A Guest Post by David Aaronovitch
Earlier this year BBC Radio 4 broadcast two programmes in the Analysis strand, which I made together with a BBC producer, Hannah Barnes. Ritual Sexual Abuse: the Anatomy of a Panic part one was broadcast on the 25th May and part two went out a week later.
I was asked to make these programmes because I had expressed a concern in various writings that some of the new accusations of historic VIP abuse of children, and the way in which sections of the media were handling them, were reminiscent of the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and early 90s. During that time it was widely alleged and believed that a substantial number of Satanists and other cultists were or had been involved in complex rituals –involving child sexual abuse and even child sacrifice. Then, by the mid-90s the panic subsided. I felt that by analyzing that past panic we might better understand some aspects of the present.
As I said in programme one, I was most concerned to trace the spread of an idea from small beginnings on therapists’ couches in the US and Canada to a full-blown cause celebre in which the press, intellectuals and professionals in the UK participated – and which abruptly subsided in the mid-90s.
Broadly (but not exclusively) the line of travel ran from the publication of the book Sibyl in 1973, which (especially after its adaptation for television) popularised the idea of multiple personality disorder (or MPD). After Sibyl the number of diagnoses of MPD multiplied, and were very often ascribed to repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma which could only be expressed in the extreme form of alternative personalities (or “alters”) of which the patient was consciously unaware. These alters could only be coaxed into the open by hypnotism, drug treatment and, of course, amazingly intuitive therapy. (In fact Sibyl was a mixture of hoax and confabulation as Debbie Nathan’s excellent book proves beyond any argument.
The therapeutic fashion for “recovered memory” allowed credulity to be lent to the extraordinary and semi-pornographic account of therapy sessions between a Canadian psychotherapist Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and later wife) Michelle Smith. Their book Michelle Remembers purported to uncover the truth that the patient had been abused as part of a series of Satanic rituals in a ring of devil-worshippers in the 1950s. The book became a best-seller.
When, in the mid-80s, a brief spate of extraordinary accusations about ritual abuse at American preschool establishments erupted, supposedly involving numerous adults and dozens of children, Pazder was one of those consulted for his expertise in matters occult. The cases, his book and the atmosphere they created constructed a professional milieu in America for the acceptance of a belief both in repressed memory and widespread ritual abuse.
It wasn’t long before these ideas crossed the Atlantic and began to feature in conferences and articles in specialist journals organized and written for child-care professionals. One aspect of these conferences was the enthusiastic involvement of evangelical Christians some of who believed not just in devil worship, but in the existence of the devil.
From 1988 to 1992 there were numerous cases where satanic abuse was claimed in Britain, but the ones which occupied most attention were those in Nottingham (the Broxstowe case), Orkney and Rochdale. The Analysis progammes looked mostly at Nottingham as, in many ways, it was the motherlode of claims of satanic abuse and the social workers in Nottingham became arguably the most important professional exponents of the idea of widespread satanic child sexual abuse. Their cause was given considerable strength by the energetic acceptance of the notion of ritual abuse in part of the therapeutic world.
Programme two showed how, though there had been terrible abuse in Nottingham and a kernel of abuse in Orkney (there was never found to be any in Rochdale) , nevertheless the idea of ritual abuse had foundered completely in the absence of any corroborating forensic evidence whatsoever for practices which – to say the least – would have left plenty of tracks. It considered the role of therapists, some childcare professionals and others in the contamination of childhood evidence and the construction of “recovered” memories. It criticized the idea that trauma can be utterly repressed. And then, finally, it revealed how widespread certain diagnoses and therapeutic practices which lead to confabulation still are in Britain today, including the use as a work of reference of The Courage to Heal, a survivor’s handbook which encourages the ideas of ritual abuse and of repressed memory.
At no stage did the programmes seek to minimize the reality of child sexual abuse, either historic or present. In fact one of my motivations for making the programmes was a concern that police time and effort is currently being squandered on what are almost certainly fictitious cases hyped by unscrupulous attention-seekers, when inquiries into real and current cases of child sexual abuse are under-resourced. I anticipate – without any particular pleasure – this view being vindicated in the months ahead.
Following transmission three substantial complaints were made online by people either interviewed for the programme or featured in it. Once those were published I either had a choice of letting them be, or of replying in full. Probably foolishly I’ve chosen the latter, and am very grateful to Matthew Scott for allowing me to use his consistently excellent blog for the purpose of rebuttal.
The two complaints from interviewees were both hosted by the Needleblog, a private blog devoted to the issue of child sexual abuse. The first was made by Tim Tate, author – among many other works – of Children for the Devil: Ritual Abuse and Satanic Crime, published in 1991 (but subsequently withdrawn after legal action). Tate was also co-producer of a 1989 edition of ITV’s prime-time programme The Cook Report entitled The Devil’s Work.
The second complaint came from Dr Sarah Nelson, a sociologist at Edinburgh University and former journalist. Dr Nelson describes herself as a specialist writer and researcher on child sexual abuse.
The third complaint came in two articles by the journalist and campaigner Beatrix Campbell, hosted by the Open Democracy website, the first being entitled “Analysing Aaronovitch: has the scourge of ‘conspiracists’ become one himself?” And the second “Analysing Aaronovitch: a skeptical narrative.”
Tate, Nelson and Campbell have all either given notice of an intention to make formal complaints to the BBC, or have already complained. I am not here formally (or indeed, informally) responding to these BBC complaints, which I haven’t yet seen. Nor will I be taking up the questions of the circumstances under which Tate and Nelson were interviewed. I will simply say that I have worked with many BBC producers and Hannah Barnes, who arranged the interviews, is one of the best and most conscientious.
To an extent the complaints overlap but I have tried, where possible to keep them separate.
1. REPLY TO TATE
The following two sentences are Tate’s own summary of his complaint.
“Aaronovich [sic] – without troubling to present any evidence – put forward his own conspiracy theory: one in which satanic ritual abuse is a no more than a fantasy created by social workers taken in by the claims of improperly-motivated North American psychiatrists and psychotherapists. In doing so he deliberately ignored solid and unequivocal evidence which counters his thesis. And the BBC allowed him to broadcast two high profile programmes which were at best misleading and sometimes deeply deceitful.”
This boils down to essentially three claims: one of mistaken over-simplification, one of a failure to produce evidence and one of willfully ignoring available evidence – in particular (as we shall see) evidence supplied by Tate himself.
But before taking on these claims I should mention that the producer Hannah Barnes and I had faced a slightly unusual problem in the case of both Tate and Campbell. Both had written books on satanic abuse or touching on it in the 90s. And both books had been withdrawn by their publishers for legal reasons and the books had never been republished.
In his complaint, for reasons that I will come to later, Tate expresses anger at the fact that we had not procured a copy of his withdrawn book. He says of me:
“Nor did he or Hannah Barnes bother to get hold of a copy of my book…..When challenged about this, the editor of Analysis e-mailed me to say that:
“Hannah understood that the book had been withdrawn from publication following a libel action and therefore assumed that it was therefore not available.”
“One of the fundamental rules of journalism is not to “assume”. Even the most cursory of checks would have found the book for sale on Amazon. And as every journalist knows, the British library holds a copy of every book published.
In fact as of today (the last Sunday in June) Amazon UK states that the book is “currently unavailable” (not, note, “out of stock”). Nor, as far as I am aware, did Tate offer to send us a copy – perhaps because this might have constituted a repetition of the original libel. Instead Tate sent us some pages from one chapter dealing with prosecuted cases that he argued amounted to ritual abuse.
