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LANNING'S GUIDE TO ALLEGATIONS
OF CHILDHOOD RITUAL ABUSE, 
PART 6, 1992

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ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS

Even if only part of an allegation is not true, what then is the answer to the question "Why are victims alleging things that do not seem to be true?" After consulting with psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists, therapists, social workers, child sexual abuse experts, and law enforcement investigators for more than eight years, I can find no single, simple answer. The answer to the question seems to be a complex set of dynamics that can be different in each case. In spite of the fact that some skeptics keep looking for it, there does not appear to be one answer to the question that fits every case. Each case is different, and each case may involve a different combination of answers.

I have identified a series of possible alternative answers to this question. The alternative answers also do not preclude the possibility that clever offenders are sometimes involved. I will not attempt to explain completely these alternative answers because I cannot. They are presented simply as areas for consideration and evaluation by child sexual abuse intervenors, for further elaboration by experts in these fields, and for research by objective social scientists. The first step, however, in finding the answers to this question is to admit the possibility that some of what the victims describe may not have happened. Some child advocates seem unwilling to do this.

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a. PATHOLOGICAL DISTORTION
The first possible answer to why victims are alleging things that do not seem to be true is pathological distortion. The allegations may be errors in processing reality influenced by underlying mental disorders such as dissociative disorders, borderline or histrionic personality disorders, or psychosis. These distortions may be manifested in false accounts of victimization in order to gain psychological benefits such as attention and sympathy (factitious disorder). When such individuals repeatedly go from place to place or person to person making these false reports of their own "victimization", it is called Munchausen Syndrome. When the repealed false reports concern the "victimization" of their children or others linked to them, it is called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. I am amazed when some therapists state that they believe the allegations because they cannot think of a reason why the "victim", whose failures are now explained and excused or who is now the center of attention at a conference or on a national television program, would lie. If you can be forgiven for mutilating and killing babies, you can be forgiven for anything.

Many "victims" may develop pseudomemories of their victimization and eventually come to believe the events actually occurred. Noted forensic psychiatrist Park E. Dietz (personal communication, Nov. 1991) states:

"Pseudomemories have been acquired through dreams (particularly if one is encouraged to keep a journal or dream diary and to regard dream content as 'clues' about the past or as snippets of history), substance-induced altered states of consciousness (alcohol or other drugs), group influence (particularly hearing vivid accounts of events occurring to others with whom one identifies emotionally such as occurs in incest survivor groups), reading vivid accounts of events occurring to others with whom one identifies emotionally, watching such accounts in films or on television, and hypnosis. The most efficient means of inducing pseudomemories is hypnosis."

"It is characteristic of pseudomemories that the recollections of complex events (as opposed to a simple unit of information, such as a tag number) are incomplete and without chronological sequence. Often the person reports some uncertainty because the pseudomemories are experienced in a manner they describe as 'hazy', 'fuzzy', or 'vague'. They are often perplexed that they recall some details vividly but others dimly."

"Pseudomemories are not delusions. When first telling others of pseudomemories, these individuals do not have the unshakable but irrational conviction that deluded subjects have, but with social support they often come to defend vigorously the truthfulness of the pseudomemories."

"Pseudomemories are not fantasies, but may incorporate elements from fantasies experienced in the past. Even where the events described are implausible, listeners may believe them because they are reported with such intense affect (i.e. with so much emotion attached to the story) that the listener concludes that the events must have happened because no one could 'fake' the emotional aspects of the retelling. It also occurs, however, that persons report pseudomemories in such a matter-of-fact and emotionless manner that mental health professionals conclude that the person has 'dissociated' intellectual knowledge of the events from emotional appreciation of their impact."


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b. TRAUMATIC MEMORY
The second possible answer is traumatic memory. (Note 1) Fear and severe trauma can cause victims to distort reality and confuse events. This is a well-documented fact in cases involving individuals taken hostage or in life-and-death situations. The distortions may be part of an elaborate defense mechanism of the mind called "splitting" - The victims create a clear-cut good-and-evil manifestation of their complex victimization that is then psychologically more manageable.

