all memories of these events until, with his help, she was able to recover them by going into a trance-like state.  

From the safety of Dr. Pazder’s therapeutic couch, the apple-cheeked Michelle (then in her twenties) re-lived the gruesome tortures of her childhood, while handsome Dr. Pazder sat by her and held her hand.  Pazder was soon spending four to six hours a day with this one patient.  He explained to his then-wife that he was on the verge of a breakthrough of enormous importance for psychiatry. How right he was, but for the wrong reasons.

A Confederacy of Fear

Why did the little girl Michelle receive so much attention from the Satanic cult?  For example, she was tied up and made to watch for hours while an ugly, hook-nosed man cut several cadavers apart at the joints, then sewed a composite human being together again (p.s. it would have been impossible for someone to do all this dissection and surgery in a single session). Why did the cultists take her to the cemetery, lower her in an open grave, and throw dead cats on her?  (p.s. also impossible, click here). Cult “experts” explained that young children are indoctrinated into cult life through fear and intimidation. Instead of taking Michelle to the Dairy Queen, the cultists believed that a few weeks locked naked in a cage with snakes would bind the child’s allegiance to the Dark Lord.  

Yet, as the experts also explain, experiences like Michelle's are so awful that they are "repressed," only to be retrieved by skilled therapists: “To survive, the human mind dissociates itself from the event.”  So if most of the children are slaughtered and eaten and the other children can’t remember, who is left over to become an adult cult member and where do they buy their robes and those nifty six-foot-tall candle holders?  

Credibility of the accusers

Although some accusers in ritual abuse cases are ordinary people who sincerely believe a crime has occurred, in other cases, people found themselves contending with accusations from persons who were obviously mentally unstable -- although that fact was never taken in account when judging their credibility.

In two seminal cases of ritual abuse panic, Bakersfield (California, 1984) and McMartin (California, 1988), the initial accusations were brought by women with diagnosed mental illness.  Their paranoid, psychotic tales were mistaken for genuine complaints by the authorities.  

In another case, Bill and Kathy Swan were accused of child abuse by a daycare worker who suspected they had molested their young daughter.  “Following the Swan's conviction, the defense suddenly learned much more about their primary accuser, Lisa Conradi. Mrs. Conradi.... [told reporter Dean Huber] that she had previously reported at least 20 other cases of child abuse. That she had personally been abused on an almost daily basis by 300 to 400 men, women and boys for 17 years starting at age five. That she has knocked on almost every door in her neighborhood "for miles in every direction" accusing the occupants of abusing their children.... All of this, however, was withheld from the [Swans] before the trial.”

First, Do No Harm

The daycare trials couldn’t have happened without the active participation of social workers and therapists.  Police authorities relied on the therapists to interpret what the child witnesses were saying, to interview the children and to counsel them about their alleged experiences.

To better understand the diabolical workings of the secret satanic cults they were working to expose, the prosecution team in the McMartin Daycare case turned to an expert in the field of ritual abuse:  they consulted Dr. Pazder.  His expertise, of course, was based on his experiences with his wife, as documented in Michelle Remembers, the book which we now know to be false.

The first ritual abuse-type conviction in a daycare setting was that of Bernard Baran, in 1988, in Massachusetts, who spent 22 years in prison and is still fighting to clear his name. Other defendants, the most well-known being the Buckey family of McMartin preschool, spent years in jail before being found not guilty of ritualistic child abuse. Trials and convictions followed across North America, and spread to England and Europe.  

Margaret Talbot scolded reporters for their credulity in The New Republic:

For several years, moreover, during which innocent people, many of whom were themselves the parents of young children, were sent to prison, the press by and large went along. ‘The horrors may only have started with sodomy, rape, oral copulation, and fondling,’ Newsweek confidently  reported of the McMartin allegations in April 1984.... Time's account noted that a horse was slaughtered in front of the toddlers to intimidate them into silence, but the magazine neglected to ask how this messy procedure was accomplished without detection in a busy preschool in the middle of town, where parents and teachers came and went throughout the day. ‘Parents,’ Time chided, ‘were too trusting, assuming that separation anxiety was the reason their children cried when dropped off at school.

By the late '80s, then, the notion that many, many day care workers went into the field only to sate their Sadean lusts for small children,and that schools were places fraught with sexual "stranger danger," and that childish innocence was under unprecedented assault from the forces of evil, had sufficient credibility to darken the nightmares of mothers and fathers across the country.

The trials assumed a familiar pattern.  A child makes a remark, or a child is caught in sex play. The anxious parents contact the authorities.  The authorities alert all the parents at the school.  The parents contact each other, trading suspicions and concerns.  The parents question their children.  The children are questioned by social workers and lawyers. The children start to make increasingly serious accusations. The defense are not allowed to question the children before trial, because the therapists say it would be emotionally damaging for the children. After months of "therapy," which solidifies the accusations in the childrens's minds, they testify against the defendant. The jury is aghast at the horrible child abusers.  The accused are hauled away to jail.

Children pressured to make accusations

(The following is excerpted from my article, "Nightmare at the Daycare.")

Journalist Debbie Nathan wrote that the accusations were produced by questionable methods used by investigators on the hunt for child molestors, who badgered children to implicate their teachers: “In the McMartin case scores of kids shook their heads [no] when asked if anything bad had happened at school. Nevertheless, social workers handed them dolls with genitals, named the dolls after their teachers, and told the children to beat the dolls and use the dolls to show what had happened. If they still couldn't remember abuse, the interviewers criticized the kids: 'What good are you? You must be dumb,' one social worker scolded."