Subsequently I did manage to get hold of the book. It was a secondhand copy marked with the library imprint of Moorlands College, which turned out to be an Evangelical Christian training college in Dorset. And I must admit that I wished I had read it before embarking on my interview with Tate, but not for any of the reasons he suggests. Readers will see why.
Over-simplification – the question of transmission.
Tate argues with what, in his view, amounted to the programme’s massively oversimplified account (“a conspiracy theory”) of how Satanic or ritual abuse came to be a preoccupation first in the United States and then in Britain.
“Aaronovich’s [sic] thesis for the programmes was that all satanic ritual abuse allegations trace back to a 1980 book called Michelle Remembers by a Canadian psychiatrist called Lawrence Pazder with his patient (and later wife), Michelle Smith. These claims then spread out through the North American psychiatric and therapeutic community and were accepted as evidence of the factual existence of satanic cults ritually abusing children. Aaronovich provided no actual evidence for his assertion, relying instead (as he would throughout the programmes) on a post hoc, proper hoc [sic] argument that simply because the book was widely publicised it therefore must have been the root for all subsequent allegations. This is factually wrong.”
I did no such thing. But I did argue that Michelle Remembers was an important part of the development of the idea, linking the growingly fashionable notion of recovered memory with satanic abuse. And strangely enough, in his book at least, Tate appears to agree.
On page 2 we discover that “the term ritual abuse was first coined by Canadian psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder in 1980….” And on page 44 he directly links the book to the acceptance of the “reality” of satanic abuse in Canada, arguing that:
“…perhaps by 1987 it was easier for Canadian professionals to listen to that evidence [ie that for ritual abuse] than for law-enforcement officers, therapists and judge in most other countries where children were disclosing identical details.”
Seven years previously Dr Lawrence Pazder had published a book containing detailed descriptions of therapy sessions with a young woman called Michelle Smith.
In fact Michelle Remembers played a key part in his own awakening. In his introduction to his book Tate, having been alerted in August 1987 by a British psychiatrist called Joan Coleman to a patient who is now “remembering” ritual abuse, calls an acquaintance in US Customs. This contact sends him an eight-page “briefing note”.
“It sounds like the person you are working with may have suffered abuse similar to a Canadian woman who was supposedly abused by satanists in Vancouver, British Columbia…. I have done some research in the area of satanic cults and abuse. I think it is important that our agents are able to recognize evidence of cult involvement if and when they see it.” (pxii)
Michelle Smith was from Vancouver. 21 months after this exchange Smith, together with another satanic abuse “rememberer”, Lauren Stratford appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Both were interviewed uncritically. Stratford, under the name “Laura Grabowski” also later pretended to be a survivor of Auschwitz where she claimed to have befriended the fake Holocaust survivor and author, Binjamin Wilkomirski (aka Bruno Grosjean). Somewhere there will be a professional, or several, who once thought that Stratford was the real thing.
If I hadn’t understood why Tate was so resistant to the notion of the importance of Michelle (even if he does invent a claim I never made) then his book at least explains it. On pages 118-119 he asks, rhetorically, “Which came first, the testimony of Michelle Smith in Canada, or the worldwide resurgence of medieval ritual child abuse?” And that is really the point. If you believe that satanic abuse was above all an idea, then Michelle is an important part of its popular transmission. But if, like Tate did (at least in 1991) you believe that there was a real life “worldwide resurgence of medieval ritual child abuse”, then Michelle is just one iteration of a terrible, universal truth.
At any rate, Tate finds out about Michelle from an American source in the summer of 1987. And he notes that, at that stage, professionals were much more advanced in the US in their thinking about ritual abuse.
In America work had begun on the problem in the early 1980s. By 1987 therapists and law enforcement officers were beyond the stage of attempting to deny the phenomenon and were actively seeking out training through multi-disciplinary seminars. (xiii-xiv)
So much so that Tate’s next port-of-call was, according to the transcript of our interview with him, a contact passed on to him by the US Customs.
“The customs put me in touch with a psychiatric social worker who was doing research into this in the States. She sent me her research… (what) the psychiatric social worker had highlighted was that there was no real research other than hers going on into how this problem could be safely addressed. There was no protocol for law enforcement or for social workers to handle what is a fundamental problem.”
My assumption is that that this person was Pamela L Hudson of the University of California, whose “satanic indicators”(dated April 1988) form Appendix One of Tate’s book. Entitled “Survey of ritual child abuse symptoms and allegations”, the indicators look at two groupings of reports: “symptom clusters” and “allegations”. The eight clusters include such symptoms as “a sudden extreme fear of the bathroom, bathing, washing, rain”, “Sudden eating disorder; refuses meat, spaghetti, tomatoes” and “Fearful of going to bed, the dark, resists bed-time, will not sleep alone.” Allegation number 16 reads, “Children described small children and babies being killed, carved up and eaten by participants. Sometimes including themselves.” Eating, that is. Not being eaten.
But Hudson, contrary to Tate’s apparent assumption, was not the only satanic indicator provider around. At an international conference on Multiple Personality/Dissociative States in the US in mid-1987, Maribeth Kaye and Lawrence Klein presented a paper entitled “Clinical Indicators of satanic Cult Victimisation”. And there are several references in the literature (which I have not been able to check out) to Pamela Klein, a rape crisis advisor from Illinois who came from the US to Britain in 1985 and drew up her own set of indicators. One source credits this second Klein with being the origin of the satanic indicators given first to paedophilia expert Ray Wyre, and subsequently to the social workers in Nottingham. These were the workers then confronting an appalling case of intergenerational child sexual abuse (as well as physical abuse and gross neglect) on the Broxtowe estate in Nottingham.
Tate: matters of fact
I intend to deal with the Broxtowe case more thoroughly in my reply to Beatrix Campbell, but there are a couple of matters of fact which belong in the reply to Tate. One of Tate’s most ostensibly damaging claims relates to the undisputed fact of abuse in the Broxtowe case. Tate says:
“In 1989 10 adults were jailed for a total of 150 years for abusing these children….Strangely, David Aaronovich [sic] failed to mention these convictions when dealing extensively with the case in his second programme. Listeners who did not know the facts would never had realised that the case resulted in successful prosecutions.”
But listeners to the programmes will have heard me say the following:
The Nottingham case became crucial. In October 1987 several children of an extended family in Nottinghamshire had been removed from their home on the Broxtowe council estate on suspicion that they’d been sexually abused by their parents and other relatives.
The children had certainly been the victims of appalling sexual abuse and in February 1989 10 adults were jailed, found guilty of 53 offences of incest, indecent assault and cruelty.
I don’t understand how Tate missed this. Tate further claims, with regard to the supposed passage of time between the Broxtowe children telling stories of ritual abuse and the first appearance of the satanic indicators in the area that:
“Aaronovich [sic] knows this. I specifically gave him precise details of the dates during the recorded interview he asked for. He chose to ignore this.”
As I’ll make clear later, Tate’s (and Campbell’s) idea that there was plenty of verbal testimony about ritual abuse before the indicators turned up is contradicted by the most substantial enquiry made into the Broxtowe case – that of the police/social worker Joint Enquiry Team, or JET. But even so Tate’s claim is wrong. In the full transcript of his interview there are no “details of the dates” whatsoever, just the repeated phrase “long before”.
Tate’s memory also lets him down when it comes to his claim that had I or Hannah Barnes “bothered to get hold of a copy of my book”:
“They would have found the transcripts [of the conversations between some of the Broxtowe children and their foster parents] and seen that there were no leading questions.”
As it happens we wouldn’t. Between Pages 19 and 27 we would have seen seven short excerpts from conversations with various children supposedly recorded or noted over the course of two years. We would also have seen summary claims of ritual abuse on the part of foster carers that are not represented at all in the excerpts. So the argument that the excerpts prove that no leading questions were asked in that time is quite ludicrous. For that we have only Tate’s word.
