Hysteria Recalls Salem Trials

September 3, 1995

Sydney -- Fear of devil-worshippers performing satanic rites on children has always exercised a chilling grip on society's collective unconscious.

The excesses of the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages and the Salem witch trials in the l7th century seem far removed from the modern age. But a new book argues that a similar hysteria - just as illfounded and devastating to those involved - has swept Australia in recent years.

In his book Talk of the Devil, Richard Guilliatt, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, outlines how dozens, perhaps hundreds, of parents and childcare workers have been accused of satanic abuse of children.

Evidence for the allegations was based on "repressed memories" of adults or evidence gathered from children using "suggestive" psychological techniques that have been discredited overseas, Guilliatt argues.

"Many people, predominantly women, but also men and children, now claim to remember childhood events which are clearly impossible and have no basis in reality," he writes.

"These people are recovering memories of extreme and bizarre incidents perpetrated by parents who, it is claimed, belonged to satanic cults which participated in murder child sacrifice, torture, pornography and other serious crimes on a major scale.

"Such stories have given rise to a new term in the child abuse field - ritual abuse. Yet, despite hundreds of massive police investigations in Europe, the United States and Australia over the past decade, virtually no material evidence has ever emerged to support the existence of ritual or satanic cult abuse."

In New South Wales alone, more than 300 people are estimated to be seeking treatment for ritual abuse, Guilliatt writes.

The United States experienced a similar wave of ritual abuse claims in the early 1990s, leading to massive prosecutions that failed due to lack of hard evidence and spawning a mini-industry of ritual abuse "survivor" books, New Age therapists and seminars.

Guilliatt says that, in 1991, comedy star Roseanne Barr told a magazine that when she was a child her parents repeatedly sexually assaulted her, staged a fake murder in the family home and chased her trying to rub excrement in her hair.

But, he says that since then serious questions have been raised about ritual abuse after the psychological claims that led to the claims were discredited.

While the credibility of ritual abuse was waning in the US, it was increasing in Australia, as sexual assault services, police and prosecutors adopted a "blinkered" view and ignored mounting evidence against it, including reports from the FBI and the American and British governments.

A large part of Guilliatt's book recounts a case of alleged ritual abuse in the West Australian town of Bunbury. In the case two adult sisters told police their father, brother, grandfather and uncles subjected them to systematic satanic abuse while they were children.

The story of a once close knit family split into two camps, each believing it was right and both suffering enormously, is a disturbing portrait of how allegations can start a legal process that quickly turns into a juggernaut.

"In something like the Bunbury case you have two women who are claiming they were subjected to sexual crimes that are almost physically impossible, with no corroborative evidence really of any kind," Guilliatt says.

"And yet that father very nearly ended up spending his final years in a prison cell."

Guilliatt readily admits there is a "kernel of truth" to the ritual abuse phenomenon. But he says it has been blown out of proportion by the unlikely combination of Christian fundamentalists keen to find evidence of devil worship, and radical feminists who feel such abuse validates their view of a patriarchal society.

"If you look at something like the Belgian case that's going on at the moment and the Fred West [the socalled House of Horrors] case in England, there's no doubt that there are psychopathic sexual criminals out there who will do the most unspeakable things to children. "I'm not disputing the existence of that sort of crime, which has been going on since time immemorial, but this notion that it has a satanic, occult base, and that it's all part of a big network, I think is highly dubious."

Guilliatt says his book raises serious questions about the way the psychologists, police, prosecutors and sexual assault workers succumbed to the hysteria surrounding ritual abuse and repressed memory. .

It should in no way be seen as an attempt to discredit the genuine victims of child abuse, he says; but the resources poured into investigating ritual abuse could be better used elsewhere. "Every false allegation of child abuse absorbs the resources of a system which is already struggling to protect children who are in real danger. Every repressed memory allegation which is investigated and found to be baseless reinforces the hardened sceptisism of police. Every well-meaning therapist who validates a Byzantine story of satanic abuse to authorities erects a hurdle in front of women who, in the future, will have to struggle harder to have their stories believed."

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