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Sex and Satanic Abuse: A Fad Revisited

We must know this history so as not to repeat it.

I have been so vocal in warning about DSM 5 partly because I'm ashamed of my silence in the face of a previous outrage that cried out for similar whistle blowing. The episode is recalled in a wonderful piece by Richard Noll that brings the history vividly back to life.

The time was between 20-25 years ago. The outrage that needed exposing was the sudden epidemic of prosecutions of day center workers for the alleged sexual and satanic ritual abuse of the children under their care. The place was all over the US: This was a nationwide craze that focused suspicion on more than 100 centers. The victims were the completely innocent day care workers who were indicted and often convicted of ridiculous charges that could not possibly have any foundation in reality. Many were pressured, threatened, and/or tortured into false confessions and some, under great duress, were forced into making false charges implicating co-workers. Dozens have served prison sentences and some are still in jail—an injustice of shocking proportions.

The initial accusers were usually mentally unbalanced parents harboring weird imaginings or an ax to grind, or both. The first responder enablers were gullible police detectives who spread panic from household to household. Next came ambitious prosecutors who used the cases to make a name for themselves (one became Attorney General of the United States; another governor of North Carolina). Most inexcusable were the self appointed 'expert' therapists with their anatomically correct dolls and their leading and bullying suggestions. The children were seduced and brow beaten into confirming wild stories of horrible, but totally implausible, sexual and/or satanic experiences. Parents, police, prosecutors, and therapists who theoretically were there to protect the kids from abuse instead themselves became their abusers.

The charges were farce, but the impact on those involved was tragedy. Never was there a single shred of physical evidence that any of the crimes had ever occurred. It was a modern witch-hunt, no better than the Salem trials occurring 300 years before or the Spanish Inquisition 400 years ago. In the interim, modern man has acquired remarkable knowledge, but is still capable of remarkably primitive thinking and cruel action.

I stayed silent on the sidelines—observing all this foolishness, but displaying a cowardly distaste for controversy. As Chair of the DSM IV Task Force, I had a bully pulpit to point out the utter craziness of the fad. Instead, I justified my passivity on the grounds that it was not really my fight and that getting involved might compromise my neutrality as DSM IV Chair. These were lousy excuses, considering that innocent people were going to jail and kids were being traumatised by fake therapists who professed to be experts in childhood trauma. My priorities were all screwed up.

Anyone who thinks it improbable that anything so dumb and destructive could ever happen again need only google 'Satanic Ritual Abuse'. You will find a wealth of reckless and nutty how-to guides ready to lure the gullible into a new round of similar primitive thinking and witch hunts. And there is no shortage of gullible people: A recent survey indicates that a majority of Americans still believe in demonic possession. The percentages would be even higher in many parts of the world that are even less developed than we are.

If we don't recall this disaster and learn from its lessons, we are likely to repeat it—possibly in the near future.

More from Allen J Frances M.D.
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