Two NSW men accused of sexual abuse - one serving a six-year sentence and the other facing committal proceedings - are claiming they were wrongfully prosecuted on the basis of the false "recovered memories" of their accusers.
The cases indicate that the controversy over "false memories" of childhood sexual abuse is creating major legal and ethical issues for therapists, lawyers and sexual assault workers.
The NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission is investigating two complaints from families whose daughters have recovered memories of sexual abuse. The complaints are against a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
Families in South Australia and Western Australia are considering legal action against therapists who treated their adult daughters.
A six-week inquiry by the Herald has revealed that up to a dozen women have filed for compensation with the NSW Victims Compensation Tribunal, claiming they have recovered memories of sexual assault from many years ago.
Nearly 60 Australian families have now joined the Australian False Memory Association, which represents people who claim to have been falsely accused of incestuous abuse based on recovered memory.
Ms Carol Boland, a Sydney clinical psychologist, points to the popularity of scientifically dubious "survivor" manuals and the unquestioning acceptance of satanic ritual abuse memories - in which women claim to have been victims of satanic cults - as indicators of a credibility problem for many recovered memories.
Interviews with therapists, incest support groups and sexual assault workers indicate that there are several hundred women in NSW undergoing psychological counselling for ritual abuse, having recovered vivid "memories" of their parents' involvement in ritualistic rapes, satanic child-sacrifices, torture and other serious crimes.
But an increasing number of health professionals here and overseas now have grave doubts about the validity of the claims.
Dr Jerome Gelb, a Melbourne psychiatrist who has recently treated nine women for satanic abuse, says he now believes the stories are false beliefs.
"I have had three patients who have openly stated that their `memories' were induced by the therapists they were seeing," said Dr Gelb. "They were pressured into accusing family members of incest, pressured into saying they were satanically abused, and in one case pressured into leaving home."
In a bizarre modern phenomenon, hundreds of women are dredging up lost memories of childhood abuse involving blood, sex and devil worship. The accusations are criminal- but investigators have never proved a case of Satanic ritual abuse. Now Richard Guilliatt reports on the fallout.
IN a small, comfortable office in suburban Sydney, "Janet" sits in an armchair nursing a cup of tea. This jovial woman in her 30s acknowledges that what she is about to say sounds unbelievable, even crazy, which is why she does not want her real name used. Then she starts explaining why she believes she spent her childhood immersed in a bloodthirsty satanic cult.
As a young woman, Janet explains, she was admitted to hospital after the break-up of her first marriage suffering from drug abuse, self-mutilation and paranoia. During her therapy, she had a "flash" of her father raping her as a five-year-old, a repressed memory that eventually triggered a flood of buried images from her past. She gradually came to believe that her father, the man she had idealised as "one of the greatest dads in the world", was actually a sadistic child molester.
Janet left hospital and became a sexual-assault counsellor in the outer suburbs of Sydney. She got married and her life returned to stability. But in 1993, again during psychotherapy, her memories of abuse returned with new, more horrific force. These were memories of "being physically, emotionally and sexually abused in the name of an ideology, in front of a large number of people with paraphernalia, capes, masks, a full altar with a lot of regalia ... it was actually a dungeon, so it had manacles and chains and all these instruments of torture". In the memory, Janet was five.
After more than a year of continuing therapy to deal with these new memories, Janet now believes her family was part of a sadistic, brutal occult sect which subjected her to years of torture, enforced abortions and ritualised sexual abuse. She remembers seeing bodies hacked to pieces, children sacrificed, animals tortured and women forced to breed babies for killing. She talks of torture contraptions and ceremonies held in medieval castles in Britain. And the perpetrators of this evil were her parents and their friends - the adult faces from her childhood.
"We are talking lawyers, we are talking barristers, surgeons, academics," she says. "Ritual abuse, from what I have experienced, is an upper middle-class crime. We are talking megabucks as far as drug dealing, child pornography, money laundering. We are talking very highly organised, very sophisticated, with huge ways of ensuring secrecy." Despite these horrific memories, Janet has managed to set up her own business in Sydney in the past 18 months. She is now a fully-trained psychotherapist with a private practice specialising in counselling incest victims.
