Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
VI. Allegations of ritualistic and satanic abuse
A. Extent of the allegations
1.The American Bar Association is conducting a survey of local prosecutors to obtain an
estimate of the national incidence of different types of cases of child abuse. As of early
1991 the preliminary data indicated that about one-third of local prosecutors have handled
cases involving "ritualistic or satanic abuse" (Victor, 1991).
2. The FBI has investigated over 300 of these cases (Lanning, 1991, 1992).
3. Books by "survivors" and appearances on television talk shows such as Geraldo
Rivera are becoming common.
4. Articles and books in the professional and popular literature have proliferated in the
past several years.
B. The professional community has become polarized in response to such allegations.
C. There are many meanings given to the terms ritualistic and/or satanic abuse and the
lack of a consensus as to what is meant makes investigation more difficult.
D. The allegations of ritual abuse come from two sources:
1. Accounts of "survivors" who uncover memories of bizarre satanic ritual abuse
ceremonies during the course of therapy. The alleged abuse is not remembered until the
adult goes into therapy with a therapist skilled in special techniques, such as survivors'
groups and hypnotherapy.
2. Accounts of children who have allegedly been ritualistically abused at day care
centers, of which the McMartin case is the best known example.
3. These sources have affected one another.
a. A well-known "survivor's" book, Michelle Remembers (Smith &
was used by police and prosecutors in the early 1980s in preparing cases against people
accused of sexually molesting children in day care centers (Charlier & Downing, 1988).
b. Michelle Smith and other "survivors" met with the parents and children
involved in the McMartin case after the case was reported in the press (Nathan, 1991).
E. Supportive networks
1.The belief in satanic, ritualistic abuse has been supported by several volunteer
associations of parents and conferences on ritual abuse for police and child protection
workers function as organizing agencies, which promote the conversion and recruitment of
more and more professionals to the moral crusade, including social workers, psychiatrists,
psychologists, physicians and police (Hicks, 1991, Victor, 1991).
2. These professionals then become "experts" on ritual abuse and disseminate the
satanic cult legend to the local level, where they alert people to the "signs"
of ritual abuse in public speeches and small town newspaper articles.
3. As a result, there is now a vast communication network which disseminates elaborate
assumptions about ritual abuse (Gonzales, 1989; Mulhern, 1991; Victor, 1991).
F. Survivor's accounts
1. These "survivors" generally first uncover "memories" of these
experiences during psychotherapy.
2. Frequently, techniques such as hypnosis or survivors groups are used.
3. The survivors are diagnosed as multiple personality disorder (MPD)
4. The survivors allege memories of bizarre events, including urine and feces, ritual
murder and torture, cannibalism, and baby breeding.
G. Problems with survivor stories
1. Research with hypnosis indicates that memories retrieved in a hypnotic trance will
contain a combination of fact, fantasy and suggestion that cannot be accurately determined
without external corroboration (Ganaway, 1991, Spanos, 1991).
2. A few therapists are finding almost all of the satanic cult survivors. This strongly
suggests the influence of the beliefs of the therapist.
3. The allegations in these accounts have not been independently verified. The one careful
attempt (Passantino, Passantino & Trott, 1989) to verify one of these accounts,
Satan's Underground, by Lauren Stratford (1988) showed that the claims were not
4. MPD is controversial and cannot said to be generally accepted in the scientific
community (Aldridge-Morris, 1989; Fahy, 1988; Frankel, 1993; Freeland, Manchanda, Chiu,
Sharma, & Merskey, 1993; McHugh, 1993; Merskey, 1992; Spanos, 1994; Wakefield &
Underwager, 1994b; Weissberg, 1993).
5. There is nothing in the scientific literature to support the claims of recovered memory
of "repressed" childhood sexual abuse (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992, 1994b).
6. Such stories are likely the result of the therapy given (Wakefield & Underwager,
H. Allegations of ritual abuse in day care centers
1. Rumors that satanists were sexually molesting children in day care centers first
attained national attention in the McMartin Preschool case (Underwager & Wakefield,
2. Soon after the McMartin case attracted national attention, similar accusations of
ritual sexual abuse swept across the country (Charlier & Downing, 1988).
3. As in the survivor's accounts, there has been no evidence found to supporting the
ritual abuse allegations.
4. The allegations come from the way the children are interviewed in these cases, by
interviewers who believe the abuse is real, who attend the same workshops and conferences,
who consult with one another, conferences, and who then interview children with suggestive
and leading questions (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b).
5. Some recent interviewing tools contain explicit drawings of ritualistic abuse
(Northwest Psychological Publishers, 1990; Sanford, 1990).
6. The tunnels under the McMartin preschool.
a. There is currently a group of professionals who believe that there was ritual abuse at
the McMartin preschool and that the tunnels under the school where these activities
allegedly took place were found (Summit, 1993, 1994, Vanderbilt, 1992).
b. This claim has been made at conferences and in the sexual abuse survivor literature and
has now found its way into the professional literature (i.e., Gelinas, 19995).
c. However, a careful analysis of the evidence for the tunnels indicates that there is no
good evidence for their existence (Earl, 1995).
I. There are sadistic and disturbed people who abuse and brutalize children. Some of these
people may abuse a child in what looks like or is interpreted as a satanic ritual, a
possibility that becomes more probable given the current media attention and publicity.
J. However, despite hundreds of investigations by the FBI and police, there is no
independent evidence of ritual abuse, animal and human sacrifice, murder, and cannibalism
of hundreds of children by a conspiracy of apparently normal adults who are functional and
organized enough to leave no trace of their activities (Hicks, 1991; Lanning, 1991, 1992;
Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1991).
K. Despite this, many professionals and lay people believe in the satanic cult myth.
a. A survey of clinical psychologists indicated that 93% of those who had seen cases of
ritual or religious abuse believed the ritual abuse was true (Goodman, Qin, Bottoms, &
b. Although there was convincing evidence for a variety of types of religion-related abuse
(e.g., withholding medical care, abuse by priests, exorcisms), there was no evidence for
claims of satanic cult activity.
H. Attached at the end of the outline is a sample of several multivictim, multiperpetrator
allegations. They are in several other countries in addition to the United States. These
cases all had massive publicity in their geographical areas, and several have been
publicized throughout the world. This is a limited sample, there are many similar cases.
We were professionally involved in all but a couple of these.