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COLUMN ONE : Satanism: Skeptics Abound : Worry about devil worship has spread rapidly. But many lurid claims of ritual abuse and human sacrifice by cults do not stand up, some experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Jacquie Balodis is talking softly about her bad childhood.

How bad was it? It was unbelievably bad.

“I was born into satanism,” the 49-year-old Garden Grove woman said. As she describes it, her early years in Pueblo, Colo., included devil worship, human sacrifice and cannibalism.

She said as a teen-ager she was twice impregnated by her stepfather, now deceased. Both fetuses were aborted and used in rituals, she said. “Part of me believed it was my privilege to give my child to Satan.”

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The memories were suppressed for years, she insists, then recovered in psychotherapy.

Balodis admits that it sounds weird. Weirder yet, such tales are becoming common. Across America, people say they have regained memories of abuse by parents who belonged to a worldwide network of devil worshipers.

Authorities say America is witnessing an epidemic of concern over Satan and his minions, especially among adherents of fundamentalist Christianity. So-called ritual abuse is only part of it.

But are these stories of incest and human sacrifice true? Many mental health experts think not. At least two law enforcement officers, with the FBI and San Francisco police, say they have looked into some of the claims and found nothing.

Some real events probably lend credence to the idea that Satan worshipers are everywhere.

For instance, there is a self-styled Church of Satan. It was founded in 1966 by a former lion tamer and revival show organist. Preaching the pursuit of pleasure, it employs satanic symbols such as pentagrams and black robes in its rituals. It has not been linked with criminal activity.

In a just-concluded Orange County case, two self-proclaimed ex-victims took their elderly mother to court and accused her of having been part of a child-murdering cult. A jury found in their favor this month, although it did not award them monetary damages.

Some jurors said the verdict did not mean they believed the satanism story, only that the women had been abused. One of the women’s supporters said after the decision: “It’s a grand day for victims. Somebody believed them. It’s now going to encourage more victims to talk.”

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A lot of people already are talking.

“The satanism scare has at various times approached panic levels,” said David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. Bromley is co-author of the forthcoming book, “The Satanism Scare.”

Jeffrey Victor, sociologist at Jamestown Community College in New York, has tracked 33 “rumor panics” in 24 states in the late 1980s. One occurred in 1988 in Breathitt County, Ky., where parents kept their children from school amid rumors that satanists were plotting to kidnap blond, blue-eyed children. Another caused scores of Jamestown, N. Y., citizens to arm themselves with clubs and scour the forests for a chimerical band of satanists.

Moreover:

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* A 1989 telephone survey of 1,000 Texans by the Public Policy Resources Laboratory at Texas A & M University found that nearly 80% of respondents thought satanism had increased over the previous five years and said they were concerned about it.

* Illinois, Louisiana, Idaho and Texas have outlawed violence committed during a religious ritual.

* The Los Angeles County Commission for Women has produced, at taxpayers’ expense, a handbook called “Ritual Abuse.” It says satanists “frequently function together in groups in the operation of preschools, day-care services and baby-sitting services.”

The handbook was a product of the commission’s Ritual Abuse Task Force, whose job is to warn the public, therapists and police of the signs of satanic abuse, said Myra B. Riddell, task force chairwoman. Last year, 7,500 copies were distributed in the United States and Canada. Ten thousand more were printed last month.

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* In October, the Ritualistic Crime Task Force, an information clearinghouse in Rialto, held a news conference in Los Angeles to warn parents that devil-worshipers were plotting to kidnap and sacrifice trick-or-treaters on Halloween. None did.

* In 1988, when Geraldo Rivera devoted a program to “Exposing Satan’s Underground,” Americans in 19.8 million homes tuned in. It was the highest-rated documentary ever aired on NBC.

* Organizations give law enforcement seminars on ritualistic crime. Speakers discuss everything from the game Dungeons and Dragons to human sacrifice. The privately funded Cult Crime Impact Network in Boise, Ida., is a clearinghouse on supposed satanic crimes. It publishes a newsletter with 2,000 subscribers--mostly, it says, police officers.

* Two researchers at Texas A & M sampled the attitudes of 153 police officers who had attended a seminar on cult crime or subscribed to the Cult Crime newsletter. The consensus among officers was that satanism is responsible for one in 10 homicides and one in three suicides by teen-agers.

