Echoes of the Satanic panic

Are families being torn apart on the dubious basis that animal cruelty and child abuse are linked?

Heather Piper

Topics Politics

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Does harming an animal suggest that you would harm a child? Many people wouldn’t think that one kind of behaviour would necessarily be linked to the other. Yet, it is claimed that agencies are now taking children away from their parents based on this very thinking, which appears to have become remarkably mainstream in academic and professional thought.

This latest development has echoes of the Satanic abuse moral panic of the late Eighties and early Nineties, when a substantial number of children were removed from their homes on the basis of allegations of ritual abuse – arguably on the basis of panic rather than evidence. Some cases of ritual abuse, then and since, are real, but the frequency of such reports has not been maintained, which suggests that the incidence of Satanic abuse at that time was as much perceived as real. In a BBC documentary broadcast in 2006, Real Story: When Satan Came to Town, the agencies responsible stated that such a sequence of events could ‘not be repeated [as] in the intervening years the whole landscape of child protection has changed’, citing better line-management; improved inter-agency co-operation; and a more professionalized work force.

For all that, it is now claimed that a small number of children have been removed from their families by professional agencies because an ‘abused’ animal is living in the same house. Meanwhile, vets are encouraged to check animals for sex abuse, a practice suggested to be fairly widespread (1). The assumption behind these actions is that violence is linked (and therefore predictable), and an abused animal indicates the likely presence of abused children. This new ‘moral panic’ resembles the earlier one, and the confidence of those claiming ‘it could never happen again’ appears misplaced.

Satanic panic

The concept of a moral panic was developed by Stanley Cohen in 1972. It is understood as a pattern of mass behaviour, based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behaviour or group of people, frequently a subculture, is deviant and a menace to society. Moral panics are fuelled by media coverage, framed in terms of morality, and expressed as outrage rather than fear. They often revolve around issues of sex or violence, and involve elements of legend.

However moral panics are theorised, contemporary ones have a tendency to cluster or ‘stick’ to other panics sharing overarching concerns, which makes it much more difficult to identify them at an early stage and to argue against them coherently. So, the ‘paedophile panic’ (2), and ‘child killer’ panic (3), co-exist with both the Satanic and the ‘links’ panic.

The idea of a highly organised cult of Satanists intent on the sexual abuse and murder of children appeared in the early 1980s. Child sexual abuse is an obvious candidate for contemporary moral panics, being defined not merely as a social ill, but as evil. The Satanic panic, based on the belief that children were being subjected to ritualised sexual abuse, can be traced back to a nursery in California. A psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, was writing a book about a patient (later his wife) who had reported abuse by a Satanic cult earlier in her life. The story of the nursery was reported by the media, which eventually led to Lawrence Pazder being invited to comment. Padzer claimed that the accused nursery worker was central to an international Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic panic was launched, but while there were many twists and tales in this story, the nursery worker was later cleared of all accusations.

At the time, many professionals readily believed that organized networks of Satanists were engaged in brainwashing and abusing victims. Others judged it wise to downplay Satan’s role, but still thought it likely that networks of ritualised abuse were commonplace. While some elements of the story seem bizarre (involving sharks and dragons killing children, babies cooked in ovens etc), over a short period social workers on both sides of the Atlantic took large numbers of children ‘into care’. Specialist teams were formed (with 80-90 such cases across the UK), and within a relatively short time many groups of social workers and others were convinced that children were caught up in a conspiracy involving, among others, freemasons and police officers. Britain’s major child protection charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) published so-called ‘Satanic indicators’, to help case workers identify a likely profile (4).

Eventually, cases in the UK (and elsewhere) died away and few today consider them to have the credibility they were once granted. This is not to deny the fact that children are abused, that abuse in some cases is ritualistic, and that some children remained in care for perfectly good reasons. But it is no accident that the huge majority of the families caught up in this panic lived in relative poverty, leading some to describe it as a ‘penalisation of the poor’. Although the responsible agencies claim to have learned from these mistakes, today in the same countries many now seek a cross-reporting protocol aimed at ensuring children can be removed from their families if an ‘abused’ animal lives in their household.

