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Cults That Never Were: The Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare (SRAS)


The satanic ritual abuse scare was a moral panic that began in the 1980’s in North America and lasted throughout much of the 1990’s. It was fueled by claims of Satan worship made up of several components:

  • Child and sexual abuse

  • Human ritual sacrifice
  • Teenage abduction rumors
  • Animal Mutilation
  • Claims of actual Satanists (The Church of Satan and Temple of Set)
  • Heavy metal rock and horrorcore music
  • Violent and fantasy games

During its time, the SRAS led to many criminal investigations based on little or no evidence of an actual occurrence of satanic activity or any criminal activity whatsoever. Although there are many components to the satanic ritual abuse scare, the incidents of sexual child abuse and abduction related to rumors of satanic cult activity will be the focus of this review.

History and Evidence

Since there were several components that led to the satanic ritual abuse scare, it is important to explore their individual histories in order to understand how they jointly created a moral panic in North America.

History of the Church of Satan

1930 - Anton LaVey is born in Chicago, Illinois on 11 April.

1966 - Anton LaVey founds the church of Satan in San Francisco, California, and proclaims that the year 1966 is “the year one,” or Anno Satanas- the first year of the Age of Satan.

1967 - The Church of Satan performs a wedding ceremony for journalist, John Raymond, and socialite Judith Case, which prompts media interest in the group.

1969 - LaVey writes the Satanic Bible, which outlines the principles of LaVeyan Satanism and rituals.

1970 - LaVey appears in the documentary, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass, provoking more media attention and providing a vision of “Satanic rituals.”

History of the Temple of Set

1975 - Michael Aquino, former member of the Church of Satan, founded the Temple of Set based on organizational and philosophical differences with Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan.

  • The Church of Satan and Temple of Set provided evidence of actual “Satanists” living in North America. Although the actions of these groups did not qualify as Satanic Ritual Abuse, their mere association with devil worship made them a contributor to the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare.

History and Evidence of Animal Mutilation

For the past several decades, animal mutilations have occurred all over North America. In the past, the mutilations were sometimes attributed to UFO’s. With the rise of all other contributing factors of the SRAS, conspiracy theories of animal mutilation began to become more frequent and were now attributed to satanic activity. Listed are only a couple of towns in the United States where animal mutilations were recorded.

1984 -
Rumors of animal sacrifices in Edinburg, Illinois are attributed to teenage “devil worshipping” cult.

1986 -
Mutilated animals found in Modesto, California are attributed to “devil worshipping” cult.

History and Evidence of Satanic Rock Music

1985 - Police raid a suspected “cult house” in Holland, Ohio and confiscate rock music records, claiming they promote satanic activity.

Rock musicians such as Ozzy Osbourne and ACDC are accused of contributing to satanic activity.

History and Evidence of Violent or Fantasy Games

1988 - Teenage Dungeons and Dragons participants in Lancaster, Wisconsin are accused of animal mutilation and planned baby sacrifices in satanic ritual context.

History and Evidence of “Recovered Memories” of Sexual/Child Abuse and Ritual Sacrifice

Claims of sexual and child abuse are seen throughout history. Rumors of the abduction of a young female are classic urban legends. With the 1980’s, several other components contributed to this type of abuse being attributed to Satanism:

  • The appearance of the child abuse industry

  • The idea of posttraumatic stress disorder

  • With the advent of the 1980’s, a change in home life occurred in the United States when both parents in a household began working full time. This left more children in daycare centers than there ever had been prior to this generation. For the first time, many children were left under the care of strangers.

1980 - Michelle Remembers, a supposedly true account of a young girl's torture at the hands of a secret coven of Satanists in Victoria, BC, is published. Michelle Smith "recovered" her memories while in therapy and under hypnosis by a therapist whom she later married.

1982 - Mary Ann Barbour believed her two young step-granddaughters were being sexually abused and eventually the children accused their father, Alvin McCuan. The girls were placed in the Barbour's care. Relentlessly grilling her two charges, Mary Ann Barbour reported that they had been used in prostitution and pornography, tortured, made to watch snuff films, and forced to allow animals to eat pet food out of their vaginas.

Rumors in Victoria, BC spread about the planned kidnapping of a newborn baby by Satanists for sacrifice.

1983 - Judy Johnson accuses Ray Buckey – a 25-year-old worker at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California – of sodomizing her two-year-old pre-verbal son.