Through the defense mechanism of dissociation, the victim may escape the horrors of reality by inaccurately processing that reality. In a dissociative state a young child who ordinarily would know the difference might misinterpret a film or video as reality.

Another defense mechanism may tell the victim that it could have been worse, and so his or her victimization was not so bad. They are not alone in their victimization - other children were also abused. Their father who abused them is no different from other prominent people in the community they claim also abused them. Satanism may help to explain why their outwardly good and religious parents did such terrible things to them in the privacy of their home. Their religious training may convince them that such unspeakable acts by supposedly "good" people must be the work of the devil. The described human sacrifice may be symbolic of the "death" of their childhood.

It may be that we should anticipate that individuals severely abused as very young children by multiple offenders with fear as the primary controlling tactic will distort and embellish their victimization. Perhaps a horror-filled yet inaccurate account of victimization is not only not a counterindication of abuse, but is in fact a corroborative indicator of extreme physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse. I do not believe it is a coincidence nor the result of deliberate planning by satanists that in almost all the cases of ritual abuse that have come to my attention, the abuse is alleged to have begun prior to the age of seven and perpetrated by multiple offenders. It may well be that such abuse, at young age by multiple offenders, is the most difficult to accurately recall with the specific and precise detail needed by the criminal justice system, and the most likely to be distorted and exaggerated when it is recalled. (Note 2) In her book Too Scared to Cry (1990), child psychiatrist Lenore Terr, a leading expert on psychic trauma in childhood, states "that a series of early childhood shocks might not be fully and accurately 'reconstructed' from the dreams and behaviors of the adult" (p. 5).

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c. NORMAL CHILDHOOD FEARS AND FANTASY
The third possible answer may be normal childhood fears and fantasy. Most young children are afraid of ghosts and monsters. Even as adults, many people feel uncomfortable, for example, about dangling their arms over the side of their bed. They still remember the "monster" under the bed from childhood. While young children may rarely invent stories about sexual activity, they might describe their victimization in terms of evil as they understand it. In church or at home, children may be told of satanic activity as the source of evil. The children may be "dumping" all their fears and worries unto an attentive and encouraging listener.

Children do fantasize. Perhaps whatever causes a child to allege something impossible (such as being cut up and put back together) is similar to what causes a child to allege something possible but improbable (such as witnessing another child being chopped up and eaten).

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d. MISPERCEPTION, CONFUSION, AND TRICKERY
Misperception, confusion, and trickery may be a fourth answer. Expecting young children to give accurate accounts of sexual activity for which they have little frame of reference is unreasonable. The Broadway play Madame Butterfly is the true story of a man who had a 15-year affair, including the "birth" of a baby, with a "woman" who turns out to have been a man all along. If a grown man does not know when he has had vaginal intercourse with a woman, how can we expect young children not to be confused?

Furthermore some clever offenders may deliberately introduce elements of satanism and the occult into the sexual exploitation simply to confuse or intimidate the victims. Simple magic and other techniques may be used to trick the children. Drugs may also be deliberately used to confuse the victims and distort their perceptions. Such acts would then be M.O., not ritual.

As previously stated, the perceptions of young victims may also be influenced by any trauma being experienced. This is the most popular alternative explanation, and even the more zealous believers of ritual abuse allegations use it, but only to explain obviously impossible events.

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e. OVERZEALOUS INTERVENORS
Overzealous intervenors, causing intervenor contagion, may be a fifth answer. These intervenors can include parents, family members, foster parents, (Note 3) doctors, therapists, social workers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and any combination thereof. Victims have been subtly as well as overtly rewarded and bribed by usually well- meaning intervenors for furnishing further details. In addition, some of what appears not to have happened may have originated as a result of intervenors making assumptions about or misinterpreting what the victims are saying. The intervenors then repeat, and possibly embellish, these assumptions and misinterpretations, and eventually the victims are "forced" to agree with or come to accept this "official" version of what happened.

