Exaggerating Satanic Ritual Abuse Claims

May 5, 2014
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Proponents of the witch-hunt narrative argue that child sexual abuse cases in the 1980s were filled with claims of satanic ritual abuse. There is no question that there were parents and therapists who believed in this discredited idea. But such claims did not involve anywhere near as many criminal cases as many people assert.

The Witch-Hunt Narrative documents how many cases tagged as “satanic” did not actually involve such claims, and many cases that did also included significant evidence of abuse. Exaggerated claims about the nationwide prevalence of satanic abuse cases persist to this day. One mythical number that has taken hold is, “By 1991, 25 percent of prosecutors in the United States had handled at least one case involving satanic ritual abuse.” Here is what the original report said:

“Our question on ritualistic sexual abuse (i.e., cases with satanic or cult overtones) evoked a striking response. In our sample, fully 74% responded they had not prosecuted any cases involving these traits. Unprompted, prosecutors said they were unaware of such activity in their jurisdictions. This contradicts some of the media attention on the extent of ritualistic abuse” (Smith & Goretsky Elstein 1993, p. 29).

The actual survey question was not about whether they had handled such a case, it was about whether there were more, fewer, or about the same number of such cases. The 74% choose none of those answers. Some or all of 18% who responded “about the same” could well have meant that there were few or no cases. Even the 6% of respondents (n=36) who said there were more cases did not say anything about how many cases there were. Moreover, those respondents could have all come from a handful of offices, since the survey covered only ten (10) prosecutors’ offices, despite assertions that this was a nationwide poll. Further, the question was not limited to “satanic” claims; it included “ritualistic” claims (or overtones), which implicates a larger and far more plausible range of activities. In short, this survey does not support the conclusion that there were a widespread number of “satanic ritual abuse” prosecutions nationwide.

Note: there are roughly 25,000 to 30,000 state and local prosecutors in the country. If the claim that Mr. Beck promoted was true, there would be at least 5,000 criminal cases involving satanic ritual abuse. Our guess is that Mr. Beck will not be able to name 1/100th that number of actual cases. And, as demonstrated in The Witch-Hunt Narrative, many of the usual suspects were not actually satanic ritual abuse cases at all. The fact that anyone would believe such an inflated number deserves close attention.

It is also worth noting, since those promoting the witch-hunt narrative cite references to Smith & Goretsky Elstein with approval (even though they apparently did not read the actual study), that 33% of prosecutors in their survey responded that fewer than 1% of child abuse cases involved false reports; 49% said it was between 1 and 5 percent. Those results contradict the witch-hunt narrative, which claims that false reports were widespread during this era.

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Barbara E. Smith and Sharon Goretsky Elstein, The Prosecution of Child Sexual Abuse and Physical Abuse Cases: Final Report. September 30, 1993. Submitted to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Submitted by the American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education on behalf of The ABA Center on Children and the Law.