What is Ritual Abuse? The term ‘ritual abuse’ was first used in the early 1980’s, to describe a particular form of abuse, (predominantly of children), involving organised ritual as a central feature. The term first appeared in North American literature and was used in Australia from 1984 onwards (Scott, Sara. 2001. The politics and experience of ritual abuse: beyond disbelief. p1). Since this time, the term ritual abuse has been defined in various ways, by various people, including survivors, academics and workers from professional fields that come into contact with survivors and perpetrators e.g. Police, social workers, psychologists etc.
Ritual abuse has existed for longer than the last twenty years. Survivors talk of their childhood experiences of ritual abuse, occurring in the 1950’s and 60’s. Ritually abusive practices within families are often trans-generational- meaning they are practised by various generations of family members over many years. Evidence, derived from court cases and personal accounts, indicate ritual abuse existed as far back as the 16 th century (Ritual Abuse Survivors and Supporters, Australia , “Extent” at http://www.heart7.net/ritual-abuse-ss.html).
The extent to which it is practised in Australia is hard to determine due to a number of factors, including the highly secretive nature of ritual abuse practices and a culture of disbelief which further hides it and, which influences and impedes political and social institutions’ responses toward it.
The 1989 Report by the Ritual Abuse Task Force of Los Angeles County Commission for Women, defined ritual abuse in the following way:
Ritual abuse usually involves repeated abuse over an extended period of time. The physical abuse is severe, sometimes including torture and killing. The sexual abuse is usually painful, sadistic and humiliating, intended as a means of gaining dominance over the victim. The psychological abuse is devastating and involves the use of ritual indoctrination. It includes mind control techniques which convey to the victim a profound terror of the cult members and of evil spirits they believe cult members can command. Both during and after the abuse most victims are in a state of terror mind control and dissociation. (ASCA 2002. Healing from Ritual Abuse: Also known as Organised Sadistic Abuse. Information Package. P3)
Survivors of ritual abuse may give varying descriptions of their experiences. However, a number of factors generally feature across accounts including:
Survivors have also questioned the fact that the term ritual abuse has become too broadly applied. For many survivors ritual abuse, where a belief system or ideology plays a key role in abusive ritual, must not be confused with “ritualistic abuse” –abuse which is perpetrated in a habitualised manner, such as the sexual abuse of a child perpetrated on a daily basis (Ritual Abuse Survivors and Supporters, Australia. “The Abuse/Criminality”, at http://www.heart7.net/ritual-abuse-ss.html).
The term and practice of ritual abuse has also been closely linked with other categories and practises of abuse, including: -
a) “organised abuse”, which refers to the abuse and exploitation of children through organised crime (prostitution and pornography) and paedophile rings;
b) institutional abuse, which refers to the abuse of persons within political and social institutions, such as within schools, orphanages and mental health facilities etc;
c) “organised, sadistic abuse” which is often used as an umbrella term across these kinds of abuse, wherein ritual abuse features as a more extreme example.
Who perpetrates ritual abuse? Initial discussion of ritual abuse in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s predominantly implicated satanic cults in the perpetration of ritual abuse against children. However, not every group or cult dedicated to satanic worship practices ritual abuse.
Moreover, ritual abuse is not exclusively practised within such groups. Groups or cults organised around other religious or quasi-religious belief systems, including Christian cults, have been associated with the use of abusive ritual to maintain control over members. Ritual abuse which occurs within religious groups is often called “cult-based ritual abuse” (Kelley, S J. “Ritualistic Abuse of Children: Dynamics and Impact” Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No.2, 1988, p229).
Religion is not always a defining factor of groups who practice ritual abuse. White supremacy groups such as Nazi cults and the Klu Klux Klan have been associated with such practices. Groups involved in organised crime and paedophilia have also been identified as sites of ritual abuse. Ritual abuse which is not part of a developed belief system, but which is primarily about the sexual exploitation of children has been called “pseudo-ritual abuse” (Kelley, S J. “Ritualistic Abuse of Children: Dynamics and Impact” Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No.2, 1988, p229).
Groups who practice ritual abuse are always hierarchical – the abuse is used to maintain this hierarchy and to benefit those at its higher levels. Benefits may include power and prestige, sexual gratification and financial wealth.