Over the past five years, hundreds of people across Australia have sat in therapists' rooms dredging up horrific and vivid memories such as Janet's. Like her, almost all are women who had no conscious recollection of having been Satanically abused until they became adults and "recovered" those memories. The phantasmagoric stories they tell have galvanised police, counsellors and child abuse experts, making ritual abuse one of the most serious issues on the sexual assault agenda. Countless media outlets, including this one, have discussed its significance.
But four years after police first began investigating Satanic ritual abuse, not one conviction appears to have been recorded in the NSW courts. Therapists, child protection workers and even Satanic abuse "survivors" cannot point to a compelling piece of evidence that supports the existence of Satanic abuse. They talk of prosecutions that quietly passed through the courts, but these are cases which prosecutors and police cannot recall.
"I have never seen a case that fits that description, and I've worked in the child sexual assault unit for three-and-a-half years," says Joanna Pheils, solicitor in charge of the Child Witness Unit at the Director of Public Prosecutions. One senior police officer, who believes in the existence of ritual abuse, admits: "You can go through the records in the last 10 years and I doubt that you will find one." Satanic abuse stories are extreme and relatively rare. But in the current debate about the reliability of "recovered memories", they pose a question that has enormous implications: how could these heinous crimes -involving thousands of perpetrators committing hundreds of murders over many decades, in large gatherings involving countless witnesses - have gone undetected? A growing number of therapists and investigators believe they have the answer: they think Satanic ritual abuse is a myth. In fact, several peoplewho have spent years investigating Satanic abuse have concluded it is simply a form of public hysteria created by poor therapy, media sensationalism and rumour.
Dr Edward Ogden, a Melbourne forensic physician who has worked with the Victorian police on about 30 Satanic ritual abuse investigations, is one such sceptic. Another is the Rev Dr David Millikan, the Uniting Church minister and author of several books on cults. A third is Dr Jeremy Gelb, a Melbourne psychiatrist who has treated nine Satanic abuse "survivors" and concluded that their conditions were created by therapy itself.
Dr Gelb argues that "a significant cadre of poorly trained, overzealous or ideologically driven psychotherapists have pursued a series of pseudo-scientific notions that have ultimately damaged the patients who have come to them for help". He says that three of his patients have now acknowledged that their recovered "memories" of abuse were actually confabulations produced by suggestive therapy.
Psychotherapists, both here and overseas, are now embroiled in an increasingly bitter debate about the significance of Satanic ritual abuse memories, and there is very good reason for their rancour. If Dr Gelb is right, thousands of families have been torn apart by completely misguided "therapy" that induced false memories.
Stories of Satanic sexual abuse first arose in the US about 20 years ago, often from deeply religious women in psychotherapy who were recovering repressed memories of sexual abuse and showing signs of multiple personality disorder (MPD). Following the publication of the "survivor" autobiography Michelle Remembers in 1980, these stories began proliferating and MPD became a focus of psychiatric seminars, many of them attended by police assigned to investigate the allegations of Satanist crimes.
Then, in 1984, the McMartin Preschool case burst into media attention in the US. This suburban Los Angeles day-care centre was alleged to be the centre of an organised pedophile group which, over a two-decade period, had indulged in monstrous abuse including - according to children's statements - quasi-Satanic rituals in churches and graveyards. With remarkable speed, dozens of similar cases began sprouting up across the US, spurring countless police investigations and prosecutions.
Satanic abuse stories therefore came from two sources - adult "survivors" recovering memories of the past and children talking about contemporary events. By the late 1980s, this phenomenon had spread to both Europe and Australia, most notably with the "Mr Bubbles" case in Sydney, when staff of the Seabeach Kindergarten in northern Sydney were arrested and accused of occult sexual abuse. Therapists, private investigators and police began telling the media this was a problem of great consequence, and a four-part report on Channel 10 in late 1990 prompted police to form a taskforce.