The judgment of intervenors may be affected by their zeal to uncover child sexual abuse, satanic activity, or conspiracies. However "well-intentioned", these overzealous intervenors must accept varying degrees of responsibility for the unsuccessful prosecution of those cases where criminal abuse did occur. This is the most controversial and least popular of the alternative explanations. (Note 4)

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f. URBAN LEGENDS
Allegations of and knowledge about ritualistic or satanic abuse may also be spread through urban legends. In The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), the first of his four books on the topic, Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand defines urban legends as "realistic stories concerning recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist" (p. xi). Dr. Brunvand's books convincingly explain that just because individuals throughout the country who never met each other tell the same story does not mean that it is true. Absurd urban legends about the corporate logos of Proctor and Gamble and Liz Claiborne being satanic symbols persist in spite of all efforts to refute them with reality. Some urban legends about child kidnappings and other threats to citizens have even been disseminated unknowingly by law enforcement agencies. Such legends have always existed, but today the mass media aggressively participate in their rapid and more efficient dissemination. Many Americans mistakenly believe that tabloid television shows check out and verify the details of their stories before putting them on the air. Mass hysteria may partially account for large numbers of victims describing the same symptoms or experiences.

Training conferences for all the disciplines involved in child sexual abuse may also play a role in the spread of this contagion. At one child abuse conference I attended, an exhibitor was selling more than 50 different books dealing with satanism and the occult. By the end of the conference, he had sold nearly all of them. At another national child sexual abuse conference, I witnessed more than 100 attendees copying down the widely disseminated 29 "Symptoms Characterizing Satanic Ritual Abuse" in preschool-aged children. Is a four-year-old child's "preoccupation with urine and feces" an indication of satanic ritual abuse or part of normal development?

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g. COMBINATION
Most multidimensional child sex ring cases probably involve a combination of the answers previously set forth, as well as other possible explanations unknown to me at this time. Obviously, cases with adult survivors are more likely to involve some of these answers than those with young children. Each case of sexual victimization must be individually evaluated on its own merits without any preconceived explanations. All the possibilities must be explored if for no other reason than the fact that the defense attorneys for any accused subjects will almost certainly do so.

Most people would agree that just because a victim tells you one detail that turns out to be true, this does not mean that every detail is true. But many people seem to believe that if you can disprove one part of a victim's story, then the entire story is false. As previously stated, one of my main concerns in these cases is that people are getting away with sexually abusing children or committing other crimes because we cannot prove that they are members of organized cults that murder and eat people.

I have discovered that the subject of multidimensional child sex rings is a very emotional and polarizing issue. Everyone seems to demand that one choose a side. On one side of the issue are those who say that nothing really happened and it is all a big witch hunt led by overzealous fanatics and incompetent "experts". The other side says, in essence, that everything happened; victims never lie about child sexual abuse, and so it must be true.

There is a middle ground. It is the job of the professional investigator to listen to all the victims and conduct appropriate investigation in an effort to find out what happened, considering all possibilities. Not all childhood trauma is abuse. Not all child abuse is a crime. The great frustration of these cases is the fact that you are often convinced that something traumatic happened to the victim, but do not know with any degree of certainty exactly what happened, when it happened, or who did it.

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OCRT Notes

  1. Others use the term "traumatic memory" to describe memories that are not distorted at all but are repressed and unavailable. Thus, a child who had been abused thousands of time during childhood would mature as an adult with no suspicion that anything really bad happened to her as a child.
  2. An alternative explanation is that the event never happened, but that a false memory was implanted in the mind of the child. Since this report was prepared, a great deal of research has been done into the implantation of false memories in children's minds through improper but common interview techniques. This is more easily done prior to the age of 6 than after. See: S.J. Ceci & M. Bruck, "Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony", American Psychological Association, Washington DC (1995)
  3. Many exposes of MVMO hoaxes have concentrated on criticizing defective interview techniques by police or CPS workers. But there is usually a second level of questioning of the children which is done by the parents who are not trained in appropriate interview techniques and are naturally emotionally involved. Parents often develop a network for sharing of rumours. Cross-fertilization of stories inevitably happen.
  4. Another possibility is that some professionals are not zealous and are well-intentioned, but have been taught to use suggestive methods of interviewing children which are likely to produce false disclosures. (e.g. repeated questions, direct questions, humiliation, rewards, manipulation)

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Return to the OCRT home page, or 
the "Not So Spiritual" page, or 
the "Ritual Abuse Studies" page, or 
the "FBI Report" page.