By Evan Anderson
Outside of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation’s (ISSTD) annual conference this past March, Lucien Greaves questioned Michael Salter — a self-styled criminologist and chair of the ISSTD’s Ritual Abuse/Mind Control Organized Abuse (RAMCOA) special interest group — about his beliefs regarding possible Satanic Illuminati conspiracies. Salter responded by saying: “You know exactly what I think because I’ve published these things in print.” Pressed by Greaves to confirm or deny his belief in the credibility of such conspiracy theories, espoused by Ellen Lacter, the previous RAMCOA chair, Salter began walking away, saying “You can read what I’ve written. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on this topic. I am an open book.” He seemed oblivious to the irony.
So, what does Salter believe? It’s rather time consuming to read the “hundreds of thousands of words” he referenced to try to figure out whether or not he believes in the elusive global satanic conspiracy. It would have been easier if he had just answered the questions. But here we are.
Salter seems to believe that those who decry the Satanic Panic — which continues today in fringes of the mental health field — and question the validity of so-called “repressed memories” are simply unwilling to acknowledge or address the reality of child sexual abuse. Take, for example, this quote from an article he wrote in The Guardian:
“[F]or those uncomfortable with the social and legal reforms required to address child sexual abuse, the idea that large numbers of allegations are the product of “false memories” remains attractive.”
It’s quite audacious to imagine that anybody denies the obvious existence of crimes against children. And it’s just plain cheap to ascribe such a motive to those who question the scientific reliability of memories that couldn’t be unearthed but for highly questionable methods such as hypnotism. One inconvenient fact for Salter is that false memories exist, although he alleges that the memory experts who testify in court cases on this are “compromised” by the money they make for such appearances. Another inconvenient fact: many individuals claiming to have been subjected to ritual abuse recanted their testimony. Though Salter seems to be of the belief that recantations shouldn’t be taken at their word — since they could be forced — he has yet to provide evidence of a recanted recantation.
For the most part, Salter positions himself as someone who refutes the tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Claims of a Satanic Panic, he feels, serve to discredit claims of abuse that may very well be real. That’s not so different from our position that allegations of satanic ritual abuse and the attendant hysteria sweep legitimate accusations under the rug. Whereas he blames those who believe in a Satanic Panic, we blame those who create it.
Of his only two tweets that refer explicitly to satanic ritual abuse, one of them links to a BBC article about criticism of a documentary that some saw as promoting a Satanic Panic narrative (presumably he takes the side of the BBC), while the other appears to smear those who denounce the Satanic Panic as abuse “apologists.” And although he did tweet a link to an article claiming that Jimmy Savile subjected at least one of his victims to a satanic ritual, he for the most part avoids applying the satanic label.
Salter seems focused on re-branding the supposed phenomena of “satanic ritual abuse” as something more clinical and scientific. Avoiding the “satanist” label, he refers strictly to “ritual abuse” — but it’s pretty clear who the alleged perpetrators are. In front of the Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission in 2007, Salter reported that he was on the board of directors for a group called Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA), which produced a report in 2002 that claims, just a few sentences into the introduction, that
“The term ritual abuse or satanic ritual abuse offends most people’s senses.
- We know sexual abuse exists and we now accept incest has always been a reality.
- We know organised and sadistic perpetrator groups exist.
- We know of child pornography and child prostitution.
- We know about the mafia and drug trafficking, Nazism and CIA brainwashing techniques.
“Cult abuse or satanic ritual abuse uses a combination of all of the above with an added emphasis on the fear and secrecy, which is designed to protect the cult’s way of life. Due to the bizarre nature of the abuse, survivors who report this type of abuse more often than not are discredited or re-abused by society and the system that is set up to protect them. This is due to society’s denial that cult abuse exists.”