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No one has comprehensive statistics on the self-proclaimed “survivors” of ritual abuse. Believers and scoffers agree that their numbers reach into the thousands. Balodis said a support group she started hears from at least 40 new survivors a month. She said she knows of at least 500 in Los Angeles.

Sandi Bargioni, a San Francisco police officer who specializes in ritualistic crime, said she has received scores of calls from women claiming to have been abused in satanic rituals as children. Not one of the stories could be proved, she said, and she is among the skeptics.

So is Kenneth Lanning, who works in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. Considered an expert in cult crime, he has advised police departments on more than 300 cases, many involving survivor tales.

“In the early ‘80s, the first few times my phone rang, I was inclined to believe it,” he said.

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Then the cases began piling up. There were lots of reports of cults, but no bodies. Lanning said airplanes with heat-seeking equipment sought out mass graves on the theory that decomposing bodies would give off heat. No bodies were found. Lanning stopped believing.

“What are the probabilities of this?” he asked. “Two or three people in Southern California may be able to do this a couple of times and get away with it.” But when all the claims of satanic sacrifice were added up, it amounted to thousands of people murdering thousands more. “It was the totality of it that caused me concern.”

The stories have caught the attention of scholars in mainstream academic and medical circles.

Papers and workshops on claims of satanic abuse have been given at conferences sponsored by the American Psychiatric Assn. and other professional groups.

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In August, a session of the American Psychological Assn. convention in San Francisco will be devoted to satanic-cult claims. The panel’s chairman, Phillip Shaver, psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said he does not know whether any of the claims are true. He adds: “I know it’s being blown out of proportion.” With a research grant, he plans to study 100 satanic stories.

A professional organization called the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation has established a task force on cult claims.

One member, George Ganaway, who teaches psychiatry at Emory University, is highly skeptical. “The likelihood is this is going to turn out to be urban legend, but I can’t say for sure. I certainly don’t believe there is a satanic cult conspiracy.”

The stories of survivors began appearing in the wake of the 1980 book, “Michelle Remembers.” Written by self-proclaimed survivor Michelle Smith and her therapist, it describes life in a satanic cult that supposedly operated in the 1950s.

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One of the better-known survivors is Lauren Stratford, a middle-aged San Fernando Valley woman who claims to have been turned over to pornographers and satanists by her parents. She became a sensation on local radio and television talk shows after her 1988 book, “Satan’s Underground,” described her experiences as a “breeder” impregnated by satanists to produce children for sacrifice. (Satan, being purely evil, is said to prefer innocent victims.)

“As the flames began to consume the sacrifice, I yelled, ‘Satan, you didn’t get Joey. Joey went to be with Jesus. He fooled you all. You may have gotten his heart, but you didn’t get his soul,’ ” she reports in Chapter 10.

A small Christian magazine, Cornerstone, investigated her past and questioned ex-schoolmates about her alleged pregnancies. It concluded that her book was a “gruesome fantasy.” The book, which sold 140,000 copies, was pulled by its publisher, Harvest House of Eugene, Ore. Stratford insists it is all true.

More retiring than Stratford is a group founded by Balodis called Overcomers Victorious. It holds sessions for about 45 women in Los Angeles and Dallas. Balodis will not allow visitors, saying three satanists once tried to infiltrate the group.

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Believers and skeptics agree that typically the survivor is a middle-aged woman who, during therapy for a psychiatric problem, is found to be suffering from multiple personality disorder caused by some childhood trauma, often sexual abuse. Parents, even grandparents, are said to be involved.

As therapy continues, the patient begins talking about altars, robes and animal and human sacrifice. The therapist calls the police.

“That’s when my phone rings,” the FBI’s Lanning said. Except for one case in Washington state, it appears that none of the reports has resulted in a criminal conviction.

Believers say no evidence is uncovered because the satanists are so clever. The county’s “Ritual Abuse” handbook puts it this way: “Explanations for the absence of found remains include cannibalism, cult access to mortuaries and crematories, frozen storage of body parts, and the retention by cult members of bones and body parts for further magical practices.”

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Lanning says disposing of bodies is not as easy as some people think, and some remains should have been found if cults were systematically sacrificing people.

The only known criminal conviction stems from a bizarre case in which Paul Ingram, a sheriff’s deputy and former head of the Republican Party in Thurston County, Wash., pleaded guilty to six rape charges in 1989. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Two relatives had accused him of attacking them for 17 years during rituals that included killing two dozen babies. Ingram has tried to withdraw the guilty plea, saying he was coerced into it.