But the common thread linking Satanic abuse stories around the world - apart from the involvement of therapists - is the extraordinary lack of evidence. Last year, Jean La Fontaine, a professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, investigated 84 cases of alleged Satanic sexual abuse for the British Government and concluded that Satanism was not involved in any of the cases. The La Fontaine report all but mirrored a 1992 report by FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, a former believer in Satanic abuse, who concluded, after eight years of investigation, that there is "little or no corroborative evidence". InAustralia, the Mr Bubbles case collapsed from lack of evidence. Although the principal defendant in the Mr Bubbles case, Anthony Derens, later confessed to fondling adolescent girls earlier in his life, the evidence of occultism amounted to a handful of anti-Satanic books in his home and the fact thatchildren at Seabeach chanted RamSamSam, a common children's song. In another case, NSW police launched a 16-month investigation that failed to produce a charge. And last year, a West Australian man was accused by his two daughters of committing quasi-occult sex offences including enforced abortions, gang-rapesand blood rituals, yet prosecutors did not produce any evidence. In November, a jury acquitted the man on 15 counts and failed to reach a verdict on the remaining 27.
Although Satanic abuse stories are not as common in Australia as in the US, one Sydney rape counsellor estimates from her contact with therapists that about 300 women in NSW are being treated for ritual abuse. That estimate is supported by the Herald's own calls to "survivor" groups, therapists and sexual assault workers. Phoenix Van Dyke, the organiser of the ritual abuse support group Beyond Survivors, says she has been in contact with more than 200 women who believe they are survivors. The Sydney Rape Crisis Centre has had more than 100 cases in recent years and one major Sydney hospital about 30.
To believe these women, one would have to accept NSW has been permeated by brutal Satanic cults since at least the late `60s, a network of evil which has indulged in murder, prostitution, child pornography and other crimes without leaving evidence. "Janet", for instance, recalls being at Satanic gatherings of 50-100 people attended by some of her town's most prominent citizens. A recent issue of the newsletter Beyond Survival contains an article by a 37-year-old woman who says that "my entire biological family on both sides, my childhood nei ghbours, many of my schoolteachers, the school principal, the president ofthe local P&C and the family doctor were all satanists and involving (sic) in rape, torture and murder".
One middle-ground view of these stories is that satanic abuse "memories", although not literally true, may be a way for incest victims to symbolically represent the evil done to them. "I believe it is a metaphor," argues Dr Warwick Middleton, a Brisbane psychiatrist specialising in trauma. "It re-creates in the present a scenario that evokes the helplessness of the past." But others are beginning to view Satanic ritual abuse as simply a form of mass hysteria sparked by a confluence of events in the early 1980s - growing public alarm about child abuse, the rise of support groups and alternative counselling, theinfluence of Christian fundamentalism in the US and the popularity of "confessional" TV chat shows such as Oprah, which have given unquestioning coverage to stories of Satanism.
Therapists are now grappling with the vexed question of whether Satanic abuse survivors are mentally ill people suffering delusions, vulnerable people influenced by their therapists or actual incest victims who have wildly distorted their abuse. If the latter is true, how many of their memories are reliable, and how can a therapist possibly determine what is fact and what is fantasy? Remarkably, however, this debate appears to be completely bypassing many of the therapists, child abuse workers and sexual assault counsellors who have banded together to combat ritual abuse. After years of exposure to abusecases, these counsellors are adamant that there is nothing unbelievable about the vivid detail of the stories they are hearing, and many view the current debate as a "backlash" against their cause.
"It's very invalidating," says Lisa Gardiner, co-ordinator of community development at the Sydney Rape Crisis Centre. "It's the equivalent of saying rape doesn't happen." Ms Gardiner regards it as "highly unlikely" that any of the scores of ritual abuse survivors who have come to the centre might be mistaken because "there's nothing to gain from making this stuff up".
Among some survivors and even therapists, the "backlash" and the failure of police investigations are now cited as examples of the diabolical cleverness of Satanic cults, whose influence reputedly extends to the top of our society.
"It's very deliberately instigated by people who have an enormous amount to lose," says Janet. "I think it's much more than a backlash ... it's actually orchestrated by ritual abuse perpetrators as a way of discrediting survivors." This view has been fuelled by allegations, currently under investigation, that NSW police have been bribed by pedophiles. One therapist claims to have seen infra-red Federal Police photographs of nocturnal forest rituals. A Child Protection Services official talks about covens meeting around Australia on certain days of the year. Even the official NSW Government booklet on ritualabuse - distributed to hundreds of health workers since 1993 - dismisses the growing body of contrary evidence as an example of society's collective "denial" (see accompanying story).
