WITCH STORY TO BELIEVE?
There are claims of 'mounting evidence' of Satanist abuse of children.
Sandra Barwick searches for the facts
IN WITCHCRAFT or witch hunt — where does the greater danger lie? That is the question left hanging on the air, together with a faint smell of sulphur, in the aftermath of the NSPCC's statements that ritualistic abuse of children has taken place in at least seven areas of England and Wales.
These practices are, despite the proc- laimed certainty of the NSPCC's original assertions, only alleged. The charity's statements are mainly based on what abused children have said. The number affected by these alleged practices, they say, is 'very small': no exact figure has been given, but assuming that there are as many as 20 children affected in each of the seven places it would work out at less than half a per cent of the 39,000 children on the Child Protection Registers compiled by local authorities.
Nevertheless the NSPCC took the deci- sion to publicise what they knew would `How do you explain this heroine we found in your suitcase?' invite sensational coverage and they gave a reason for it. The tales, they say, of rituals variously involving masks and costumes, invocations of supernatural powers, animal sacrifices, the drinking of blood and urine, the smearing of faeces and sexual abuse have produced in the past 'a certain amount of disbelief amongst profession- als'. Their assertions are aimed at stimulat- ing faith. Total disbelief — or a certain amount of disbelief? A refusal to accept that such things ever happen, or a refusal to believe that they happen in every case alleged? The distinction is an important one, for already in Nottingham allegations of this kind have stirred feelings whose intensity raises echoes of Cleveland.
Many of the NSPCC's details have a familiar ring. Almost all of them sound rather like the incidents which were alleged to have taken place during what came to fame as the Broxtowe case in Nottingham, where nine adults were jailed in 1988 for taking part in an extended network of inter-familial sexual abuse. Little of the evidence of black magic came out at the trial, but outside the courtroom there was talk of animal sacrifices, blood being drunk and sexual abuse by adults in ritual robes.
Horror at what they were hearing from children, and frustration at what they saw as a refusal on the police's part to take the stories seriously, drove social workers to begin their own investigation. Amidst fears of a rift between the professionals re- sponsible for child protection, police and social services then set up a joint inquiry.
Their report came out in December. It dismissed the allegations. There was 'no empirical evidence', it said, in the only portion of its findings which were released. Privately, those who know its contents describe it as dismissive of the social workers' beliefs.
The Director of Social Services, David White, forbade his staff to talk about ritual abuse to the press or at formal presenta- tions. It is a commonplace of marital counselling that a lack of openness causes rifts to grow worse. On the day the NSPCC made public its report Nalgo submitted a collective grievance to Mr White on behalf of the social workers: they want an official inquiry into the affair under the auspices of the Department of Health. Their unhappiness centres on one of Mr White's statements: 'I accept the inquiry's conclusion that it is doubtful whether the practice of ritual abuse actually exists, as it has never been fully substantiated by empirical evidence. I do not, however, wish to go further and deny its existence absolutely.'
Richard McCance, joint social services convener for Nalgo in Nottinghamshire, says that it is deplorable that workers were not allowed to see the substance of a report they feel has implicity criticised them. 'Experienced workers know ritual abuse exists. Our workers are incensed that they should be denied the opportunity to sup- port children. The Director was saying that what the children had said was lies, and the gag on the workers means that they are prevented from getting much needed sup- port. If people can't express a point of view we're into totalitarianism. What it suggests to us is that there is some sort of cover-up.'
Mr White is still considering his reply. But other police and professionals in Not- tingham do not appear to have minds as closed as social workers there apparently fear. John Newson, Professor of Child Development at the University of Notting- ham, says: 'I am sure that ritual abuse has happened in some cases. I haven't seen any evidence which convinces me that it has happened in Nottingham. Accusations of this kind can be a dangerous thing to make: it gives the impression it's important and widespread. If you start naming people without legal proof they can be turned out of their communities. There can be a witch-hunt. It is disturbing that a lot of claims about ritual abuse have the sound of internationally approved rumour. The rumour of putting babies in microwaves it's a horror story amongst children and adults internationally, but you can't trace it to a case.'
Detective Chief Inspector Julian Smith, of the Nottingham Family Support Group, who was not involved in the Broxtowe case, but works with the 400 cases of child sexual abuse reported in the area each year, says: 'We haven't had any case in Nottingham with witchcraft or Satanism. But I'm sure there will be a case. It's only a matter of time when you look at the numbers. We always listen to children who make this kind of allegation and we take them very seriously. None has stood up so far, but abusers will use the occult as an excuse — you can bet your life on it. The most common threat to children is: "Don't tell anyone or your mother will die." Witchcraft could fit in nicely.'
In California and Holland, allegations of widespread ritual abuse have not stood up in court. But many professionals have said in the last week that they believe ritual abuse has happened. They base their belief on the emotion and detail with which a number of children give their accounts. Few deny its existence absolutely.
And, as DCI Smith said, it could fit in nicely. There have been cases where sex- ually abused children in family groups have said they have been shown pornographic videos and then forced to play out the games. There are plenty of highly un-
pleasant videos in which witchcraft is a theme. Drugs and drink have been used on sexually abused children. It is not impossi- ble that some accounts come from such a blurred scenario.
The danger comes when a belief in any worldly matter becomes a case for theology rather than demonstration. Assertion with- out facts has a habit of weakening a case and hardening attitudes in the opposing camp. It is natural for social workers to feel righteous in their indignation when they feel disbelieved. There was disbelief when it was first suggested that parents could batter their children, and further resistance to the notion that they might have sexual intercourse with them. But it remains legitimate to test, to ask difficult questions, to require proof. If witchcraft poses a threat to children, so do witch-hunts. It would be a pity if the suspension of disbelief made the existence of widespread ritual abuse an article of faith, not proof.