Tate: what is ritual abuse?
Arguably Tate’s central complaint, however, centres on what he sees as our failure to cite a series of cases where, in his view, satanic or ritual abuse was proved to have taken place.
“They [Hannah Barnes and I] were also given details of a number of successful British prosecutions in which adults were variously convicted or admitted the sexual abuse of children in what the courts were explicitly told were satanic rituals. I also detailed them during the recorded interview I gave to Aaronovich [sic]. As a result, he knows that there is unequivocal proof that ritual abuse does – occasionally – happen.”
This, in my opinion, goes to the heart of Tate’s ambivalence and may explain his anger. To put it bluntly the cases he cited (they come from his book) did not, in our opinion, add up to the kind of satanic ritual abuse that had been claimed from the time of the publication of Michelle Remembers, through the US preschool fiascos, during the Nottingham, Orkney and Rochdale imbroglios, in a thousand therapy rooms, a score of documentaries and dozens of books and publications.
Jean la Fontaine, the professor of anthropology, who examined over 80 claimed cases of ritual abuse, and whose 1994 report effectively ended the Satanic panic in Britain, wrote of Tate’s examples that:
Tate cites seven cases which he refers to as successful prosecutions of satanists. I have seen files on the cases: four involved abuse by men acting alone who used pretended evil mystical powers (not usually referred to as satanic) to intimidate their victims. In another one the participants had been using a Ouija board before interrogating the victim sadistically about some missing money, using actual violence as well as threats…. only two of the seven involved abuse during rituals. Speak of the Devil: tales of satanic abuse in contemporary England. LaFontaine. P197.
In other words La Fontaine does not accept that some very unpleasant and abusive individuals or couples invoking the occult in a desultory way in the course of abuse constitutes evidence for widespread group ritual abuse. I agree with her. It was NOT what the Satanic Abuse scare was about.
And this, I admit, is where I have come to wish I had read Tate’s book before making the programmes. If I had done so I would have been confronted with the fact of Tate’s apparent belief in satanic rites so widespread, so murderous and involving so many people that his seven cases seem to be (and are) entirely beside the point.
Chapter two of Children for the Devil, entitled “Children’s stories” starts with a “Poem by Natalie, thirteen, victim”. Indeed the entire book is co-dedicated to a Natalie of whom Tate says, “I have been privileged to know you.” So no-one should have any doubt about the sincerity of Tate’s feelings on the subject of Natalie. But who is she?
Those who watched The Cook Report of 1989, The Devil’s Work, also met a Natalie, in silhouette, who had “endured ten years of three Satanic rituals every week”. But Tate’s book makes it clear – between the lines – that Natalie was something he brought to the Cook Report, and between pages 52 and 56 he allows her and her mother to tell the utterly horrifying and completely incredible story of her abuse at the hands of a large circle of mass-murdering British Satanists. I will quote at length so that the reader has a good idea of what it was that, back in 1991, Tate was talking about when he referred to that “worldwide resurgence of medieval ritual child abuse”.
The conversations with Natalie are prefixed with the place, Sussex, and the date January 1988. Sometimes the speaker is Natalie herself, (then a child in her teens), and sometimes her mother. When she was 4, we are told, her mother abandoned Natalie and her father. The two then went to live with Natalie’s paternal grandmother where:
Right from that day…..Nan, my uncles, strangers – they all touched and raped me, I suppose. It became part of my life.
Her father, she said, knew nothing about the abuse and in any case he himself soon moved out. At this point the infant Natalie began to be taken by her grandmother to “parties”, many of them in “a big house in the country”. In this house was a basement with symbols painted on the walls, such as a pentagram and a goat’s head. There was an altar. People would come into the room in black robes, chanting, and then stand in a circle.
Later on Natalie told her mother (now back in her life) who told Tate that:
“There were sacrifices of animals and people – children mainly – to Lucifer. The rituals involved the eating and drinking of human excrement, drinking blood and eating flesh after the person had been sacrificed. All this was done in Lucifer’s name.”
Children were kept in in cages and then taken out and killed on the altar. For some reason the satanists seemed busier with other things on Saturdays and Sundays because:
“If this happened at the weekend it would last for a couple of hours, but if it was during the week it would go on longer.”
Things got worse, according to Natalie:
“People used to get killed in the courtyard as well. Some of them were hung and cut up so that their insides came out. Others were pushed under water and drowned… Downstairs in the basement there were ovens, sort of like potters’ kilns. Some children were burned in there alive as a punishment, but mostly they were used to burn away the bodies.”
And worse still. Natalie was made pregnant. She carried the child inside for a few months. One day, “about thirteen” people came and took her to a room where she was put on a table with place-settings and cups. The foetus was then aborted by her grandmother. It was still alive. “It sort of tried to cry…but they took and carved it like a roast” and Natalie was “made to swallow some of it.”
Does Tate circa 1991 find this story incredible? Or the product of an illusion? Certainly not. He refers to unspecified “medical evidence which tended to corroborate her testimony…” But what medical evidence? Which part of the testimony did it corroborate? A pregnancy almost brought to term and then violently aborted? Tate doesn’t say.
But to ensure that the reader knows that Tate believes that Natalie’s account is true, he continues:
“One aspect of Natalie’s disclosure made it more likely that her experience was genuine. Until the point at which we met and talked she had clearly never considered the idea that “Lucifer” might not have been real: that he might have been either a drug-induced hallucination or an adult man dressed up.”
Really? You will recall that, by Tate’s account, he was introduced to the issue of ritual abuse by a psychiatrist called Joan Coleman. In the first chapter of a book called Forensic Aspects of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID being the new name for MPD)published as recently as 2008 and entitled Satanist ritual abuse and the problem of credibility, Coleman relates the case of “Theresa”, whose story closely follows that of “Natalie”. If it is indeed Natalie then Coleman (not Tate) adds the detail that the police could find no forensic evidence supporting Theresa/Natalie’s story – no house, basement, corpses, cages, ovens, remains of cannibal feasts, robes, nothing. All of which Coleman appears to regard as an unfortunate impediment to a full recognition of the terrible truth that they all existed. The alternatives, of course, being that Coleman has been hoaxed, or has confused psychosis with reality, or has taken part in a well-meaning confabulation. Or a not well-meaning confabulation.
Since I have been so full in replying to Tate’s angry and rather intemperate criticisms he may like to respond by telling me whether – in 2015 – he still regards Natalie’s account as credible?
If so can he tell us what the medical confirmation of her pregnancy and traumatic abortion consisted of, and what physical evidence of any kind turned up to corroborate a decade of three times-a-week satanic ceremonies with attendant courtyard gibbeting, child cremations and animal sacrifices? And if not, when did he change his mind, and why? That, to my mind, would be far more to the point than his getting cross that I did not find his definition of ritual abuse particularly illuminating.
But he may not know himself what he thinks. One of the problems I experienced in dealing with Tate was his habit of appearing to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. If he believed in Natalie’s story and others like it, and in the “resurgence”, why would he write that, “Nottingham, Rochdale, Orkney and (recently) Hampstead. Four cases in almost 30 years do not a panic make”? And if he didn’t, why would he condemn “the rabid and loudly-trumpeted claims of self-proclaimed great thinkers like David Aaronovich [sic] that ritual abuse is a myth”?
