Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

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

Jean. S. La Fontaine
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0 521 62934 9 (pb); 0 521 62082 1 (hb)
£14.95/US$ 22.95 (pb); £40.00/US$59.95 (hb)
xii + 224 pp.

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During the latter part of the 1980s disturbing accounts of the ritual or satanic abuse of children appeared in the British media. It was claimed that children were not only being forced to watch or participate in vile and twisted acts during occult ceremonies, but that they were being murdered as ritual sacrifices. At one international conference in 1988, a leading figure in a children's charity expressed the opinion that at least 4000 children were being sacrificed every year in the UK alone. It was estimated that the number of children subject to satanic abuse in the US was considerably greater. In several midlands towns in the UK, social workers removed children from their parental homes to protect them from satanic abuse. The children provided social workers and foster parents lurid accounts of the appalling acts that they had seen and done. Adults came forward to claim that they had been ritually abused throughout their childhood. The detail of these accounts, and the similarities between them suggested that not only were these accounts factual, but that there was a powerful covert network of satanists organising the ritual abuse of children.

However, despite the claims of so called survivors, social workers and health professionals, there was no independent corroboration of these stories. The most sophisticated technologies of forensic science found no evidence to suggest that murders were being committed in satanic rituals; despite claims of years of abuse, adult survivors could not identify their abusers, and so on. La Fontaine's book investigates why so many health and social work professionals continued to believe the existence of satanic abuse at the same time that evidence that it was actually happening was crumbling.

La Fontaine draws heavily from anthropological studies of witchcraft, both in Europe and in Africa. She argues that there are significant parallels between the events of the 1980s and witchcraft scares in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in the way that the emergence of belief was organised and the manner in which it spread via the efforts of key individuals. While this analysis is at least plausible, however, the main strength of the book lies in its detailed investigation of the accounts produced by the children who claimed to have been abused, and the processes underlying the work of social workers and health professionals which resulted in the ardent belief that satanic ritual abuse of thousands of children was happening, despite the absence of any corroborative evidence.

She shows, for example, how strikingly divergent accounts of ostensibly the same ritual were glossed in such a way as to make them seem similar. She shows how a list of behaviours, which were taken to be indicators of ritual abuse, was extended/interpreted in such a way to increase the likelihood that any specific case could be counted as a case of abuse. She shows how the influence of evangelical Christianity left its indelible mark in the ways in which professionals and foster parents pressured young children to claim experience of satanic rituals. She charts the powerful impact of those therapists, united behind the slogan 'we believe the children', who argued that it was damaging to doubt the veracity of the children's and survivors' stories. And she argues forcefully that the appearance of claims about satanic abuse is not evidence of the darkening of the human soul, but a moral panic, borne of very human social and professional conditions.

While child abuse exists, La Fontaine makes a compelling argument that it is not satanic in nature, and certainly not coordinated by a secret organisation of satanists. The delight of this book is that it shows the power of the social sciences to explain why people believed that it was.

Robin Wooffitt
University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998