Perhaps sensing the damage that has been done to their cause, many rape crisis and child abuse workers now play down the Satanic nature of many memories and say that ritual abuse also includes more broadly defined "multiple perpetrator" organisations such as pedophile groups and pornographers. But Phoenix Van Dyke of Beyond Survivors acknowledges that all of the 200 survivors she has been in contact with since 1992 believe their abuse was connected to either Satanism, paganism, gnosticism or some other ideology.
So the ritual abuse support groups continue to meet and the conferences continue to be held, most recently last September when 300 counsellors and healthcare workers gathered to hear a six-hour lecture from an American ritual abuse campaigner, Dr Roland Summit. A psychiatrist who was involved in the failed McMartin preschool case, Dr Summit devoted much of his lecture to the "backlash" being perpetrated by journalists and academics against ritual abuse believers. He mentioned stories of blood-spattered babies hanging from trees, but cautioned that he did not know how reliable these stories were. Dr Summit'sspeech was co-sponsored by the Child Protection Council, the Children's Hospital and the Australian Medical Association.
Meanwhile, Janet continues to retrieve her memories of blood rituals, killings and torture, all the time counselling others from her therapy room with its comfy chairs and soft toys for patients to hug as they regress to childhood traumas. Janet emphasises that in no way do her own experiences influence her therapy or make her prone to suggestive techniques. She refuses to counsel other ritual abuse survivors until her therapy is complete. How long will that take? About another two years. She laughs when she admits that it is costing her a fortune.
RITUAL ABUSE: AN OFFICIAL GUIDE ACROSS NSW, insidious child abusers are infiltrating scout organisations, children's camps, pre-schools and day care centres. These evil cult members indoctrinate recruits using brainwashing and drugs, then commit unspeakable acts of sadism, bestiality and torture involving children. Some of them are Satanists who dress in robes and masks, staging ceremonies as they commit their crimes.
This is the message a casual reader might glean from a 26-page booklet, Ritual Abuse - Information for Health and Welfare Professionals, which has been distributed to health workers in NSW over the past two years. The booklet was produced by the NSW Sexual Assault Committee, under the auspices of the Ministry for the Status and Advancement of Women, with the stated aim of providing workers with "an overview of the subject of ritual abuse based on currently available information".
What it fails to mention is that a growing number of therapists and investigators throughout the world are now convinced ritual abuse is a myth created by bad therapy.
The Rev Dr David Millikan, a Uniting Church minister who has investigated six Satanic ritual abuse cases in Sydney without finding any evidence, calls the Government booklet "extraordinarily inflammatory ... it refuses to recognise that there is a serious division of opinion on ritual abuse, and that the weight of academic and professional advice is coming down on the opposite side of the one this booklet actually suggests." Dr Edward Ogden, another ritual abuse sceptic, says it is "frightening" to think that the booklet is the standard text for health professionals in NSW. "It has the potential to be enormouslymisleading," says Dr Ogden. "Presumably, it has the potential to cause a great deal of harm if people approach this material uncritically." Although the booklet discusses the stories of ritual abuse "survivors" in detail, it does not mention that the reliability of recovered memories is hotly contested. Itadvises counsellors that the truth of the stories they are told is not as important as the patients' belief that they are true. It virtually dismisses the fact that Multiple Personality Disorder - the mental condition commonly linked to ritual abuse - is viewed by many therapists as being caused by suggestivetherapy.
Among its references, the book quotes Allies In Healing by the American self-help guru Laura Davis and a 1991 paper by an FBI agent, Kenneth Lanning. But Ms Davis's methodology has been attacked in recent years and her books are now shunned by many sexual assault professionals. And in 1992 - a year before the NSW ritual abuse booklet was first published - Mr Lanning announced that after eight years of investigation he no longer believed in Satanic ritual abuse.
In mid-1994, the booklet was reprinted, without substantial alterations, to satisfy the demand of health workers.
A staff person at the NSW Sexual Assault Committee initially told the Herald that the ritual abuse booklet was no longer available and was being rewritten. But the chairperson of the committee, Ms Jane Bridge, later denied that the booklet was being rewritten.
Ms Bridges said that the booklet was written before the current debate about "false memory" had become widely known, and she acknowledged "this may be an issue we need to do further work on". But she said there were no plans to replace the booklet.