In the context of the above he may also care to revisit his claim to a questioner in the below the line discussion of his complaint that “I cannot comment on Rochdale and Orkneys cases since I have never investigated them”. In both cases, after the removal of children from their families on the basis of allegations of ritual abuse, the children were returned and apologies given. And in fact in his book (pp 331-338) Tate does indeed comment on the 1991 Rochdale case and makes it clear that he thinks the Rochdale social workers were the victims of an ignorant press backlash. At one point he complains about the naivete of other reporters covering the case in their writing about how parents of children removed by social workers were not even allowed to send birthday cards to them. Because:
Offenders in such cases attempt to silence their victims by sending or delivering little reminders of what went on in the rituals. Often [Tim Tate might like put a more solid number or range to that word ‘often’] these have taken the form of birthday or greetings cards with an animal featured prominently on the front. To the untrained eye they look as innocent as their manufacturers intended: for the ritual abuse victim they can act as a subliminal trigger to revive past warnings about keeping quiet.
Given the above the reader may imagine how I feel about Tate’s peroration that this dreadful “Aaronovich” person is:
“….entitled, of course, to his opinions. He is entitled to ignore evidence which undermines or even shatters his prejudices. He is entitled to think what he likes – in private.
“What he is not entitled to do is to lie in public. He is not entitled to withhold that evidence just because he doesn’t like it. That is dishonest.”
At the end of the 1989 Cook Report on which Tate was co-producer and where we were introduced to Natalie and signed off with a televised vicar intoning “deliver us from evil”, a voice and a caption came up. “If you have been involved in Satanism and need counselling or advice,” said the voice and read the caption “a confidential helpline manned by specialist counselors is open till midnight. The number is 021 631 3080.” Who were these counselors and what did they say? The mind boggles.
By now the reader may be forming an impression about my honesty – so traduced by Tate – in this matter. And they may also be reflecting that the problem here is not honesty but some people’s almost unfathomable stupidity.
REPLY TO NELSON
It is simpler to reply to Dr Sarah Nelson because her complaints concerning content more or less amount to “I disagree with the programmes”.
Listeners can hear that she and Sue Hampson, expressing a similar point of view, were given as much time any other contributors, in fact more than most. So much so that in the comments below her complaint on the Needleblog are contributions from Beatrix Campbell and another satanic abuse “believer” Sue Richardson, complimenting her on her performance. Campbell wrote that Nelson was “the voice of reason” on the programmes and Richardson wrote that she shared that view. They at least, seem to think Nelson was allowed to get her point across and I agree.
Nelson’s overall contention is that the Analysis programmes were pernicious because they:
“….actively encouraged disbelief of current disclosures, at a time when a tsunami of allegations, investigations and prosecutions of sexual abuse (especially involving powerful and influential people) is taking place following the Savile revelations.”
I cannot see how this is so. What the programmes were doing was discouraging a stance of automatic belief or credulity – especially important in conditions of a “tsunami”. It was and is my contention that the inevitable discovery that perfectly avoidable injustices have been committed as a result of automatic belief, may well damage the prospects of genuine cases being properly investigated.
I should note in passing Nelson’s agreement that:
“A small minority of recent allegations will indeed be false, mistaken, confused or fanciful – and (an important point) will be identified as such. To try publicly to discredit the great majority is different entirely.”
I have no idea how she knows that it will be a “small minority”, how many cases she thinks that constitutes and whether she thinks the mistakes, confusions and fancies will be discovered before or after peoples’ reputations have been irretrievably trashed. My impression- perhaps mistaken – was that she believed that such trashing was, to use a hackneyed phrase, a price worth paying.
Was there a panic?
Nelson selects two points of difference “for now” with the programmes: “the ‘satanic panic’ and amnesia following serious trauma”. On the first she argues simultaneously that:
There was no widespread panic; only a small minority of child protection and mental health staff ever encountered these disclosures.
But then allows that:
“Professionals all came to believe ritual abuse existed after hearing disturbing disclosures of sadistic organised abuse, (within and beyond quasi-religious or occult rituals) from children and adults.”
It is not, of course, Nelson’s job to reconcile her idea of the scale of satanic abuse with, say Tate’s almost Gothic “resurgence”. In the absence of any quantitative research I am not in a position to say what proportion of British professionals encountered allegations of ritual abuse (as opposed to believed that such a problem existed). In the US, however, a full study was undertaken and published in 1994. Commissioned by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, a survey was made of nearly 7000 professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers etc) and 4,600 national and local agencies. These reported between them over 12000 cases of possible satanic ritual sexual abuse of children. This seems substantial to me.
It is also simply a fact that in a Press Report in July 1989 the NSPCC, the primary voluntary agency dealing with damaged or threatened children, caused a sensation by agreeing that the agency had firm evidence from their workers that satanic ritual abuse existed. This Report was itself in part a reaction to the edition of the Cook Report on which Tate was the co-producer. Five years later the agency backtracked, with its Policy Director quoted as saying of ritual abuse that:
“We are not saying it doesn’t exist, we’re saying we don’t have evidence of it from our workers and the families we’ve worked with.”
In the intervening period there were numerous alarming (and often sensational) newspaper and television reports of satanic abuse, there were numerous books and professional conferences devoted to the subject and there were counseling organisations set up specifically to deal with it. One of these was (and still is) the Ritual Abuse Information Network and Support (RAINS) – founded as the idea of Satanic abuse became prominent in 1989. According to Dr Sandra Buck, a leading RAINS member, the organisation came about when:
“Two social workers, a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse and a lecturer in social work met to discuss how to respond to the needs of people like themselves, who were coming across ‘ritual abuse’ for the first time. The social workers were Judith Dawson (Child Abuse Consultant for Nottingham Social Services) and Chris Johnston (Leader of Team 4, a specialist team set up in 1987 to work with children and families in a complex multi-generational child abuse case in Broxtowe, Nottingham). Dr. Joan Coleman was the psychiatrist and Eileen Revvens the psychiatric nurse. In 1989, Joan and Eileen worked in Surrey, and had supported two adult survivors since 1987.” [DA Note: It would be interesting to know whether “Natalie” was one of these]
Joan Coleman herself recalled that:
Ritual abuse evoked considerable interest in Britain between 1987 and 1994. The subject was taken up by many professionals, mainly psychologists, counsellors, and social workers; numerous children thought to be at risk were taken into care [my italics]. In 1989, some of us who had encountered it formed an organisation called RAINS (Ritual Abuse Information Network & Support), with the aim of sharing information and supporting each other.
Since then RAINS itself claims that it has:
supported more than 500 professionals and survivor supporters, including psychologists, psychiatrists, paediatricians, GPs, social workers, NSPCC, counsellors, rape crisis workers, psychotherapists, psychiatric nurses, probation officers, prison officers, solicitors, barristers, police, teachers, clerics, carers, foster carers and supportive journalists.
Quite apart from organisations like RAINS, one of the best known psychotherapists in Britain over the last 25 years has made a living out of diagnoses of Dissociative Identity Disorder and from recovering memories of sexual abuse, including satanic abuse. Valerie Sinason’s website details her many and various posts and publications. The most recent listed was a chapter entitled
What has changed in twenty years? in a book called Ritual Abuse and Mind Control: The Manipulation of Attachment Needs.
Sinason has often been a guest on TV and radio programmes and sometime before 2000 even received £22,000 from the Department of Health to produce a report into ritual abuse. This report, according to The Guardian, claimed that Sinason alone had had by that stage counselled 46 patients who had all claimed to have witnessed murder during ritual ceremonies, some involving up to 300 participants.
If you think that all this satanising is true – and Dr Nelson does – then it seems perverse to me to suggest that its effective discovery in the late 80s was not a significant moment. On the other hand if you think it was a myth which came to strange prominence in that period, then again it requires some explanation.
