Michael Salter, PhD
I was a teenager when ritual abuse was first reported in Australia. A series of newspaper articles in the mid-1990s claimed that women were entering psychotherapy only to ‘recover’ memories of grotesque and improbable abuse. The general thrust of coverage was that the movement against child abuse had gone too far, and that therapists and social workers were encouraging, and sometimes forcing, children and women to imagine abuse that had never happened.
I was entirely unprepared when, only a few years after the publication of those articles, a friend began disclosing ritual abuse in the context of a paedophile ring. These disclosures occurred without facilitation or encouragement by a mental health professional, and they did not conform to mass media warnings about ‘false’ and ‘recovered’ memories. She had never ‘forgotten’ her abuse and she was reporting attacks in the present that left behind undeniable marks and injuries.
Her disclosures set me on the path to a career as a criminologist specializing in the study of organized child sexual abuse. I now chair the Ritual Abuse, Mind Control and Organised Abuse Special Interest Group (RAMCOA) which is full of people just like me: people who unexpectedly encountered survivors of extreme abuse and have sought to understand and address their particular needs. The SIG includes an important cohort of therapists who are also survivors, driven by personal experience and professional commitment to provide care for others who share their history.
Over the last few years, there’ve been moves afoot within the ISSTD to revisit and come to grips with the fractious legacies of the ‘memory wars’, including controversies over ritual abuse and mind control. I listened with great interest at the national ISSTD conference in Chicago this year as a number of ‘veterans’ of those wars shared their reflections on that time. It’s been illuminating to hear first hand accounts of the formation of the ISSTD and the costs born by those who first tried to articulate the unspeakable: the intentional inducement and manipulation of dissociation in children for the purposes of sexual sadism and exploitation.
However, if the evolution of trauma treatment has taught us anything, it’s that revisiting the past is not inherently therapeutic. Revisiting needs to be an opportunity for reframing and reprocessing, or else we may only reproduce the same conflicts and painful divisions. We can use contemporary knowledge and evidence of child sexual exploitation to develop new insights into earlier debates over ritual abuse and mind control
It has long been observed that virtually all survivors of ritual abuse and mind control report that their sexual abuse was photographed and videotaped (e.g. Snow & Sorenson, 1990). This observation is affirmed by contemporary digital evidence in the form of online child exploitation material, as well as research with survivors. The size of the market in child abuse material was significant prior to the internet, and included semi-commercial production within developed countries (Berenbaum et al., 1984). However, with the advent of the internet, demand for child abuse material has grown exponentially. By mid 2017, the world’s largest law enforcement database of child abuse material, the U.S. Child Victim Identification Program, had reviewed more than 207 million images and videos of abuse.
Content analysis finds that over half of online child abuse material depicts explicit sexual activity and assaults, and 2% depict the kinds of torture disclosed by survivors of ritual abuse: bestiality, bondage, weapons, defecation/urination (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2016). Over two thirds of abuse material appears to have been manufactured in a home setting. In 2017, the Canadian Center for Child Protection published the findings of a survey of 150 survivors of child sexual abuse imagery (Canadian Centre for Child Protection, 2017). Their findings include that:
- Half of survivors were victims of organized sexual abuse: that is, a group or network of offenders.
- In the majority of organized abuse cases, the primary perpetrators were one or both parents.
- Victimisation in organized abuse tended to begin before the age of four and continue into adulthood.
- A significant group of survivors reported torture involving rituals, electroshock and near-drowning (Canadian Center for Child Protection, 2017).
This data affirms to a significant degree the pattern of abuse that has been consistently disclosed by survivors of ritual abuse and mind control. It is becoming apparent that demand for child abuse material is being met by organized perpetrator groups involving parents who use a range of techniques to traumatise their children from infancy into compliance with sexual exploitation. From the vantage point offered by contemporary research, it would seem that the emerging professional field of trauma and dissociation in the 1970s and 1980s provided a space in which a subterranean criminal phenomenon – the extreme abuse of children for mass consumption – could surface and be recognized for the first time.
Something else that we learn from trauma therapy is that the retelling of history is shaped by inequities of power. Some people are permitted to remember but others are not, and some stories are legitimized while others never gain a hearing. At the moment, the authorised perspective on the ‘memory wars’ over the credibility of ritual abuse and mind control tends to be (mostly) white, (mostly) male and (mostly) medical, characterized by a renewed call for therapeutic neutrality to avoid the supposed excesses of the ‘believers’ and the ‘sceptics’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Underlying this call is a soothing agnosticism over the reality or otherwise of extreme abuse; an agnosticism that could have been justified twenty-five years ago perhaps, but not today.
There is another set of histories and perspectives on ritual abuse and mind control that paint a more complex picture. The narrative of rational clinicians standing firm against ideology and hysteria casts a pejorative shadow over the struggles of survivors, activists and their allies who forced ritual abuse and mind control onto the therapeutic agenda. Listening to these stories will not only provide us with richer insights into the ‘memory wars’ but will broaden the field of those who are authorized to provide the ‘official’ history of research and practice in trauma and dissociation.
A full accounting of the ‘memory wars’ might even acknowledge the experience of those people, like my friend, whose brutal exploitation continued unabated during the 1990s, even as the very existence of her abuse was being debated in the mass media and professional literature. Perhaps, one day, we might find space to grieve for the extraordinary tragedy that we were first alerted to ritual abuse and mind control over a quarter of a century ago, and we have lost another generation to inaction and disbelief.
I am one of many who believe that we have reached a tipping point in relation to ritual abuse, mind control and organized abuse. In my work as a criminologist, I am in regular contact with professional stakeholders involved in the detection and disruption of online and organized sexual abuse. Ritual abuse and mind control do not surprise them. Slowly but surely, sadistic and exploitative family networks are being uncovered and broken up through careful investigation and prosecution. We are beginning to reckon with paedophilic subcultures that use dissociation as an instrument of control.
The most appropriate stance that we can take, I think, when we look back at early attempts to grapple with ritual abuse and mind control is grateful appreciation. Like any early area of inquiry, there were missteps and mistakes. But we would not be where we are today without the dogged commitment of those therapists, survivors and activists who refused to let the extreme and bizarre excesses of human cruelty be buried by social and professional incredulity. Their efforts, I believe, have been vindicated.
- Berenbaum, Tina M., Burgess, Ann Wolbert, Cucci, Joseph, Davidson, Howard A., McCaghy, Charles H., & Summit, Roland C. (1984). Child pornography in the 1970s. In A. W. Burgess & M. Lindeqvist Clark (Eds.), Child pornography and sex rings (pp. 7–23). Lexington MA; Toronto: Lexington Books.
- Canadian Center for Child Protection. (2017). Survivor’s Survey Preliminary Report. Winnipeg: Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
- Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (2016). Child sexual abuse images on the Internet: http://www.protectchildren.ca/pdfs/CTIP_CSAResearchReport_2016_en.pdf
- Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (2017). Survivor’s Survey: Executive Summary. Winnipeg: Canadian Center for Child Protection.
- Snow, B., & Sorenson, T. (1990). Ritualistic child abuse in a neighborhood setting. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5(4), 474–487.