But although investigators believed they were uncovering a satanic conspiracy, they didn't always share this information wtih the jury. "The prosecutor in the Gallup Christian Day Care case openly admitted that Mr. and Mrs. Gallup and their son Chip were prosecuted not as Satanists but as child molesters, although he believed that Mrs. Gallup, a white haired minister’s wife, had been torturing children in satanic rituals for 20 years. He believed that "the Gallups and some of the workers were sexually interacting amongst themselves and with the small children…they watched reruns of these videos and they were fed popcorn and [there were] incidents of animal torture and so we had to decide how we were doing to deal with that aspect of the case and so we focused our first two cases in particular on simple cases because we knew that the jury was going to have a terrible time of believing that kind of a situation."

“Clearly there is a social pattern, a larger meaning to this phenomenon....”  Ellen Willis wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune after the McMartin defendants were vindicated, but others similarly accused were still trapped in the court system.  “Yet for the most part the media has not only rolled over for the prosecution, but treated each trial as a unique sensation.”

Common sense combats junk science

“While [ritual abuse defendants] were marched off to prison, cognitive psychologists were investigating the question of young children as witnesses and if young children could be made to agree to, and eventually believe in, things that didn’t happen.

This was understandably a difficult area to investigate without harming children. Obviously it would be unethical to try to persuade preschoolers that somebody had molested them. But some ingenious experiments, most notably by Stephen Ceci of Cornell University and Maggie Bruck of McGill University in Canada, showed that children could be influenced by adult questioning. In one experiment, children came to believe that someone had licked their knees and stuck marbles in their ears during a touching game -- intimate contact without the sexual overtones -- even though it hadn’t happened. Children could even be persuaded that they had had the painful experience of catching their fingers in a mousetrap.

Children could also be brought to agree that someone else had done bad things, especially if the person they were questioned about was presented to them in a bad light. In the "Sam Stone" experiment, a man impersonating "Sam Stone," an acquaintance of the teacher, briefly visited with two groups of preschoolers. The second group was prepared for his visit by being told that he was clumsy and always breaking things. In interviews after Sam Stone’s visit, many of the children in the second group agreed that Sam Stone had ripped a book and damaged a teddy bear, even though this had never happened.

In addition to clearly showing how easily young children can be swayed, the researchers investigated the investigators. They provided erroneous information to adults who were to interview children, and proved that the children’s responses were influenced by the adults’ expectations."  (excerpt from Nightmare at the Daycare)

One man likely paid for false allegations with his life, as author Lawrence Wright reveals:  "Kaare and Judy Sortland were accused in 1989 of abusing three young boys in the day-care center they operated in their home. The childen initially denied that any abuse had taken place, but parents and therapists relentlessly questioned them.

"We'll talk to those kids until they're twenty years old, if necessary, to get a believable story to the jury," one parent vowed. When a jury did, in fact, rule the Sortland's not guilty, the couple were repeatedly threatened and hounded by vandals. On Halloween night in 1992, Kaare Sortland was shot to death in his front yard. His wife heard him cry "I didn't do it" just before six shots were fired."

The “Backlash"

“It’s very important to the child savers that everyone else say they’re sorry."                -- Richard Wexler

One might suppose that the realization that:

  • people have been sent to prison for years for crimes that never happened;

  • children had been abused, not by the accused, but by misguided therapists who implanted false memories;

would have created a huge mea culpa among the professionals involved.  This hasn’t happened.  Some have defended their actions, if not the results, on the basis that their hearts were in the right place.  Some have excused themselves on the basis that nobody knew any better -- that, by golly, nobody could have guessed that rewarding children for making accusations, and questioning them until they did make accusations, might just lead to false accusations. And they speak, in self-pitying tones, about the “backlash” -- the (presumably) undeserved and irrational criticism that is flung their way.  

For example, journalist Debbie Nathan pointed out that the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, or APSAC, was founded by many of key players in the ritual abuse/daycare panic.  In her book, Satan’s Silence, co-authored with lawyer Michael Snedeker, the abuses of common sense by these supposed professionals are well and chillingly documented.  In response, APSAC’s Theresa Reid posted a lengthy counter-attack at the APSAC website.  Nowhere is there a hint of remorse or acknowledgement that egregrious errors and wrongs were committed, that the lives of innocent people were shattered.  No, Nathan and Snedeker have “exaggerated the problem.” Reid then goes on to entirely misrepresent the book and the views of Nathan and Snedeker.  They don’t believe in any allegations of child abuse.  Or maybe, Reid sleazily insinuates, “the authors think pedophilia isn't all bad.”  

This is by no means an unusual or extreme reaction by a child care professional to charges of incompetence.  Indifference and unprofessionalism this breathtakingly crass is -- the norm.  Critics of the child protection system are routinely dismissed as being in denial about the extent of the problem, or of being child abusers themselves. Professionals that have the ability to judge parents and take their children away, who have the ability to provide the expert testimony that sends people to prison for life, are themselves extraordinarily sensitive to being judged.

Nathan told the PBS Frontline program that the child abuse specialists:

need to stop screaming 'backlash'and clean house. To do that, they must stop coddling their prominent colleagues who were personally involved in the ritual abuse cases, and who rationalize their errors by refusing, for example, to encourage national policy requiring videotaped interviews. Groups such as APSAC should stop dragging their feet on this issue, as they have for years. They should also organize financial, legal and political resources to get Frank Fuster and countless other falsely convicted people out of the prisons they are rotting in, more than a decade after the ritual abuse hoax shattered so many blameless lives.

Dr. Lawrence Pazder is still in practice and declined requests for an interview.  In 1990 he told a British newspaper:  “We still leave the question open. For [Michelle] it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn't matter."

The British journalists asked, “One wonders what the [falsely accused]... would have to say about that!" 

[Update: Dr. Pazder passed away in the spring of 2004].

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