This explanation, of course, was what the programmes sought to provide, through looking at the related evolution of the recovered memory movement, multiple personality disorder and Satanic Ritual Abuse. This attempt as explanation is characterized and then rebutted by Nelson like this:
I never met nor heard of any professional who concluded that ritual abuse existed, as Analysis claimed, through reading Sybil, Michelle Remembers or the Courage to Heal.
And like this:
“The public are simultaneously expected to believe satanic abuse revelations were incredible, ludicrous and unbelievable, lacking in any evidence, and would be to any normal person; and that intelligent educated professionals swallowed the whole lot after reading one book, or attending a single conference!”
This is an intriguing mixture of Aunt Sally and diversion. The programmes never claimed that any professional had concluded that satanic abuse existed from these books alone or even mainly from them. Rather they helped form the intellectual background against which a temporary but significant boom in belief in satanic abuse took place. The conferences are a slightly different matter. Plenty of testimony exists to verify the impact on social workers and others of attending conferences at which respected colleagues revealed the terrible truth about what was happening. Jean La Fontaine, the anthropologist, for example, recalled for the programme sitting at a presentation given by Judith Dawson and Christine Johnstone from Nottingham and being struck by the credulity of those around her. “Other people were asking, ‘why Nottingham?’”, she recalled, “I was asking, ‘why witchcraft?’”
If Dr Nelson’s argument is to suggest that it is most unlikely that professional people could be persuaded to believe absolute nonsense, then I am bound, sadly, to reply “it happens”.
On “amnesia following trauma”, I have to say this is a mischaracterisation of what those who believe in recovered memory suggest and of what the programme was covering. Specifically we took issue with the contention that a traumatic experience could be “buried” altogether, only to surface during therapy (often involving the use of hypnosis and/or sodium amytal) or in the form of entirely separated “alters” – or personalities of which the “main” personality was unaware.
Not only is there little good evidence that trauma is buried (though people can be very reluctant to talk about it or recall such events) but there is plenty of good evidence for the idea that recollections under therapy can be iatrogenic – caused, in effect, by the over-suggestive therapist and sometimes endorsed by an anxious-to-please patient. The programme went to Professor Richard J McNally, the US trauma specialist, for an account of his research on this subject precisely because he is probably the world’s leading authority on it. McNally said that in his experience a traumatic event was most unlikely to be forgotten, however much its survivor wanted to forget. This is in line with majority thinking in the field. And, indeed, in his book Remembering Trauma McNally has clearly demonstrated why the conclusions drawn by the psychiatrist Charles Whitfield (cited by Nelson) were probably faulty.
If there were, as Nelson asserts, “a large and reputable literature demonstrating that these things [buried memories] are indeed possible, supported by the frequent experience of practitioners and abuse survivors themselves”, this would have to be supported by sufficient corroboration that the repressed events had taken place. In the case of Satanic abuse, at any rate, there never has been. If Nelson knows differently then she will be able to cite the circumstances. By the way, I have yet to hear of a concentration camp survivor who forgot that they’d been in a concentration camp.
But Nelson and Tate (and Campbell indeed) face a problem with the logic of their argument. If we must believe the accounts of victims of wildly implausible accounts of satanic ritual abuse, including those “recovered” in therapy, then why should we not give equal credence to accounts,say, of alien abduction or “past lives”? There are just as many of them and they are just as convinced of their case. If any of the trio can give me a good reason for making a distinction, I’d be happy to hear it.
Meanwhile, for a history of what can happen when a terrible therapist/counsellor – even one with a highly respectable pedigree – comes into contact with a distressed person, readers should go no further than the notorious case of Carole Felstead/Myers. They can note here and here the walk-on role played in the tragedy by Valerie Sinason.
But the other aspect the programmes covered was the claims made, not by those experiencing “recovered”memory, but by children. The third such major case in Britain, that on Orkney, was covered by Dr Nelson when she was a journalist in Scotland. My understanding is that now, as then, she believes that there was indeed a satanic ring operating on South Ronaldsay, as “revealed” in February 1991 first by the children of a family where the father had been gaoled for sexual abuse, and subsequently, after persistent questioning, by some of the other children taken into care.
I am absolutely certain that Nelson is sincere and cares deeply about child sexual abuse and its victims. But it is also quite clear, if you read the very lengthy Clyde Report into the Orkney events (published in 1992), that what happened there was that a combination of prejudices and one child’s confabulation, sent social and childcare workers into something close to a frenzy of confirmation bias.
Interviews had been poorly conducted, improperly recorded and – above all – had failed to make what Clyde called a “vital distinction” between taking an allegation seriously and believing it. “Not all of the witnesses”, he said drily, “appreciated it, nor did those most closely involved, including members of the RSSPCC (Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) staff always respect it”.
In fact, rereading the evidence in the case – the evidence on the basis of which reputations were destroyed and children taken from their families without even enough time to pack a case – it is horribly clear just how determined the workers were to stand up the idea of ritual abuse. The role of the RSSPCC’s key worker, a Mrs Liz McLean, in particular jumps out at the reader. Subsequently some of the children involved gave their own accounts of what had happened to them at the hands of the authorities. I wonder what Nelson makes of this testimony.
REPLY TO CAMPBELL
And finally to Beatrix Campbell.
It was at first a tricky enterprise to separate her various insinuations, semi suggestions concerning motive and commentaries from the substance of her complaint. Nor was the complaint always consistent.
How, for example, does one square:
But when we journalists venture into great debates and scientific battlefields where the stakes are high, not only for the mental health of those making allegations of abuse, but also the livelihoods of those tasked by the health service police and local authorities to work with them, shouldn’t we try to follow the evidence and give the adversaries airtime?
“I was asked to contribute to Aaronovitch’s programme and after questions about what I would be participating in, declined. Why? Because its thin line needed a bit of balance. I wasn’t minded to oblige. This was his thing, his argument, not mine.”
Valerie Sinason also declined to appear. As we’ve seen Sarah Nelson did agree and was hailed by Campbell as “the voice of reason” on the programme.
Nevertheless Campbell has a point to this extent – it was extraordinarily unlikely that anyone I was interviewing would provide me with what I would regard as irrefutable evidence that murderous Satanic Ritual Abuse had ever been the problem that Campbell herself (as we shall see) claimed that it was. Had Campbell appeared I could and might well have have pressed her on some of the details of that belief. Perhaps if we have the debate she seems to be suggesting (and I certainly know of organisations who would love to host it), we can cover that ground.
A second observation here is that Campbell takes what can only be described as a “high moral tone” about what she conceives the job of a journalist to be and how balanced and evidence-based that job is. Well, I have the advantage of having paid quite a lot of money to get hold of the book she co-wrote with Judith Dawson (by then Judith Jones) and published in 1999 under the title of Stolen Voices: an Exposure of the campaign to Discredit Childhood Testimony. The publishers, The Women’s Press, withdrew the title before distribution on the basis of threats of legal action to which they must have considered that they would be vulnerable. I imagine that the danger was spotted by the publisher’s legal advisers, but what the problem was and why the offending material could not have been excised, I do not know. But what I do know is that the book is a 226 page hatchet job, which seems, among other things, to be paying off old scores against critics of Dawson and other social workers and which deploys guilt-by-association on an industrial scale. I will return to a troubling aspect of this later.
For the moment, insofar as Campbell’s complaints cover the same ground as Tate’s and Nelson’s I will refer her the replies I gave earlier. For now I’ll concentrate on the points of fact (as opposed to her many colourful diversions) she raises that they do not.
The Broxtowe Case
The best place to start is Nottingham. Put simply Campbell’s account of events in the Broxtowe case is partial in both senses of the word. There is no dispute that there was appalling and intergenerational sexual abuse in an extended family that lived on the Broxtowe estate, and that this abuse culminated in the trial and sentences mentioned earlier.