Wayne Fricke, his lawyer, said the police interrogation of Ingram included a jailhouse exorcism. Ingram was so malleable, according to Richard Ofshe, a UC Berkeley sociologist who interviewed him as part of the case, that he was able to get the defendant to confess to a crime that Ofshe made up.

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Despite the expert opinion against them, the survivors draw support from several sources.

Foremost are fundamentalist Christians. The major publishers and producers of books and videos dealing with satanism have strong fundamentalist ties.

Hal Lindsay, author of the best-selling “Late Great Planet Earth” has been a major supporter of survivors--notably Stratford--and has linked the rise in satanism to the Last Days prophesied in the Book of Revelation. “This story is absolutely incredible and true,” Lindsay said of “Satan’s Underground.”

Many of the conferences for so-called “cult cops” are organized by church-affiliated groups, such as North American Conferences, which in turn is affiliated with the Calvary Chapel of West Covina.

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J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, dismisses the stories as mostly distorted memories of childhood sexual abuse.

If the stories are true, he said, “this means a generation ago there were at least 400 or 500 satanist groups in the country, functioning, doing things and able to keep their existence not just hidden, but even hidden from the rumor mill. That, to me, is pretty far-fetched.”

Support also comes from feminists, as suggested by the county Commission for Women booklet. They point out that society once refused to believe women who said they were victims of rape and incest.

“We have seen enough evidence across the country that it is a factor,” Tammy Bruce, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, said of ritual abuse. “We must admit it does occur.”

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Finally, there are the therapists. Bromley, the skeptical Virginia sociologist, estimates that 250 therapists are working on satanic ritual-abuse cases.

Catherine Gould, who treats ritual-abuse survivors in the San Fernando Valley, said she has seen 15 children who have been ritually abused in day-care centers. She denies that the stories could be planted.

“I can certainly tell you it usually goes the other way,” she said. “The therapist has to struggle to believe.”

In the widely publicized McMartin Pre-School case, satanic practices and ritual abuse were alleged by some children, but no one was ever convicted.

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At a 1989 conference co-sponsored by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, a federal agency, Dan Sexton, director of the National Abuse Hotline, said: “I don’t need to see evidence to believe.”

Bennett Braun, who operates a clinic in Chicago that treats purported satanic-abuse victims, said of satanists in a 1988 speech: “We are working with a national-international type organization that’s got a structure somewhat similar to the communist cell structure.”

Critics say some therapists are helping to cause the problem.

“What has happened is a number of therapists have chosen to take one side of the issue, to assume everything a patient remembers must in fact be true,” Emory University’s Ganaway said.

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Writing in a professional publication in 1989, Ganaway said a suggestion from a therapist can create “an entire belief system” in a patient. He said he has encountered “memories” that included having one’s heart removed and replaced with an animal’s.

Other skeptics say reports of a satanic conspiracy are neurotic fantasies conjured up in stressed-out communities that want a simple explanation for everything from drugs to moral decline.

“The satanic legend says, in symbolic form, that our moral values are threatened by evil forces beyond our control, and that we have lost faith in our authorities to deal with the threat,” said Jeffrey Victory, the Jamestown Community College sociologist.

This is not the first time that stories of human sacrifice were widely believed.

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Romans accused early Christians of child sacrifice. Today’s satanic stories resonate eerily with something that happened in 1836. A woman named Maria Monk stirred fears in the United States and Canada with a book recounting her supposed escape from a cult that bred babies for sacrifice. The cult, Monk charged, was the Roman Catholic Church; her tormentors--priests.

Monk’s “Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal” sold 300,000 copies and prompted incensed Protestants to ransack the monastery. No evidence was found. Even so, said Penn State folklorist Bill Ellis: “Other women came forward and claimed to have been in similar convents and corroborated her stories of sexual orgies and the killing of children.”

Jeffrey Burton Russell, a historian at UC Santa Barbara who has written a four-volume study of the idea of the devil, sees a parallel between fear of satanism and witch trials of the past, “brought on by hysteria.”

Of modern satanists, he said: “I know they exist, but I tend to think they exist less than the media or law enforcement or psychologists think they do.

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“My one wish is people would play this down and it will go away.”


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