1984- 208 counts of child abuse involving 40 children are laid against Ray Buckey, the owners of the McMartin School, and four teachers.

Preschool children in a Miami daycare accused Frank Fuster and his 17-year-old wife of abusing them.

Allegations included pornography, the drinking of urine, eating of feces, etc. Clinton attorney-General Janet Reno was involved in this case. Frank Fuster is still in prison.

Two children in Richmond, Virginia accuse family members of killing a child and cannibalizing it during a satanic rite.

1985- Daycare operator Sandra Craig is accused of assaulting children with a screwdriver and a stick, animal torture and taking nude photographs. She is sentenced to ten years in prison.

James Rodriguez and five others are charged and convicted of sexual abuse of two young brothers in California. Accusations include infanticide.

1986 - James Watt goes on trial charged with multiple counts of child abuse at a private daycare. 18 children testified to various acts of abuse. Defense lawyers said that children initially denied abuse but told "bizarre" stories after repeated interviews. Watt is sentenced to 165 years.

Daycare workers in Carson City are accused of abusing 14 children. Children told of the murders of adults, animal killings, drinking blood and other rituals.

1987 - A workshop about the dangers of Satanism is presented in City of Rockford, Illinois after a son is accused of murdering his father and fellow teenager in a satanic ritual.

1989 - Little Rascals Daycare in Edonton, NC becomes one of the most famous ritual abuse cases in North America when several of the daycare’s employees were charged with several counts of sexual child abuse.

Paul Ingram of Washington is accused by his two daughters of satanic ritual abuse. Devoutly religious, he believes he must have been influenced by Satan and repressed the memories of what he'd done. He pleads guilty, and then retracts his confession when he begins to doubt the truth of the accusations.

Two teenage girls are murdered in Pennsylvania, and teenage boy accused of murders is suspected of doing so due to satanic cult activity. Rumor panic spreads throughout state, with many children being kept home from school.

The Creation of the Satanic Cult

With allegations of so many “evil” acts throughout the country, they all became attributed to a hypothetical “satanic cult.” All of these rumors merged in order to form one elaborate story. The social condition that emerged in the 1980’s produced an environment for these very different rumors to create one plausible story about an underground Satanic Cult that was operating secretly throughout the nation. Through media involvement and growing panic among concerned citizens, the “Satanic cult panic” grew into a North American pandemic. Several criminal charges were brought upon those accused of involvement in satanic cult activity, provoking national media coverage with a salacious position. By the mid-1990’s, skepticism grew concerning the realities of these allegations, and the rumors were eventually proven false.


The existence of a Satanic Cult was the biggest component of the myth. The cult was comprised of Satan worshippers who operate in underground networks and perform sacrificial rituals. The rituals and organization were the major components of the cult’s myth.


  • The killing ritual is central to the idea of the Satanic Cult.

  • Rituals of human and animal sacrifice are most prevalent.
  • The abduction of newborn babies, usually from hospitals, for the purpose of ritually sacrificing a pure human being.
  • The abduction of a blonde, blue-eyed virgin for the purpose of ritual sacrifice usually performed on Halloween or Friday the 13th.
  • Animal mutilation and sacrifice, with body parts used in offerings for Satan.
  • The sexual abuse of young children.
  • The consumption of sacrificial blood from humans and animals.

Organization and Leadership

  • Tightly structured and secretive underground organization of Satanists throughout North America.

  • The highest and most affluent members of society were accused of being involved in a Satanic Cult.
  • Numbers of members are thought to be in the thousands, inferred from the number of alleged victims.
  • Clergy members are often thought to be leaders of cult.
  • Police implicated as members of cult.
  • Because of this type of organization, the plausibility of Satanic Cult activity being able to occur in secret is accepted.

The Rise and Fall of the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare

The Rise - Controversies and Media Coverage

The establishment of Fundamental Christianity in North America and the Moral Majority political organization contributed to the growing controversy of the existence of a Satanic Cult. Also, several prominent figures in the media contributed to the rumor panic, creating more controversy than any of the alleged accusations. Adding to the controversy, citizens across the nation banded together to create organizations with an effort to stop the supposed satanic cult activity.

1983 - Dr. Roland Summit publishes an article about Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, which convinces many therapists and prosecutors that if a child denies that anything happened to him or her, they are hiding the truth.

Geraldo Rivera's special, "Satanic Cults and Children," airs on television.

1985 - 20/20 segment "The Devil Worshippers" airs.