But at some point in the development of the case a split developed between the Team 4 group of social workers, led by Judith Dawson, and firstly the police, and subsequently a joint enquiry team (or JET) equally composed of social workers and police officers. With regard to the police, as accusations suggesting a ritual sexual abuse element involving adults and children beyond the family appeared, they were forced to investigate to find corroboration for the claims. When it was claimed, for example, that ritual abuse had taken place in large houses with swimming pools and involving third parties, the police had little option but to try and discover these places and these people. Their enquiry was called the Gollom Enquiry and, in essence, it discovered that almost every one of the claims made was, on investigation, either impossible or could not be verified.
Meanwhile Team 4 held to its essential stance that the children, in their various accounts recorded mostly by their foster parents, could not be lying. And in addition they had received corroboration, they thought, from some of the adults in the abusive family. When the wardship proceedings were brought before Mrs Justice Booth and then to the Appeal Court in July 1988, as triumphantly cited by Campbell, judgment was given in the belief that there was corroboration. Indeed the JET team later established that one of the adults lied to Justice Booth. But Campbell omits this timeline giving the clear impression that the judiciary had had the opportunity to scrutinise both the police evidence and the JET report and had rejected their conclusions. It hadn’t. The JET enquiry did not begin until July 1989 and did not report until early 1990. We can only speculate what the judges might have said had the 600 pages of the JET report been available to them. Campbell’s ace turns out to be a knave.
A summary of the JET report made by the team itself is available online, despite several years in which Nottinghamshire County Council, whose Team 4 was so badly mauled in its pages, attempted to suppress it -variously arguing that it was an internal document, that it might be libelous or that the council owned the copyright.
So we did not, as Campbell asserts, rely on Debbie Nathan’s book for our understanding of the JET report, but on the summary itself. Despite the various attempts that Campbell and others have made to discredit the report it remains the case that undisputed facts, such as the discovery that the adult corroboration was (a) utterly flawed and (b) subsequently retracted, arose from the JET enquiry.
Readers can see that the JET enquiry team concluded that almost every single assertion that suggested ritual abuse and that could be tested, was found to be impossible. It is as damning a document as I think I have ever seen and, though there have been quibbles raised by Campbell and others (including her unintentionally hilarious televised encounter with a dildo in the drawer of the office at a cemetery), the mass of detail in the Report has never been countered.
But if there was no corroborative forensic or reliable adult evidence for the supposed ritual abuse claims of the children (some of whom were describing things that had supposedly happened when they were as young as 18 months old) then where on earth had the accusations come from?
The JET team could only speculate. But as readers can see their examination of the diaries kept by the foster carers suggested to them that, before early 1988:
“All four children were talking entirely about their family, of which seven are ESN, being involved in sexual abuse and what they call witch parties. There are only vague references to strangers.
“The second, even more pertinent fact, is that until Mr. W.’s [Ray Wyre’s] presentation of the Satanic indicators all the children are talking about sexual abuse and the witches parties at their homes. It is not until the 5.3.88 that they start to talk about a big house with a swimming pool and even then, only with reference to sexual abuse and nothing ‘Satanic’. They only start to identify other locations in the context of witch parties in July 1988 when the foster parents had been asked to take the children around to identify locations.”
What the JET team was suggesting was that, at first, the social workers and foster carers had been struggling to make sense of some of the things said by the abused children they were involved with. But that, in early February 1988 the social workers met with Ray Wyre, who discussed with them the “satanic indicators”. There is, incidentally, no controversy about whether such a meeting took place and whether the “indicators” were passed on. After that, the JET team believed, the workers and carers “saw” patterns, interpreted them and encouraged the children in the direction of those perceptions. The JET report further queries the contention, which we heard from Tim Tate, that the fostered children were kept totally apart during this period. It believes that there was contact and that there was contamination of accounts as a result.
That, in late 1990, the Director of Social Services of Nottinghamshire appeared – if only by omission – to disown the Report that he would not publish even in summary form, may say more about the state of that Department than about the Report. To Campbell’s clear annoyance a few months later a fellow guest on Channel 4’s March 1991 After Dark programme dealing with the aftermath of the Rochdale affair was the Nottinghamshire assistant Director of Social Services, Andy Croall. Agreeing with Campbell about the existence of satanic abuse and not correcting her on her entirely spurious accusation that the JET report had been discredited, Croall then said that, “as a Christian I believe it’s God time for it [satanic abuse] to be revealed….. it’s a time when, in God’s plan, it’s going to be revealed.”
Croall was subsequently suspended for four months. But to have someone who had overt religious reasons for believing, a priori, in accusations of satanic abuse, in a very senior position in the social services department at that time, is not reassuring. Though, of course, neither is it evidence in itself that satanic abuse did not exist.
During that programme Campbell laid out exactly what it was the social workers on Team 4 thought that their archive of interviews and conversations revealed. The children had:
“…tried to share with their carers a sense of something that was much bigger, much more dangerous, highly organized and involved, it would seem, a number of different systems… In this archive it’s absolutely clear that the children felt they were being subject to ceremonies, in which there were very sadistic practices, very elaborate ritualised forms of sexual abuse, sacrifices, horrible things happening to animals….
QUESTIONER What is sacrificed?
BC: Animals, they described being cut open, bled, children having to drink the blood, drinking substances that they described as being orangey-red, they described being required to do things that hurt other people, they described killings of animals and other children.
And what had happened in Nottingham, she said, seemed to be happening on a nationwide scale:
“We have groups of children in many cities now in Britain who are describing certain practices which come together around certain families or certain groups, the groups that are into satanic cults, and what they’re interested in is subjecting children to rituals that invert Christian belief…”
This idea of Satanists inverting Christianity was one espoused a year or so earlier by Judith Dawson, appearing on an evangelical Christian video Doorways to Danger, which was warning about the perils of the occult. Jesus had valued the innocence of little children, said Dawson, and so Satanists sought to destroy that innocence through defilation.
Also in an article entitled When the Truth Hurts in the March 1989 edition of Community Care magazine the Nottingham social workers, Chris Johnston and Judith Dawson specifically endorsed the idea of abuse for the sake of religion. “Children were fodder for for the gratification of those not interested in sex itself,” they wrote, “but in its use as a tool for the promotion of ritualistic acts that could only be described as satanic.”
Yet, somehow, in Campbell’s complaint her own (and Dawson’s) suggestion that Satanists used children for religious reasons – to “invert” Christianity, is replaced by this:
“The Director (of Nottinghamshire Social Services) agreed with the workers directly involved that ‘the significance of ritual overtones is not necessarily linked to a belief system but that it provided a mechanism for manipulating vulnerable children.’ His report accepted the social workers’ definition of ritual abuse as activities and symbols ‘used to frighten, intimidate and confuse the children.”
I think we can read that as meaning “evangelical Christian nutters? Where did you get that idea from?”
Readers will notice that Campbell does not in her complaint attempt to deal with the matters of fact raised by the JET report: the non-existent locations, the entire absence of forensic evidence, the utter physical implausibility of such acts as live animal sacrifice going on unnoticed on a council estate. Instead she relates how one of JET’s expert witnesses, John Newson, had given his views on the possibility of contamination and confabulation without “actually talking to the foster carers and social workers”. What she didn’t say was that he expressly – like the rest of the JET team – was not allowed under the terms upon which the Enquiry was set up to have contact with the social workers. Whether Newson, who was talking about what he concluded from his own experiences in the field, needed to talk directly to the social workers is another matter.