Ritual abuse may be practised within family groups across generations, or it may be associated with groups or institutions external to survivors’ families. For example, some reports concern the recruiting of children from orphanages and day-care centres, for abuse within paedophile rings. Ritual abuse may be perpetrated through connections between families and external groups.
Impacts of ritual abuse on survivors Ritual abuse has profound effects upon the lives of child and adult survivors. The range of psychological symptoms and emotional effects survivors may experience include:-
Surviving in a culture of disbelief Added to the immense impact of ritual abuse on survivors, is the frustration and despair of attempting to survive within a wider culture where ritual abuse experiences are disbelieved and denied. It has only been in the last 30 years that the idea of sexual violence perpetrated within families has been acknowledged by society. Today, as a society we still struggle to adequately support those who have experienced incest. We continue, as a society to harbour and reproduce myths, which blame survivors for their experiences of rape. We continue to witness the situation within the criminal justice system where perpetrators get away with their sexual crimes, or receive minimal punishment, and where survivors receive little justice and recompense. This is the situation with more regular or common forms of sexual violence.
Therefore, it is little wonder that society struggles with the very idea of ritual abuse. Its practices sound bizarre and are very disturbing. It is difficult for people to believe that members of their own society would dream of gaining personal benefit and gratification from extremely sadistic and systematic abuse of others, especially children. It is hard for people to face up to the fact that people can be so cruel. However, ritual abuse is an unfortunate reality for some - it does exist.
The culture of disbelief is further compounded through the very social and political systems and institutions, which are supposed to promote the best interests of survivors, as those requiring special personal support and legal protection and justice.
Australian Governments have been unwilling to acknowledge that ritual abuse exists. It has been suggested that the association of ritual abuse practices with government institutions (for example, orphanages and mental health facilities) has rendered governments afraid of litigation, should they fully acknowledge its existence. For whatever reasons, governments have not encouraged adequate responses toward the issue from those systems which come into contact with survivors and perpetrators. This includes the criminal justice and health-care systems, which are responsible for the provision of services that promote the health and wellbeing of survivors of sexual violence.
Because of this culture of disbelief, ritual abuse survivors’ disclosures, as part of attempts to seek support, protection and justice, are often not met with an appropriate or respectful response. One survivor told how disclosures to health professionals about her experiences of ritual abuse were met with either responses of, ”Have you been taking your medication” or “What’s ritual abuse?” The impact of this culture upon survivors, includes further silencing and isolation.
The lack of social and political recognition of ritual abuse, means that support organisations for ritual abuse survivors are few in number and frequently struggle to acquire adequate funding.
Support Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA)
Support Line: 1300 657 380
Telephone: 02 49909030
Myriad Support Group (for women with DID/MPD)
Phone: 3399 3340
Contact Person: Diana Hunt
Qld Association for Mental Health
Street Address: Fleming House, Orford Drive Wacol
Postal Address: PO Box 475 Sumner Park BC 4074
Phone: 3271 5544
Trauma and Dissociation Unit
Street/Postal Address: Belmont Private Hospital , 1220 Creek Road Carina 4152 Phone: 3398 0280
Comments: Inpatient and day patient programmes. Admission based on referral by psychiatrist or refer to Admissions and Discharge to arrange on 1800 700 274.
Esther Centre (for survivors of institutional abuse)
Street Address: 43 Peel Street South Brisbane 4101
Postal Address: PO Box 3449 South Brisbane 4101
Phone: 3844 0966
Comments: Supports people who have been abused institutionally – state and church (foster, detention centres etc) but not psychiatric institutions. Outreach, advocacy and support.
Aftercare Resource Centre (for survivors of institutional abuse)
Street Address: 32 Thomas Street West End Qld 4101
Phone: (07) 3255 2848 or 1800501560
Comments: A program which provides a support service for persons who have experienced physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse whilst in an institution, orphanage, detention centre or foster care in Queensland .
References ASCA 2002. Healing from Ritual Abuse: Also known as Organised Sadistic Abuse. Information Package.
Kelley, S J. “Ritualistic Abuse of Children: Dynamics and Impact” Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No.2, 1988.
Ritual Abuse Survivors and Supporters, Australia at http://www.heart7.net/ritual-abuse-ss.html
Scott, Sara. 2001. The politics and experience of ritual abuse: beyond disbelief.
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