1988 - Journalists Tom Charlier and Shirley Downing write a series of articles for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, documenting over 100 ritual abuse cases across the country.

Geraldo Rivera's special, "Devil Worship: Exploring Satan's Underground", airs on television.

The “Lost Child Network” is established in Kansas City to investigate satanic cult activity.

1989 - Oprah Winfrey hosts a show on “Child sacrifice,” feeding into the SRAS.

Sally Jesse Raphael airs a story on “Baby Breeders.”

1991 - Sally Jesse Raphael airs a story on “Devil Babies.”

1992 - Police patrol the streets of Martensville, Saskatchewan, Canada, with assault rifles because of rumors that Satanists are coming to attack the town.

1993 - HBO’s "Search for Deadly Memories" airs, a documentary that shows techniques used in efforts to find memories that are unknown to the patient. The program features many doctors and “experts,” who provide credibility for the notions.

The Fall- Skepticism and Conclusions

  • Although some skepticism of the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare and the idea of a “Satanic Cult” began during its highest panic in the 1980’s, it was not until the mid-1990’s that skeptics became more frequent than believers.

  • There were several SRA criminal trials in which those accused were acquitted of all charges due to lack of evidence. Many previous convictions were also overturned at this time.
  • Toward the middle of the 1990’s, there was a shift in media coverage from that which supported the rumor panic to that which was skeptical of all SRA.
  • Public media figures that had previously supported the rumor panics and contributed to their spread began apologizing for such oversights.

1987 - Journalist Debbie Nathan publishes "The Making of a Modern Witch Trial," in The Village Voice about a daycare case in El Paso, Texas. Nathan is the first prominent journalist to raise the national alarm about the injustices resulting from the daycare witch hunts.

1990 - After three years of testimony and nine weeks of deliberation (the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history, costing California taxpayers 15 million dollars) the jury in the McMartin case acquits Peggy Buckey and her son Ray. The prosecution decides to retry Ray Buckey.

District Attorney Alan Rubenstein, conducting an independent investigation of ritual abuse allegations against the staff of Breezy Point Day Care in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, concludes that "none of this ever happened," and drops all charges.

1992 - The FBI writes a formal report discrediting the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare.

1993 - 20/20 show on suggestibility of children in accepting and believing stories.

1994- 60 Minutes looks at false/recovered memories.

A jury awards damages to Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter's therapists for accusing them of implanting false memories of sexual abuse in her when she went to them for counseling for her eating disorder.

1995- Geraldo Rivera apologizes for promoting the satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory panics:

"I want to announce publicly that as a firm believer of the 'Believe The Children' movement of the 1980's, that started with the McMartin trials in CA, but NOW I am convinced that I was terribly wrong... and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result....AND I am equally positive [that the] 'Repressed Memory Therapy Movement' is also a bunch of CRAP..."

HBO produces Indictment: The McMartin Trial, painting Ray Buckey as the victim of a rumor panic for the first time. Skepticism of allegations in the SRAS began with this film.

1997 - A long-buried tape recording of a child's interview with social worker Velda Murillo, in which Murillo pressures the little girl to accuse her relatives of molesting her, is turned over to the defense team for Jeff Modahl in Bakersfield, California. The tape establishes what the defense said all along -- that children had been coerced into making accusations.

1999 - All charges in the Little Rascals Daycare case were dropped.

2004 - The two boys whose accusations sent James Rodriguez and five others to prison recant their testimony, saying they were forced to make false accusations by their aunt.

2005- Kyle Zirpolo, one of the children in the infamous McMartin Preschool case, comes forward as an adult and says that his testimony was a lie. Zirpolo told journalist Debbie Nathan in the Los Angeles Times that he was pressured to make false accusations of ritual abuse.

  • Virtually no evidence was ever discovered to support the allegations of satanic cult activity by the components that made up the SRAS.

  • hat constituted “satanic ritual abuse” was never clearly defined in North America.
  • By the mid-1990’s, those previously portrayed as criminals during the SRAS were now portrayed as victims of a severe rumor panic.
  • The idea of a “Satanic Cult” created a much scarier threat for the nation than individual incidents that were not connected to Satanism.
  • After almost two decades of allegations of satanic cult ritual abuse, the SRAS seemed to be completely fabricated in the end.
  • Throughout the rumor panic, many lives were ruined through false accusations, and many still remain in prison for crimes that were never committed. The SRAS created a “cult that never was” in the form of satanic activity.