The report goes on to make numerous other claims regarding conspiracies of satanists engaging in ritual abuse. Some common themes of ritual abuse, according to the report: being buried alive, “baby breeding,” human and animal sacrifices, drinking blood, cannibalism, even marriage to Satan. It also suggests some mind control techniques, including hypnosis (ironic), “magic surgery,” and being “placed inside a dead and gutted horse.” “Mind control is the cornerstone of ritual abuse,” the report states.
Despite Salter’s “hundreds of thousands of words,” he does not seem to have covered these supposed tactics of mind control and ritual abuse.
Yet he pulls no punches in displaying his certainty that the Satanic Panic narrative is a farce. In Organized Sexual Abuse, he states that
“Blaming therapy, social work and other caring professions for the confabulation of testimony of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ legitimated a programme of political and social action designed to contest the gains made by the women’s movement and the child protection movement. In efforts to characterise social workers and therapists as hysterical zealots, ‘satanic ritual abuse’ was, quite literally, ‘made fun of’: it became the subject of scorn and ridicule as interest groups sought to discredit testimony of sexual abuse as a whole.
“Intimations of collusion between feminists and Christians in the concoction of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ continue to mobilise ‘progressive’ as well as ‘conservative’ sympathies for men accused of serious sexual offences and against the needs of victimised women and children. This chapter argues that, underlying the invocation of often contradictory rationalising tropes (ranging from calls for more scientific ‘objectivity’ in sexual abuse investigations to emotional descriptions of ‘happy families’ rent asunder by false allegations) is a collective and largely unarticulated pleasure; the cathartic release of sentiments and views about children and women that had otherwise become shameful in the aftermath of second wave feminism. It seems that, behind the veneer of public concern about child sexual abuse, traditional views about the incredibility of women’s and children’s testimony persist. ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ has served as a lens through which these views have been rearticulated and reasserted at the very time that evidence of widespread and serious child sexual abuse has been consolidating.” (p. 60)
How he reconciles his close proximity to individuals and groups — Ellen Lacter, the ISSTD, the ASCA, and others — who espouse conspiracy theories of groups of roving Satanists abducting and abusing children with his rejection of the existence of a moral panic is a mystery. Unless, of course, he thinks there’s every reason to panic.
In an interview, Salter claims that a friend of his endured organized ritual abuse, and this prompted him to begin a career path in researching such things. In this interview, he makes several suspect claims. For example, he states that
“In the wake of multiple sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, the proposition that multiple adults might conspire to abuse multiple children is a familiar one to most people. That wasn’t the case fifteen or twenty years ago, which is why allegations of organised and ritual abuse seemed so bizarre at the time.”
This suggests that the claims of satanic ritual abuse during the 80s and 90s, such as those in the McMartin trial, were simply foreign to the public and therefore dismissed as fantastical. This strays from his other claims that those worried about a Satanic Panic voice such concerns to avoid confronting the reality of child abuse, or far worse, to act as “apologists” for abusers. Instead, this suggests that he actually believes the accusations of satanic ritual abuse.
In fact, in Organized Abuse and the Politics of Disbelief, Salter writes:
“The findings of an archaeological dig at the McMartin preschool site, which uncovered recently backfilled tunnels and ritual articles in accordance with the children’s disclosures, came too late to counter the momentum of the backlash (Summit 1994a).”
So not only does Salter wish to refute the Satanic Panic narrative by referring to those who care about it as apologists for abusers, but he seems to also wish that we would consider that, perhaps, (satanic) ritual abuse did occur at McMartin. Even worse, the source that he cites doesn’t seem to support the statement he made. The article, originally published in Journal of Psychohistory in 1994, and reproduced here, states, in relevant part:
“A small assemblage of the most assertive parents pressured the district attorney to search for the tunnels and to find the off-campus locations where babies were slaughtered. When they met with stonewalling the parents began their own forays in the neighborhood. Children led them to a mortuary/crematory where they claimed to have pummeled dead bodies and watched people burn. Parents were convinced that interior decorating confirmed the identity with details anticipated by children’s descriptions (6)
“Prosecutors received such information with resentment and distrust. It was both outside an acceptable chain of evidence and alien to what they could reasonably charge.
