Lurid tales of children being sexually abused, of animals being ritually slaughtered and babies being bred for sacrifice, in bizarre black magic ceremonies by cults of devil-worshipping Satanists first surfaced in America in the early 1980s. The allegations of what became known as Satanic ritual abuse soon spread to Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the same time, belief in this apparently new and especially depraved form of child abuse was reinforced and said to be corroborated by another new phenomenon, or fashion, in the field of adult psychotherapy, psychology and psychiatry – the recovered memory movement. On conference circuits and in literature, this movement, led by both medically qualified professionals and untrained therapists, promoted the theory that adults can be helped to recover long-buried “repressed” memories of childhood sexual abuse, in some cases Satanic ritual abuse, and that as a consequence of that abuse those patients suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.
This talk explores the origins and spread of the myth of Satanic ritual abuse. As early as 1994 a UK government-funded investigation concluded there was no evidence Satanic ritual abuse existed. Yet despite the continuing absence of evidence, anywhere in the world, a minority of child care professionals including police officers and social workers, and adult psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists persist in the belief that Satanic ritual abuse exists. Conferences are still being held around the world.
This talk will chart the progress of my ongoing investigation over 25 years which has examined allegations of the Satanic ritual abuse of children and asked ‘Where’s the evidence’?
In the course of the investigation I explored the controversy over the extreme and polarised recovered-versus-false memory debate – still one of the most divisive issues in adult psychotherapy, psychology and psychiatry today. As an illustration of the damage caused by zealots who believed in Satanic ritual abuse and in their ability to “help” a patient recover the memories, I will relate the tragic story of the life and untimely death of Carol Felstead, alias Myers.
Finally, this talk will explore how the myth of Satanic ritual abuse can be considered in the context of the field of anomalistic psychology, the wonderful whacky world of weird beliefs, for example how people can come to believe they have been abducted by aliens. Some of these UFO “experiencers” also believe they were victims of Satanic ritual abuse. Part of the purpose of my research, ultimately for a PhD by Prior Publication, is to try to understand how and why people can come to believe bizarre, appalling, weird things happened in the total absence of evidence.
Rosie Waterhouse is Director of the MA in Investigative Journalism, at City University London and a freelance journalist with extensive experience as an investigative reporter, having worked for five national newspapers and as a TV reporter. She has twice been a member of the Sunday Times Insight team, she worked for The Independent and Independent on Sunday, where she was Investigations Editor, and for BBC Newsnight, where she contributed to a BAFTA award-winning film on BSE. As a freelance journalist, Rosie has contributed articles to publications including New Scientist, The Guardian's G2 section, the New Statesman, the Daily Mail, and The Oldie. She has most recently written a series of articles in Private Eye on the 'Satanic Panic'.
Her freelance television work includes a spell as a research consultant on a BBC Real Story documentary on the Rochdale Satanic abuse controversy. Earlier documentaries include a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into allegations of fraud at Red Star and a BBC Bristol investigation into allegations of bribery by Westland Helicopters to win contracts in Saudi Arabia. Rosie has been researching the myth of Satanic Ritual Abuse and the controversy over false versus recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse for more than 24 years and her published work on these issues formed the basis of her PhD by Prior Publication, submitted in January 2014.