Ritual abuse has become an unmentionable topic for many child
protection professionals. But is it time to think the unthinkable
once again? Sara Scott explains why it’s so important to hear the
stories of survivors.
As a public issue, ritual abuse in Britain went from discovery
to disappearance in little over 10 years. Having risen to
prominence in connection with a series of controversial child
protection cases including Congleton, Nottingham, Rochdale and
Orkney, the newly recognised possibility of ritual abuse was
officially acknowledged as a type of organised abuse in Working
Together Under the Children Act (1991).
By the time the Working Together consultation document
was published in 1998, such cases had been repeatedly characterised
as part of a “moral panic” instigated by evangelical Christians and
feminists. Ritual abuse was no longer mentioned.
The public disappearance of ritual abuse as a child protection
issue followed the publication of research commissioned by the
Department of Health.1 Although formally concerned with
the extent and nature of organised and ritual abuse, it is clear
that its main purpose was to clarify whether ritual abuse needed to
be taken seriously by those concerned with protecting children. Its
conclusion that organised (satanic) ritual abuse did not exist was
based on a review of case files referred to the Official
I first came across the term ritual abuse in newspaper reports
of the Nottingham case in 1989. I felt distinctly irritated by
stories which promised to distract attention from the ordinary men
who perpetrated the vast majority of sexual abuse by turning the
issue of child-rape into a pantomime complete with costumes and
wicked witches. I had been a counsellor, trainer and activist
concerned with issues of sexual violence for some years. I believed
I knew what sexual abuse was, who did it and why; and I knew it had
precious little to do with “devil worship”.
My attitude changed through my involvement with a 14-year-old
girl escaping organised and ritual abuse. Her accounts were of
sadistic abuse perpetrated by her parents, of exploitation through
child prostitution and pornography, of hypnosis and torture, of the
ritual killing of hens and sheep and babies, and of being fed
maggots, faeces and vomit.
I shared in her efforts to make sense of her appalling
experiences, her terror of her abusers, her self-loathing and her
desperate wish to be “ordinary”. In the context of her gradual and
painful disclosures, an overall life-story emerged within which the
bizarre was rendered believable. This experience inspired both my
research and my choice of methods.
Specifically, I recognised that sceptical accounts had failed to
engage directly with first-person testimony. Where survivors’
experiences were referred to, it was as collections of bizarre
claims concerning human sacrifice, cannibalism and satanism. They
removed bizarre incidents from the context of whole lives. By
contrast my research considered them in relation to the mundane
details which surrounded them.
The life history interviews I conducted tell of lives saturated
with “normal” abuse within the family, abuse in the form of
prostitution and in the production of pornography. However, there
is no easy way of filleting the ritual abuse out of these
narratives in order to transform them into some more readily
accepted form of organised abuse.
The survivors I interviewed were aware of the controversial
status of “recovered memories” of abuse and described their own
various experiences of repressing, denying and remembering in
relation to this. The young women, who were in their late teens or
early 20s at the time of interview, had only recently left an
abusive childhood behind. For them, escaping and making sense of
their lives were intimately entangled. They had never “forgotten”
Most interviewees had received some form of professional
support, from a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or social
worker; a couple had been supported by foster carers experienced in
supporting sexually abused young people. Among those interviewees
who had received no professional support, one woman was
particularly articulate about how she felt when she started
remembering her past.
“When I started properly having “flashbacks” I didn’t dare tell
anyone – this was the 1970s remember – I was afraid they’d lock me
up and take my kids away. I’d got this idea from somewhere that you
had to remember everything, every detail and go through it all. At
the same time you don’t want to think about any of it, so it takes
Other interviewees described the perceptual distortions caused
by sleep deprivation, dehydration and starvation, and a barrage of
tricks, deceptions and deliberate obfuscation on the part of their
abusers. Some were eager to discuss these complexities, along with
the potent mixture of drugs, dissociation, violence and group
hysteria which made rituals particularly confusing to recall. These
specific distortions of various kinds did not however disrupt their
stories overall, rather they were discussed as being a constitutive
part of the experience of ritual abuse.
Taking survivors’ accounts seriously involves treating people as
the experts on their own lives. Individuals can of course be
deceived or confused by things they remember, or be motivated to
lie about or deny past experiences. However, to recognise the
fallibility and malleability of all our memories is very different
from accepting that a “syndrome” of therapist-induced false
memories peculiarly afflicts women recalling incest and ritual
The issue here is not the mis-remembrance of an incident or
episode, but the fabrication of an entire childhood and
adolescence, of a family and way of life.
If the women and men I interviewed are assumed to be people of
serious intent, struggling to make sense of painful experiences,
their stories may be an invaluable resource for those involved in
child protection. They have much to say about the organisation of
child prostitution involving pre-teens and the involvement of women
in intra and extra-familial sexual abuse and exploitation.
They have experienced being used in pornography and the
inter-generational persistence of sexual abuse in poly-incestuous
families of all social classes. Their disclosures may help to
create a climate of belief that enables another generation of
multiply-abused children to be more readily recognised and better
In addition, survivors may play a crucial role in relation to
particular cases. There are many similarities between the accounts
of family sadism heard at Plymouth Crown Court in 1998 (for which
nine people were jailed for crimes against children over a period
of 35 years) and the accounts of survivors who participated in my
research – although the Plymouth case was never identified as one
of “ritual abuse” and received almost no media attention.
The boys in the family were taught to abuse their sisters from
an early age. The children were prostituted to men outside the
family, and when pregnancy resulted their father performed the
abortion. The children often went hungry and never discussed the
abuse with each other. The abuse was often photographed and in the
middle of the night the children were sometimes driven to nearby
woods and tied over a smouldering fire before being multiply
Throughout the three inter-linked trials in this case, the
prosecution insisted that the court should not be fixated on
precise dates and particular events but concerned rather with a
pattern of behaviour, with repetitive abuse until in the victims’
memories one occasion was little different from another.
However, the crucial difference between this case and
“discredited” ritual abuse cases was the testimony of adult
survivors and the central role it played in the presentation of the
case. After 12 years of therapy, one woman had gone to the police
to try and prevent her parents abusing another generation of
children. Much later her adult siblings corroborated and expanded
upon her account of the childhood they had endured.
Those concerned to protect children and seek justice were
painstaking in their efforts, but they had a great deal to go on:
the life stories of adult survivors, their coherence, their
verisimilitude. These stories provided the evidence of the general
pattern of abuse, within which the few instances for which specific
corroboration or forensic evidence was available, made sense. The
prosecution refused the specimen charge model which disaggregates
child abuse into incidents as if a series of burglaries had
The young women I interviewed who had sought help from social
services to escape the violence in their lives had been fortunate
enough to be taken seriously by the professionals they encountered.
The support they received had been crucial in enabling them to
build new futures for themselves.
A climate of disbelief may well mitigate against other young
people seeking or obtaining the help they need. It may also prevent
professionals from obtaining appropriate support for themselves
when they are dealing with cases that appear to involve
particularly perverse or bizarre features. Na‹ve credulity is
not the only alternative to blanket denial: survivors have a great
deal to teach us about child abuse and its consequences.
They may sometimes be mistaken or confused in what they
remember, and they may be as likely to fabricate as anyone else.
But, what I believe we owe survivors is serious attention to their
individual stories, rather than the collective dismissal they have
1 J La Fontaine, The Extent and Nature of
Organised and Ritual Abuse, HMSO, 1994