In hers and Dawson’s book Stolen Voices, there are desultory attempts to question some of the facts in the JET report – and in 600 pages one can imagine that there are the occasional errors. In Stolen Voices police are characterized, essentially, as clodhopping males who distrust the women social workers and who semi-deliberately set out not to find the physical evidence that will vindicate the Erin Brockoviches of Nottinghamshire. The dangers of such a denialist approach for the police (one can imagine what would have happened to the denying cops if a video of the rituals, the remains of babies or, say, a blood-stained altar had been found by journalists) is not something Campbell or Dawson consider.
But by far and away the preferred method for dealing with JET, and casting it as part of a concerted “backlash” against social workers and abused children, is guilt-by-association. Campbell may like to tell us how many times in the last 25 years she thinks she has written an article or a chapter or a blogpost blackening the record of John Gwatkin, the senior social worker on the JET team. Readers will find her at it here in 1993, again in the Guardian in 1995, and in Stolen Voices (1999). In each of these she relates how Gwatkin – as social services director in Newark – was deficient in his handling of two cases completely unrelated to the handling of the JET report. In Stolen Voices the clear implication is that Gwatkin’s record suggests that he was unsuitable for the task and inferring that the case made by the JET report is therefore weakened because of his involvement in it.
In the December 1993 article for the Independent Campbell opens thus:
“That something is badly wrong with Nottinghamshire’s social services is confirmed in a recently leaked confidential document, dating from early 1992 and written by Judith Dawson, an independent child abuse consultant employed by the department.”
And later she makes the link:
“The connection between the Broxtowe controversy and the county’s current crisis is John Gwatkin, Newark area director. Gwatkin’s work has surprised and alarmed colleagues for some time. He had been criticised by police in 1988 for refusing to put a two- year-old boy on the at-risk register after his mother had rolled around laughing when she sent him spinning in the tumble drier. She had also beaten and scalded him on his genitals. She was jailed for 18 months. Gwatkin was pilloried by the judge, and subsequently called to an internal inquiry.”
In 1995 in the Guardian she made the same link after a Nottinghamshire woman killed one of her daughters and injured the other two. This had taken place on Gwatkin’s watch and Campbell added:
“Despite his reputation as an old-fashioned and autocratic traditionalist, John Gwatkin, Newark’s social services chief, had been appointed ….. to head a joint inquiry with the police into the county’s most controversial child protection case….”
What did any of this have to do with the contents or accuracy of the JET report? Campbell doesn’t say.
Guilt by association
But now here she is, this time dealing with the problem of the 1994 La Fontaine report into the existence of satanic and ritual abuse. Specifically she is taking a fellow writer, Bryan Appleyard, to task for approving of La Fontaine’s conclusions:
“Appleyard and Professor La Fontaine prefer notions that videos, social workers and foster carers are the new devils to the other possibility that children might be recounting real events through their tormented behaviour and their stories of satanist experiences.”
I am unaware of anything that Appleyard or LaFontaine had said or written that could possibly bear the construction concerning social workers as “devils” that Campbell allocates to them. But to her, in 1994, there was a “crusade”, a “campaign” to “discredit the children and their advocates. And this campaign somehow united academics with paedophiles. Who told her so?
“Judith Dawson is the child protection consultant who was involved in Britain’s first satanic abuse case in Nottingham, which, despite its success in the courts in 1989, has been the object of a critical crusade. She says: ‘Never in my career have I been subjected to such an organised and personal campaign of disinformation and discrediting, by occult groups, supported by advocates of paedophilia, and given authority by academics who are so disrespectful of carers and specialists struggling with this problem.
“What matters now is that Professor La Fontaine doesn’t appear to address why people organised a campaign against the children’s evidence.”
In other words, don’t look over here at the evidence, look over here at the associations. In her complaint Campbell links the American journalist and satano-sceptic Debbie Nathan and a man called Ralph Underwager who Campbell describes as having “founded” the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, whose work in turn Nathan endorses. She writes, correctly, that Underwager was interviewed in 1991 by a paedophile-friendly magazine and in the interview suggested that not all paedophilia was harmful.
In fact Underwager did NOT found the FMSF, though he did advise it, and his comments though embarrassing to the FMSF did not in themselves constitute an argument against its basic premise – that some people were becoming victims of false accusations of sexual abuse, supposedly retrieved through “recovered memory”. (Incidentally if Campbell has ever said or written anything that suggests that she acknowledges the possibility of such injustices or that she understands how people might react if falsely accused, I seem to have missed it.)
Back in 1994 such associative thinking next led Campbell to take what I consider to be an utterly disgraceful logical jump:
“Professor La Fontaine’s orthodoxy on this issue echoes the views of well-known promoters of paedophilia. [my italics] Although not relying on his work in her recent findings, she recommended writing by Benjamin Rossen, among others, in a letter to the leading professional journal, Child Abuse Review, this year.”
Rossen was a young Dutch academic who played a role in debunking a major satanic abuse claim about the Netherlands town of Oude Pekala and concerning events supposed to happened between 1987 and 1988. Campbell reveals that Rossen was on the board of a paedophile-supporting Dutch magazine. LaFontaine had referred to Rossen’s work on Oude Pekala, which was factual in nature and was shown to be correct. But the association alone is enough to dam LaFontaine’s entire report because:
“Child protection professionals are warning the Department of Health and the Home Office that, if the professor is lending support to Rossen, her entire report needs to be put under scrutiny.
“‘I don’t want to make a fool of the woman,’ says Judith Dawson, ‘but everybody working for child protection knows about Rossen’s advocacy of paedophilia. That calls into question La Fontaine’s whole attitude to adults’ sexual interest in children. [my italics] Anyone who regards Rossen as helpful on these issues cannot have any credibility in this debate.'”
“That calls into question La Fontaine’s whole attitude to adults’ sexual interest in children.” Says Judith Dawson, the constant companion to almost any article on the subject by Beatrix Campbell. Does it really? And what does Dawson (and, by extension, Campbell) imagine that attitude to be? We get it, though, don’t we? What is being implied is that LaFontaine is somehow “soft” on paedophilia. Perhaps, even, mildly tolerant of it. It is a technique repeated over and over again by Campbell. In 2013, for example, taking issue with something I had written in the wake of the McAlpine/Newsnight debacle she wrote in her blog:
“Where would Savile have been without the counter-revolution from the late ’80s (apparently endorsed by Aaronivitch) (sic) against evidence of sexual crimes against children?”
See how easily that’s done? I endorsed no counter-revolution that I can recall. No matter. Campbell is winking at her readers, “Aaronovitch? Never mind his arguments, he’s objectively on the side of the paedophiles”.
The Shieldfield Affair
But if we’re really in the business of suggesting that a person’s record should be regarded as decisive when judging their arguments, what then does Beatrix Campbell have to say about the Shieldfield affair?
In 1993 accusations were made of the sexual abuse of dozens of children at the Shieldfield nursery in Newcastle. Under questioning very young children appeared to be saying that they had been appallingly abused by two young nursery workers, Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed. In 1994 the case came to court and was thrown out by the judge for being too weak to even put the evidence to the jury. The story from the perspective of two campaigning journalists can be found here.
But the outside world would not accept the case’s dismissal. Reed and Lillie were vilified in the press, sacked from their jobs, and forced underground. A disgruntled Newcastle city council almost immediately announced its own enquiry into the Shieldfield case. The review team of four included Judith Jones, formerly Judith Dawson. The team reported in November 1998 and concluded, more or less, that Reed and Lillie had indeed been massive abusers, abusing (estimated Beatrix Campbell in the Daily Express at the time) as many as 350 children. They were as guilty as hell.
