Forked tails and forked tongues

Speak of the Devil
November 13, 1998

Professionals and the public alike were stunned by allegations in the late 1980s and early 1990s that children were being sexually assaulted in the course of acts of devil worship - so-called satanic abuse.

As the arguments raged, "casualties" began to accumulate: children were taken into care; senior managers resigned or were sacked; and there was major conflict between the agencies involved.

Into this maelstrom stepped Jean La Fontaine, emeritus professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, funded by the Department of Health to carry out what was, in effect, an inquiry into these claims. The fundamental question as to the veracity of these allegations, La Fontaine answered in her summary report published in 1994 (The Nature and Extent of Organised and Ritual Abuse in England and Wales where she stated that "there was no evidence for the existence of claims of satanic abuse".

In light of what appears to be a consensus among professionals that satanic abuse was largely "manufactured" it is difficult to argue with La Fontaine here.

However, this book is her first substantive discussion, not only of the issue of evidence, but also the motivation of those who were involved in the "epidemic". She asserts that believers "constructed" satanic abuse in an attempt to explain a variety of social ills, such as poor parenting, family breakdown and abortion. In doing so, they were connecting with a much older tradition: "Tales of satanic rituals draw on deep-seated cultural images of evil consistent with the ideas underlying the witch-hunters of early modern Europe."

Although "the basis for the belief in satanic abuse" is "the central question to which this book is addressed", what many readers are likely to home in on is La Fontaine's examination of the role of the believers.

In an impressively thorough analysis, she makes clear that professionals were initially subject to a barrage of influences, such as the graphic accounts of adult "survivors"; cases of organised child sexual abuse; and the American "experts"; all of which lent weight to the possibility of satanic abuse.

While she understands the pressure agency workers were under, she is uncompromising in her criticism of how they responded to cases. It is indisputable that mistakes were made, but when she refers to children being "detained", to "threats to remove children into care", to individuals motivated by "ambition" and "self-esteem", and, at one point, to "Nazis", one suspects that she has lost some of her objectivity.

She com£ the problem by not presenting and analysing her data in a sufficiently systematic manner. Sometimes it is difficult to know which case she is talking about, creating the impression that all suspected satanic cases were handled badly. I know from my own work that this was not the case. Many investigations were carried out quite competently.

The other significant weakness is La Fontaine's failure to acknowledge adequately the importance of organised abuse in the genesis of allegations of satanism. Many suspected satanic cases were known to have involved organised abuse.

The story of satanic abuse is not yet complete but this book constitutes an important contribution to the debate. Its greatest value, however, is in its unique social anthropological perspective. Partisans will either love it or loathe it. Academics, practitioners and the general reader able to approach it with an open mind will find it a stimulating study of one of the most challenging social issues of the late 20th century.

Bernard Gallagher is senior research fellow in human and health sciences, University of Huddersfield.

Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England

Author - Jean Sybil La Fontaine
ISBN - 0 521 62082 1 and 62934 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 224

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