“In order to force the prosecutor’s hands on the tunnel question, parents commissioned a backhoe one Saturday (March 16, 1985) and began digging in the lot next to the preschool, where children described the burial of sacrificial animals. The district attorney’s office them commissioned a limited archaeological survey of the site. The net effect of that effort was to disclaim any unusual underground activity. Although all of the digging was outside of the building, with no attempt to cut through the concrete slab floor of the preschool itself, the officials declared there were no tunnels on the site.”
There is nothing in this passage, or elsewhere in the article (the endnote doesn’t mention the word “tunnel”), supporting Salter’s claim of uncovering “recently backfilled tunnels.” As for the “ritual articles” matching descriptions supposedly provided by children, even if true, it’s essentially meaningless.
Most of Salter’s research, such as The Role of Ritual in the Organized Abuse of Children, consists of qualitative interviews with alleged victims of organized ritual abuse. He openly takes accusers at their word to counteract the skepticism he sees in the media and elsewhere. If one were to do the same thing with, say, those who claim they were abducted by aliens, one would be susceptible to the conclusion that extraterrestrials have visited earth and kidnapped some of its inhabitants in the night.
In fact, Salter seems to believe, for some reason, that ritual is at the core of organized abuse (i.e. abuse perpetrated by more than one person) of children.
Later on in the aforementioned interview, Salter feigns scientific literacy with regards to repressed memories, stating that memories can be “unreliable” but that accusations of abuse are “very likely to be accurate.” The interview is appended with an excerpt from Salter’s book Organized Sexual Abuse, which includes the following passage, presented without comment:
“After one particularly awful episode, she reappeared at the front door at dawn having gone missing the night before. She was having difficulty walking and she winced when I tried to support her to walk to her bedroom. The skin on her stomach and back was red and inflamed, but I didn’t ask why and she didn’t tell me. It was a few days later, when the inflammation had gone down, that I saw the lines on her skin where someone had traced symbols on her body using a red-hot implement. My reaction was a horror compounded by despair. Here was further physical evidence of her ongoing abuse, but where could we go with it? What could we do with it? A previous email to the local detectives had ‘bounced’. They had given me the wrong email address. They didn’t return phone calls or messages.”
Salter’s suspicion of the police doesn’t end there. Elsewhere, he writes of allegations of ritual abuse perpetrated by police officers, displaying not an ounce of skepticism:
“Another significant barrier to making contact and establishing trust with police was alleged police involvement in organized abuse. Julia, a rape crisis worker, had been working for five years with a former police officer who refused to contact police about her own ongoing organized abuse because, when she was serving in the police force, she had been forced to participate in the abusive group and cover up their activities.”
“This account dovetailed with the recollections of other survivors, who described adult organized abuse by men they were certain were serving police officers. Survivor participant Zoe made a formal complaint regarding the involvement of police officers in her organized abuse as an adult. The police investigation concluded that the sexual activity had taken place but was consensual. Trained from childhood to obey these men under threat of violence, Zoe did not resist when they came to her door. As she said, ‘What are you supposed to do? These are, these are uniformed police officers that you’re not supposed to say no to, and they have weapons, and they’ve got everything’. In the course of a police investigation into her complaint, her fear of the perpetrators and her dissociative patterns of compliance were misconstrued as consent.”
So as much as Salter claims that it’s not up to him to establish credibility, it’s clear from his work that he not only believes people when they say they’ve been a victim of ritual abuse, but he also believes that he’s seen it himself. While his hundreds of thousands of words rarely, if ever, contain explicit mention satanic ritual abuse, one may find the devil between the lines, particularly when he implores his readers to reconsider the widespread dismissal of satanic ritual abuse claims in decades past.
His close associations with mental health practitioners who espouse delusions about satanic ritual abuse — and Salter’s failure to question or refute them — are the subject of part II.