At this point Reed and Lillie, encouraged by the journalist Bob Woffinden, decided to sue the review team for libel. The case was heard in front of Justice Eady and in July 2002, nine years after the accusations were first made, he handed out possibly the most withering judgment I have ever read.
You can read it in full here. It is a warning against group-think, confirmation bias, unconscious distortion and – I think – against an almost Stalinist approach to questions of guilt. It is a dissection of how people cut the facts to fit the shape they have already created.
This paragraph from Mr Justice Eady about the small team of which Judith Dawson was a member is quite remarkable:
“I am in the end left in no doubt that the qualified privilege to which the Team would otherwise be entitled is vitiated by express malice. They abused the occasion for which they had striven so hard to ensure that blanket protection. Its four members consciously, after a detailed consideration of the material assembled before them, set out to misrepresent the state of the evidence available to support their joint belief that Mr Lillie and Miss Reed and other local residents were child abusers (and indeed abusers on a massive scale) and to give readers the impression that statements by parents and/or children had been corroborated by police inquiries.”
I would suggest to Beatrix Campbell (and anyone else) that this judgment by Mr Justice Eady casts far more relevant light on Judith Dawson and her work in Nottingham than the failures of John Gwatkin do on the JET report. Or than the citing of Benjamin Rossen does on LaFontaine’s work. Or than the acknowledgement of Ralph Underwager does on Debbie Nathan’s investigations.
And yet I cannot find a single mention of the Shieldfield libel case by Campbell. I may have overlooked one, and I apologise if that is so. It will be a small matter for Campbell to put me right and steer me towards the article or articles she has written that deal with that remarkable case.
A declaration of interest
And here I feel the need to do something that I really do not want to do, but that cannot – in the context of this debate – be avoided. I have no idea at what point following Campbell’s trip to Nottingham in 1990 to make her Dispatches programme she and Judith Dawson fell in love. I don’t presume to guess. But any reader of any piece by Campbell on the satanic abuse question needs to know – especially in light of her claims to objectivity and evidence-based journalism – that her long term partner is one of the two or three principal protagonists in this dispute. Yet Campbell, when writing on this issue, never seems to disclose this fact. When I raised this with her on Twitter recently she said, in effect, that it wasn’t important and that, in any case, everyone knows.
Everyone doesn’t know. The readers of some fairly arcane websites may know, but not the readers of Open Democracy or the people who found their way to her complaint via social media. It is as though I had written this great screed and never once thought to reveal that John Gwatkin was my uncle (he isn’t) or that my sister was a leading British Satanist (no, she isn’t either. Sorry, Sabrina). It is that most basic bit of information for the reader – a declaration of interest.
Some questions answered
I apologise for the extreme length of this reply, but I want it to be complete and so not to have to do any of this again. Let me begin to wind up by answering the series of rhetorical questions posed to me by Campbell in her complaint.
“BC: Celebrity abuse cases have been investigated, resulting in convictions and acquittals. Is Aaronovitch suggesting that they should not have been investigated?
DA: Actually there haven’t just been convictions and acquittals, as Paul Gambaccini for one can attest. There is also the third category of people arrested, investigated, held out to dry publicly, and never charged. And a fourth, of dead people who – guilty or innocent – cannot be tried. And no, of course I am not suggesting that such cases should not have been investigated. I have written to that effect and there is nothing in the programmes that warrants such a question.
BC: Aaronovitch doesn’t mention perhaps the most significant context of institutional abuse: the church. Is he interested?
DA: Actually I did mention the church, right at the top of the programmes. As a columnist I have written about the churches and sexual abuse, just as I have about grooming, about the widespread sexual molestation of young women and girls and indeed, about Savile and the BBC. Is that OK, or do you want some more church?
BC: If he cares about ‘genuine abuse’ why isn’t this what worries Aaronovitch?
DA: And there it is. “If you were really worried about children being raped, you wouldn’t make programmes like this, you’d write articles like mine. But you don’t, so you aren’t.” This one doesn’t deserve a reply.”
A reminder of what this was all about
Well never mind all that. Such squalid little storms can be weathered. I return to what got me into all this – the belief that that the most lurid of the current Westminster/VIP paedophile ring accusations, including child murders in front of of witnesses, seem to me to be replicating the earlier Satanic panic. I have watched as tabloid newspapers have printed uncorroborated nonsense from known fantasists as fact, as single accusers with uncorroborated stories of killings have been given credence by BBC reporters on the basis of “believing the survivors” for all the world, as though Lord Clyde had never reported and Orkney and Rochdale had never happened. As journalistic agencies have turned a buck by ramping up and selling stories that I confidently predict will fail to stand up.
But what contortions people will adopt to try and convince you and themselves that the devil exists! It must have been with some trepidation that – back in November 1990 – Beatrix Campbell wrote a lengthy piece for the sceptical Eurocommunists at the magazine Marxism Today. “Ritual abuse of children”, she quickly agreed, “pushes the boundaries of all our beliefs”. She then fell to softening up her readers with some placatory Marxian passages about power and structures. The words “resistance”, “community” and “mobilise” were deployed.
And then, having prepared the ground a little, Campbell leapt. And what a leap!
Behind the Nottingham case is an inability to imagine that ‘satanic’ practices actually happen. But why? The secularism of our society is infused by ambiguous tendencies toward transcendental powers which ought to help us think afresh. Hands up all those who never look for their horoscope when they find Woman’s Own at the doctor’s.
Yes. That’s it all right. There in the reassuring setting of the doctor’s surgery, the first teeny-tiny step towards… Towards what?
“Don’t most sizeable towns have New Age shops and alternative networks which inhabit the boundary between the material and the mystical? Search any record shop and won’t you find pseudo-satanic heavy metallers?”
You nod. You will indeed find these things. That store which sells tarot cards! Wasn’t the Edgar Broughton Band’s greatest hit Out, Demons, Out? Didn’t Crazy Arthur Brown enjoin you to “burn”, while wearing a head-dress of fire? Even so, surely it’s quite a stretch from there to cooking babies. Wait, though.
“All this stuff is inside our society. And should we be surprised? Isn’t politics itself a wish to transcend the limits of the self by the strength not of the cosmic but by civic collectivity?”
Hmm. That’s an intriguing thought. A new thought. A radical thought that could only really be thought by a radical like Beatrix Campbell. It’s linking the world I know to one I don’t know. Or do I?
And then follows this sublime passage. It is unimproveable. No satirist could invent it. In my debate with Beatrix Campbell, should she wish to follow up on her suggestion, I may simply quote this in full and sit down again:
“After all, people pray in front of grown men wearing frocks, and presumably to find both peace and power, they consume, metaphorically, the body of a man. So is it so difficult to believe that inversions of that established religion are to be found at large? If grown men are capable of dressing up in pinnies and sharing secret signs with each other in masonic lodges up and down the country, what is so hard about contemplating the prospect of grown men dressing up in daft costumes to invert the meanings of the dominant faith; organising rituals to penetrate any orifice available in troops of little children; to cut open rabbits, or cats, or people, and drink their blood; to shit on silver trays and make the children eat it? Is the problem really implausibility, or is it that the consequences of these practices are unbearable?”
I’d say that, in the absence of any bodies of any cats and rabbits, of any sacrificed people, of any eye-witnesses seeing troops of little children being led off for abuse, of any silver trays discovered with faecal traces upon them; or in the absence of any evidence whatsoever of an evolutionary tendency from the Rotary Club to cannibalism, I’d say that in the absence of all that, that the problem Beatrix, is indeed implausibility. But it’s not a “shiver of doubt” implausibility that shakes my intellectual world, but a “how could a grown and intelligent woman believe such epic garbage and then move heaven and earth to try and foist it on everyone else” implausibility.
And the moral is, let’s not go there again.