Satanic Panic

August 27, 2017

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Religion, Satanism

It looks like the book has finally been closed (opens new window) on one of the most famous Satanic Panic cases in the US - that of the Kellers.

Satanic Panic is the name given to a rash of convictions given to people based on children's accusations of abuse. Child abuse accusations are serious, and should never be treated lightly. However, during the late 80s and early 90s there was a time where these kinds of accusations were not handled properly and some unproven techniques were used to question the kids.

We have a similar local case, that of Peter Ellis (opens new window) from Christchurch, and the NZ Skeptics donated to his defence fund back in the early 90s.

In both cases, the beginning was very similar - a single accusation of abuse. After "investigation", the cases grew to many accusers and many accused.

The kids involved were interviewed in ways that led them to fabricate stories, and had sessions with therapists who further allowed the children to explore their imaginations and say whatever they wanted. These children ended up giving evidence telling fantastical tales of incidents that could never have happened. Stories covered ritual satanic abuse, and told of resurrection from the dead, chainsaw massacres, using Satan's arm as a paintbrush, a swimming pool of sharks, etc.

Multiple interviews also make it more likely that the stories of abuse become more fantastical over time.

Parents began to read innocent events as sinister. For the Kellers, it was sending kids home with US flags. Some parents re-interpreted this as a sign for the kids to keep quiet about the abuse.

Police and lawyers usually ended up selectively using only those parts of the children's evidence that sounded credible, omitting both the fantastical parts of the stories and the leading questions that were asked of the kids when they were interviewed.

These cases touch on several topics of interest to skeptics. The idea that there's an organised satanic/cult group abusing children is not based on evidence - in fact, the article talks of how there have been over 11,000 reported cases and none have ever been substantiated.

The plasticity of memory is also relevant. The more that kids are questioned in leading ways, the more likely they are to embellish memories as they retell them. And the re-tellings actually add those fabricated details to the original memory, so that in the next re-telling the memory will feel more real. A story that starts off with a very innocent, pedestrian basis can end up after several tellings with many added parts that the witness recounts as if they were fact - swearing blind that they happened. Presumably this is especially so with young, impressionable kids.

These cases can also involve lie detector tests, and skeptics believe that the evidence points to their reliability being poor enough that these devices have not been shown to be useful tools in discerning the truth in legal cases, and should not be used in court.

For the Kellers' case, they were convicted in 1992 and finally released in 2013 after nearly 22 years separated from each other in jail. They were freed after a lawyer read an article in 2009 detailing how the facts of the case that lead to conviction were wrong. The lawyer worked for free, and secured their release in 2013 - after getting one of the doctors involved in the original case to admit that their testimony had been wrong.

Next the Kellers had to fight for their innocence, and it took until June this year to get the state to admit wrongful conviction. Finally this week the case has been settled, with a $3.4 million payment in compensation for the 20 years of their life that was taken.

There's a good documentary called Witch Hunt that focuses on another case, the Kern County case in the US.