Ritual Abuse and Torture
Warning: Some details in the following narrative are disturbing and graphic and may be a "trigger" for anyone who has been ritually abused. Discretion is advised.
In the late '80's, I was researching the effects of sexual abuse on victims of incest at a hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. I thought I was working with a subject who had a bad experience with one or more parents. Little did I realize I was also relating to some women who as children had been abused beyond imagination through a phenomenon known as ritual abuse and torture.
I became aware of ritual abuse and torture when I saw a brochure for a conference by an organization with the acronym of SMART (Stop Mind Control and Ritual Torture). The sight of 50-60 people at the conference – some sitting on the floor crying and shaking – had a powerful impact on me.
These people had been ritually abused their whole lives, terrified since babyhood, even “taught” how to dissociate (escape into an altered state of consciousness). One NPR producer told me: “If what you say is real, this is the greatest human rights abuse in history.” Tragically, it is true.
At the conference I met two Canadian women who were advocates for survivors of ritual abuse and torture and invited them to come to a women’s conference at the United Nations where our organization has consultative status. After having practically no voice and being cloaked in shame and invisibility, the experience of having an international platform opened up a whole new world for the survivors and to this day they are using it well. That was my contribution to them. Their contribution to me was no less impactful. My experience with the survivors in my first SMART conference changed the whole pattern of my research. I had to completely re-evaluate my data.
Like me at the beginning of my research, most people know very little about ritual abuse and torture. Many have heard of it in passing but consider it merely an “urban legend.” Consequently, this cultural pattern has been totally overlooked, much to our chagrin and to the devastation of those affected by it.
What is Ritual Abuse and Torture?
Ritual abuse and torture occurs individually or in groups of adults who are often, but not always, related to their victims. The rituals practiced may reflect a theological, nationalistic, idiosyncratic, ethnic, cultural, or ideological perspective employed as a device to reinforce the victims’ beliefs in the perpetrators’ supernatural powers; discredit victims who may report their abuse; or imply purpose beyond sadism to justify the abuse. Ritual abuse often commences within families in early infancy for the purpose of conditioning the victim and training the victim to dissociate into alter personality states designed to enact specific roles or behaviors. Therapists who treat individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for dissociative identity disorder have long known of the existence of this phenomenon, but even they did not suspect how prevalent it is. The purpose of ritual abuse is to create better victims: victims who will cooperate with the abusers and engage in activities and behaviors that would be otherwise aversive; victims who will be loyal to their perpetrator(s) or perpetrating group; victims who will not report their abuse to authorities or if they do report, their stories will be so outlandish as to be unbelievable. Those survivors of ritual abuse, unless properly identified and appropriately treated, are vulnerable to revictimization through the lifespan.
The Extreme Abuse Survey
The “Extreme Abuse Survey” (Rutz, Becker, Overkamp, & Karriker, 2008) – an ethnographic survey – was conducted in 2007 worldwide via the Internet and is summarized below. The EAS reported results indicating that widespread ritual abuse and torture occurs internationally irrespective of religious, ethnic, national, or cultural identity. The stories told by survivors are shocking and would be unbelievable were it not for the fact that the reports recount experiences and outcomes that are identical with one another regardless of the region where the abuse was perpetrated. This is a complex psychological, spiritual and political issue.
The Extreme Abuse Survey (EAS), designed and executed by four courageous and thoughtful researchers, is a complicated and extensive study that is the first such project to study extreme abuse experienced internationally. A comprehensive look at the survey results can be found in the anthology Ritual Abuse In the Twenty-first Century: Psychological, Forensic, Social and Political Considerations, edited by Dr. Randy Noblitt and Pamela Perskin Noblitt. A synopsis of the results is reprinted here with permission.
The survey was written in both English and German, and was made available online for a period of three months. All together 1471 participants from 30 countries answered at least one question of the 248 questions on the survey. Responses came from 774 people in the United States, 273 from Germany, 92 from the United Kingdom, 75 from Canada, 44 from Australia and New Zealand, 61 from European countries other than Germany and the UK, 28 from Asia/Africa/South America/Mexico and 124 from unnamed countries. Responses were exported from the web server into a spreadsheet format. Macros were then used to analyze over 351,000 cells of data to develop the survey results for statistical analyses.
The most common feature of ritual cases was ‘forced sex.’ Presenting symptoms of clients - in order of the most often reported to the fewest reports - were “depression, suicidal ideation, excessive fears and phobias, somatic complaints, insomnia, sexual acting out, social withdrawal, inappropriate aggression, substance abuse, obsessive compulsiveness and inappropriate toilet behavior. Forty-nine percent of clients reporting ritual abuse had been diagnosed MPD; 28% PTSD.”
Ten types of ritual abuse and the percentage of subjects who reported each type were: sexual abuse (100%), witnessing and receiving physical abuse/torture (100%), witnessing animal mutilation / killings (100%), death threats (100%), forced drug usage (97%), witnessing and forced participation in human adult and infant sacrifice (83%), forced cannibalism (81%), marriage to Satan (78%), buried alive in coffins or graves (72%), forced impregnation and sacrifice of own child (60%).
