Who the devil shall we blame?: Satanic abuse may not exist, but it allows us to avoid facing some grim human realities

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The Independent Online
THAT sexual abuse of children occurs is certain; that it is on the increase is highly likely; but that it is frequently associated with satanic rituals now seems to be unlikely. A Department of Health investigation, soon to be published but already substantially leaked, shows that of 84 cases studied only three contained hard evidence of 'ritual' abuse and not one was found to contain evidence of satanism.

Confronted with such findings, the first point to make is that the report does not and cannot prove that satanic abuse does not happen.

Realistically minded adults know that human beings are capable of anything, however bizarre, wicked or stupid. Satanic abuse has been accepted as having occurred in a small number of child abuse cases - seven up to July 1992 - that have come to court. Furthermore, there is a certain logic in the idea. Anybody wishing to abuse children needs to silence and control them, and the employment of the familiar paraphernalia of a horror movie would clearly be one effective method. Children 'believe' in ways that adults seldom do.

That said, it is obvious that the findings of Professor Jean La Fontaine's report will be a devastating blow to the large number of professionals - notably social workers and psychiatrists - who have for some years been insisting that satanic abuse is widespread and that it is a distinct and powerful phenomenon. They may argue that hard evidence is not the point - these things are carefully hidden and the testimony of the children is convincing. But, in reality, the complete lack of any material proof in so many cases will strain most people's credulity.

My own direct experience of this phenomenon inclines me to scepticism. I visited Rochdale in September 1990 when 30 children from six families had been taken into care amid allegations from social workers that satanism was involved. Within half an hour of arriving in the town I had been persuaded that these allegations could not be substantiated. The council assured me there was further evidence, but there was nothing more than some ill-written reports by social workers. The whole affair was a depressing mess and one which was turned into a national scandal by the appallingly gullible and ill-judged use by the social workers of the single word 'satanism'.

There have been similar scares in other countries, most notably the United States, where the occult obsession appears to have originated. There, it has been pointed out that if satanic rituals really had been responsible for all the deaths attributed to them, the nation's murder rate would have doubled. This is impossible, if only because the satanists could not conceivably dispose of so many corpses undetected.

But America is a country steeped in the wilder, weirder varieties of religious fervour. Books such as Marilyn Hickey's do-it-yourself guide, Satan-Proof Your Home, are widely bought by anxious families and, according to one estimate, a majority of the population believes that the Apocalypse - literally, as described in the Book of Revelation - is imminent. In addition, that country has discovered the idea of 'recovered memories', in which certain therapists routinely unearth supposedly suppressed episodes of abuse in the childhoods of patients who had hitherto known nothing of such incidents. In such a climate it is hardly suprising that the collusion of pseudo-science and religious fundamentalism can generate satanic hysteria.

But in atheist, secular Britain, satanism is a more astounding intrusion. Here, as opposed to the US, I would guess that the majority of the professionals propagating the idea have not the slightest belief in the reality of either Satan or God, perhaps not even in the reality of evil. Rather - judging by a recent book, Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse, edited by Valerie Sinason (Routledge, pounds 14.99) - they tend to see the phenomenon as a malign hangover from a dark, religious past.

Writing in that book, Brett Kahr, a lecturer in psychotherapy, runs through the ancient history of the ritual abuse of children and asserts: '. . . most children born prior to the 20th century suffered from quite dramatic forms of abuse'. The word 'most' is, of course, a flagrant absurdity unless the word 'abuse' is widened so far as to become meaningless. But the point is clear: ritual child abuse in our century is a hangover from a dark past that must be acknowledged and eliminated.

The truth behind this is that evil endures - sober grown-ups, uncorrupted by myths of progress, know that people today are just as capable of being wicked as their ancestors. But the fascination with satanism amounts to an insistence that evil will continue to manifest itself in the same old ways.

'The cruelty of past and present witch-hunts,' writes Valerie Sinason, 'does not mean there is no such thing as an evil witch.'

True, but the witch will still be evil even if she is not a satanist. In fact, real, modern evil tends to go to some lengths to disguise itself - by, for example, pretending to negotiate with the United Nations. Taking the ancient metaphors or the phoney negotiations too seriously threatens our grasp on the reality.

The danger of the insistence on the continued presence of ancient ritual is that it leads to the illusion that attacking the symptoms will solve the problem - in other words, detecting and suppressing satanism is the same as detecting and suppressing child abuse. In reality, satanism may be an occasional accompaniment to child abuse - or, indeed, to anything else - but to elevate it to a sensational and specific body of theory is likely to distort the simple perception that it is the underlying evil, not its particular expression, which is the point.

That this distortion happens was made plain to me by a psychiatrist who regularly attends child abuse case conferences. He said that, for no particular reason, satanism was often raised; this possibility produced a group anxiety and the search for evidence then overwhelmed the direct consideration of the case itself. He characterised the entire phenomenon as a kind of infectious, hysterical anxiety.

This idea is backed up by the leaked report. Discussing the way in which children were interviewed, Professor La Fontaine comments: 'Too frequent interviewing, leading questions, contamination, pressure and inducements to agree to suggestions may have resulted from the anxiety of the interviewers to find out what happened.'

The sexual abuse of children is now the most powerful image of evil in contemporary culture. Values shift and blur, history is forgotten, Serbian atrocities are a distant news story; but this, we can all agree, is a terrible, an unspeakable human depravity. Even in prison, child abusers are scorned and assaulted. The actions of the abusers are beyond the realm of reason or even contemplation. Repeatedly in the Treating Survivors book, the professionals recount their own reactions of revulsion and disbelief and refuse to tell the worst stories.

Worst of all, child abuse appears to be increasing. The sceptical psychiatrist's tentative explanation was that the whole taboo system was failing. The breakdown of general sexual reticence combined with the fragmentation of families means that powerful private and unspoken codes are being exposed and, therefore, destroyed. Adults feel dangerously freer and children less certain of what they are supposed to do.

Faced with such an increase and the massive coverage and concern that child abuse arouses, a certain hysteria is understandable. Our anger and disgust obliges us to distance the phenomenon by shouting at it - or even, as the professionals insist, by denying its existence. Much of the writing about satanism is defensive to the point of paranoia precisely because of the authors' conviction that they will be disbelieved, and that this disbelief is a manifestation of denial and suppression by the media and the public in general.

Perhaps the real point is that the destructive obsession with satanism is a symptom of the professionals' own anxiety. Satanism places child abuse cases in a separate, alien realm. These abusers are different, they are nothing like us. They are not just pursuing sexual satisfaction, they are doing so with the aid of bizarre, ancient rituals. The more child abusers that can be shown to be satanists, the further we can remove the evil from us, the more confidently we can console ourselves that evil is out there and can be eradicated and that we can still move from a dark past to a bright future. But Satan was always a metaphor for what is inside, not what is outside. 'Nothing human is foreign to me,' ran a motto on the wall of Montaigne's study; we ourselves contain all possibilities, however vile. Child abuse is most horrible because it is done by human beings like us and it is that which the progressive therapists find most difficult to acknowledge.