The findings were startling, if not downright unbelievable: claims of psychiatric patients who had ritually abused family members and eaten them in the name of Satan.
Could Dr. Bennett Braun--who first assembled his colleagues in Chicago nearly 15 years ago to discuss the matter--be on to an alarming trend?
They named it "satanic ritual abuse" and deemed it the work of a clandestine network of devil worshipers who'd been torturing people for centuries. Braun, a Chicago-area psychiatrist, seemed so sure that he talked of death threats from self-proclaimed cult members and, according to a 1996 deposition, their possible links to the FBI and CIA.
"It seemed bizarre at the time, of course," said Dr. Marlene Hunter, a Canadian psychiatrist among the 450 who attended that first Chicago conference in 1984. "But it was like a lifeline for those of us who'd been struggling . . . with nobody to turn to for help."
The idea would catapult into an all-out movement with Braun as its self-appointed spokesman. Carrying the clout of his employer, a branch of the prestigious Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center, he appeared on "20/20" and "Geraldo" and earned praise from peers and even activist Gloria Steinem, whose Ms. magazine carried a cover story about the far-reaching effects of satanic ritual abuse.
Then doubters began to come forward. In 1992, the FBI declared that there was scant physical evidence of widespread satanic ritual abuse. Even some of Braun's own colleagues admitted that memories induced by hypnosis were sometimes unreliable. And, one by one, former patients came forward with allegations of mistreatment and malpractice lawsuits.
This summer, Braun faces another challenge--from the state of Illinois, which is now considering revocation of his medical license. The case, scheduled to go to trial in May, focuses largely on the treatment of Patty Burgus. Braun diagnosed this mother from suburban Glen Ellyn with multiple personality disorder, now commonly called dissociative identity disorder.
A year ago, after seeking treatment from other therapists, Burgus settled a civil claim against Braun for $10.6 million, according to Burgus and her attorneys. In Burgus' original complaint, she claimed that Braun wrongly convinced her that she possessed 300 personalities, ate meatloaf made of human flesh and served as high priestess of a satanic cult.
Braun also has settled at least one other case, with former patient Mary Shanley of suburban Wheaton. Shanley's attorney confirmed the settlement but would not disclose the amount.
Braun, 58, did not return messages seeking comment for this story. His attorney, Harvey Harris, also declined comment, as did his bosses at Rush, where Braun remains on staff.
Silence is unusual for Braun, so outspoken before the lawsuits started to hit. A self-described "stimulus freak" known as Buddy to his friends, he has conceded that his methods--in and outside of work--were sometimes unconventional.
"I take pleasure in risks," he said in a 1992 interview with Chicago magazine, describing how he photographed sharks without a submerged cage and shattered his leg while skydiving.
But he insisted that he always had his patients' best interests at heart, even if his techniques were unproven.
"Sometimes . . . when it's new and things you've tried aren't working and you want to help somebody, you try something that nobody's ever tried before, so you don't know whether it's going to be harmful or not," Braun said in a 1996 deposition in the Burgus case.
Prosecutors say Braun went way too far.
"This is a case about gross negligence," said Thomas Glasgow, who is overseeing the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation's case against Braun. "He misused the course of treatment of multiple-personality disorder the way a surgeon misuses a knife. That is probably the best analogy I can come up with."
Glasgow is reluctant to reveal details. But Braun's 1996 deposition for the Burgus lawsuit gives a glimpse of what may happen at the trial.
Braun told Burgus' lawyer that he practiced general psychiatry for a number of years--including much of the time he treated Burgus--before he was board certified. (It took him four times to pass the oral portion of the boards in 1989.) He also said that he did not get written informed consent to hypnotize Burgus and did not tell her about the potential effects of her drugs, given sometimes in much higher-than-recommended doses. Those drugs included Inderal, a heart medication that can cause severe hallucinations, and sodium amytal, a potentially lethal drug known informally as "truth serum" that some doctors associate with brainwashing.
Burgus plans to testify against her former doctor, insisting there were times when Braun twisted seemingly innocent information into proof of satanic ritual abuse.
She cites an April 1991 videotape of Braun testifying as an expert in a repressed-memory case in Santa Ana, Calif. In it, he tells how Burgus' young son used his knowledge of satanic ritual abuse to describe the process of disembowelment--right down to the stench.
Burgus says her son, who, along with his brother, was placed in a psychiatric hospital for nearly three years, was simply describing a scene he'd watched in the movie "Star Wars."
"I knew what it was, but this doctor would not even consider that," Burgus told the Associated Press. "He said I was in denial. He said . . . if I wasn't going to be a helper, then I wouldn't be seeing my children."
Some psychiatrists call Braun a grandstander gone far afield since 1984, when he co-founded the International Society for the Study of Dissociation. The society, headquartered in suburban Chicago, studies dissociative identity disorder.
"Bennett Braun seems to be a promotional genius," said Dr. John Hochman, a California psychiatrist who likens Braun's own professional following to a cult. "He started the society and a journal. There were the conferences. . . .
"They were just very excited about what they had, and nobody challenged them in a very big way."
Hunter, who now heads the society that Braun co-founded, refuses to doubt his good intentions, though she does concede mistakes.
"A lot of highly well-intentioned people did get caught up in this maelstrom with very unfortunate results, and I think this is one of the unfortunate results," she said of Burgus' case.
Even the discussion over satanic ritual abuse--and how it built to such a frenzy--is a topic of much discussion. One behavioral scientist with the FBI, a skeptic after attending a few of Braun's conferences, wrote this in a 1996 report.
"In the public debate between emotion and reason, emotion almost always wins," said Kenneth Lanning, now based at the FBI's academy in Quantico, Va. "Regardless of intelligence and education--and in spite of common sense and evidence to the contrary--adults tend to believe what they want or need to believe."
Still others defend Braun and credit him with helping put the spotlight on sexual abuse--something that had been a taboo subject until about 20 years ago.
"In 1975, the most authoritative textbook said incest was one in a million. So there was a swing to believe these accounts because for so long people did not believe them," said Dr. Richard Kluft, a psychiatrist in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and longtime friend of Braun's.
"Dr. Braun has made profound and important contributions," Kluft said. "And I think he's caught in a real tidal wave of backlash."
Hunter isn't so sure.
"My heart goes out to Buddy, and I hope for the best and fear for the worst," Hunter said. "But to tell you the truth, I don't even know what would be the best.
"I would just hate to see him vilified when I truly believe he was doing what he thought was best for his patients."