The researchers propose a clinical syndrome representing psychiatric sequelae common to their sample: severe posttraumatic stress disorder (100%), dissociative states with satanic overtones (100%), survivor guilt (97%), indoctrinated beliefs (94%), unusual fears (91%), sexualization of sadistic impulses (86%), bizarre self-abuse (83%), and substance abuse (62%). . . . All subjects reported witnessing the murder of animals, infants, children and/or adults. All reported suicidal ideation and half reported suicide attempts. The majority reported severe and sadistic forms of abuse by multiple perpetrators. Some reported continued recontact / revictimization into their adult years. Fifty-five percent reported repeated psychiatric hospitalizations during the initial and middle stages of psychotherapy. Several survivors experienced religious / spiritual conflicts stating that ‘the most destructive aspect of the ritualistic abuse has been the negative effects that it had on their spiritual selves.’ The majority said they believed in a higher power, but only half of that subgroup was involved in an organized religion. The majority considered participation in support groups as a necessary adjunct to psychotherapy. All considered the uncovering of memories as the primary focus in therapy and felt that ‘their therapists’ beliefs both in the reality of the abuse they reported and in their capacity to recover were necessary preconditions to their ability to deal with these very difficult therapeutic issues.”
Legal Concerns: Proving the Existence of Ritual Abuse and Torture
There are many stumbling blocks on the road to legal justice when it comes to prosecuting cases of ritual abuse. One cannot find evidence for what one doesn’t think exists. Put another way, “If the existence of abuse is not sought, it is unlikely to be found.” When children report bizarre tales of torture, law enforcement agents, judges, juries, and attorneys are naturally skeptical. When victims start speaking of ritual abuse, listeners often stop listening. The idea that bizarre forms of torture are being perpetrated against children is very painful. That parents or other trusted caregivers could do this to children in their keeping is even harder to fathom. It’s far easier to dismiss these stories as fantasy or to grab at theoretical criteria to debunk its reality. One such criterion holds that ritual abuse has not been tested in the courts and is unsubstantiated. Aiding this theory is that, with few exceptions, most states in the United States and other countries do not have specific statutes against ritual abuse. It is challenging to prosecute an activity if there are no specific regulations outlawing it.
Additionally, ritual abuse is often not reported contemporaneously to the actual occurrence. Child victims are frequently dependent on their perpetrators for their very survival. And as a consequence of the abuse the victim is often in a dissociated state with no complete memory of the abusive experience. Reports of ritual trauma are generally not made until the victim is an adult by which time no tangible evidence can be located and it is simply the victim’s word against that of the alleged perpetrator(s).
Furthermore, ritual abuse, like incest, is committed in secret. The only witnesses to such abuses are perpetrators and victims. Evidence of these abusive practices is generally anecdotal. However, there have been occasions where tangible evidence has been collected and/or perpetrators have confessed their guilt. There have been convictions in the United States and in other countries for crimes that included ritually abusive acts.
A common element of ritual abuse is deception. The facts of the abusive situation are likely distorted in the victims’ memories because the perpetrators mask their identities, location, and intent as part of the abuse process. The rituals themselves act as a screen to protect the perpetrator or perpetrating group by making the victims seem less credible.
Complicating legal matters even further is the double-bind in which many victims find themselves. Part of the abuse process is to make the victim complicit in his or her own abuse as well as the abuse of fellow victims. In addition to the primary effects of the abuse, the victim also suffers the shame of victimhood and the guilt of being a perpetrator, even though these roles are coerced. And since most victims of ritual abuse are in psychiatric treatment at the time they disclose their ritually abusive histories their testimony is further suspect.
Victims of extreme torture often experience severe psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems. Individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for dissociative identity disorder frequently report a history of ritual abuse. However, not all mental health professionals are well versed in the dissociative disorder and ritual abuse survivors may be misdiagnosed with conditions ranging from schizophrenia to personality disorder. Individuals who have experienced ritual abuse are quite likely to suffer psychological sequelae of these experiences including auditory and visual hallucinations, anxiety disorders, sleep problems (insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors), eating disorders (food aversions, food phobias, anorexia, bulimia), obsessions, compulsions, somatic complaints, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression. Ritual abuse survivors are obviously harmed by this misdiagnosis. Many survivors of extreme abuse have been unjustly mishandled by both the mental health and legal systems that results in neither recovery nor justice.
First-Hand Account From A Survivor
Joan Lauer is a ritual abuse survivor, and found her path to healing by becoming a victims advocate. “I reached out to others to feel less crazy,” she states. “For the first time in my life, I felt like a human being.”
“Unfortunately ritual abuse is not really rare and exotic,” she confides, “it’s just well hidden.” Based on her interviews with over a thousand survivors, she estimates that a substantial number of people have been ritually abused, but the numbers are impossible to quantify because “people who abuse children do not leave paper trails.”
Some survivors identify their abuse with particular individuals, generally family members, and some report abuse within one or more “cults.” Many survivors report having been abused in cults self-identified as Satanic, Luciferian, Gnostic, Kabbalistic, Rosicrucian, Voodoo, Santeria, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, and others. Women comprise roughly 80% of the people who identify themselves as survivors and leave the cult. Although both boys and girls are abused within the cult “family,” boys are typically groomed to be perpetrators while girls are trained to be cooperative victims. Most abusive groups are reportedly paternalistic, although some are maternalistic. Males tend to hold the majority of power positions and may therefore be less incentivized to leave. Women are also more likely to seek out mental health treatment resulting in data that implies women are more likely to be ritually victimized than men.
Although stories of ritual abuse may appear at first glance to be unbelievable, it helps to keep in mind that 50 years ago experts believed incest occurred in only one or two in a million families. Psychiatric textbooks published as recently as the 1970s did not even discuss the sexual abuse of children which was considered too rare to be considered. Our present-day awareness of the magnitude of child sexual abuse should allow us to open our minds to the possibility that child sexual abuse can be extreme. In recent years we have learned of institutionalized abuses occurring within the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, YMCA, and even in the hallowed halls of the British Broadcasting System. Isolated reports of infanticide, severe child abuse, child pornography, and child prostitution periodically appear in the news. Is it difficult to imagine that children are the primary victims of ritual abuse designed to create altered mental states that respond predictably to specialized training?