Links panic

There are similarities between the Satanic panic and this more recent manifestation which is based on the cultural myth that ‘violence breeds violence’. Causal links have been elaborated in the ‘cycles of abuse’ model of family therapeutic literature and, although the hypothesis is highly contested, it has acquired the status of a truism. Many accept uncritically that all violence is linked: thus adults who harm animals also harm children, and such relationships are clear cut, consistent, and predictable.

However, there are a number of difficulties with this approach. There is evidence that people deal with the experience of violence in diverse and unpredictable ways. The language of abuse fails to acknowledge that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ varies between classes, cultures and sometimes sexes. Harming animals is morally complex and culturally ambiguous, yet research and practice tends to treat it as simple and unproblematic. Few studies provide a satisfactory definition of what is to be classified as animal abuse and this is compounded by disputes about what counts as child abuse.

The UK’s main animal welfare organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), currently prosecutes up to 1,000 people a year, but the majority of these cases involve neglect not violence. To assume that neglecting an animal can be linked to violence towards a child appears even more spurious. Accounts often report the same few infamous criminals (Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, the Boston Strangler, Jamie Bulger’s killers) who have admitted to harming animals, but such sensationalist ‘evidence’ cannot hide the absence of serious base-line data. The links panic is reliant on the kind of consequential fallacy which would be noticed by most undergraduate philosophy students: all serial killers have mothers but not everyone who has a mother is a serial killer.

The problem is further compounded by whether the kind of people sampled in this research are likely to be telling the truth. Owning up to harming animals is difficult but a criminal sample, with a hard image to maintain, will readily admit to such behaviour. The essentially individualistic approach that characterises most of the links and cycles arguments emphasises individual pathology. As before, the NSPCC have produced guidelines (5). Broader issues concerning the socio-economic context of violence towards animals are disregarded – and again families caught up in this panic tend to be poor.

The links panic also has its origins in the US. A small number of academics have promoted ‘the links’, mainly via conferences, since the mid-1990s. Belief in the argument is now so strong that to publish academic papers to the contrary in most US or UK violence-orientated journals is challenging, as most of the likely referees take links for granted. The missionary zeal stands comparison with those who supported the earlier Satanic panic.

As a participant at the first such conference held in England (Making the Links, NSPCC and RSPCA, February 2001), I attempted to distribute a brief questionnaire asking participants (mainly animal and child welfare workers) to specify their occupation, and to note down the worst thing (if any) they had done to an animal, and to post their anonymous responses in a box at the back of the conference room (a similar exercise with groups of trainee social workers had proved informative). This was prohibited at the last moment, in spite of prior permission having been granted. Given that the links argument relies on the assumption that harming animals is a predictive variable in indicating an individual who is likely to be exceptionally violent towards people in the future, suppressing such information is suspect, and suggests doubts about research funded by organisations with a particular brief. Yet such agencies seek ‘a cross-reporting protocol’ between animal welfare and child protection agencies, an idea and practice based on a presumption of links.


The UK government has recently reviewed the risks of employing sex offenders and has determined that the category of people requiring ‘vetting’ should be extended to cover anybody ‘whose work… places them in a position of trust in relation to children’ (6). This could reasonably be expected to include bus drivers, shop workers, cinema ushers, and even other children’s parents. Some aspects of the UK’s current vetting includes ‘soft’ intelligence (eg, police information on convictions, cautions, reprimands, warnings and even allegations) as if all these are equally significant (7). If cross-reporting procedures are extended to include information of those cautioned and/or prosecuted for neglecting an animal, the potential for major miscarriages of justice is apparent.

As a result of previous research and publication, I have been approached by a number of individuals and representatives of a self-help group for those experiencing difficulties with the RSPCA. They claim: ‘Very often people who come to our help-line say that the RSPCA turn up on their doorstep in the morning and take their animals, and social services arrive in the afternoon to take their children, saying that they have been informed of the studies linking the two abuses. ’ If this is the case, this seems perilously close to similar actions during the Satanic panic. However, these processes go unreported in the UK context, because while reporting animal abuse is widespread, child care proceedings remain sub judice.

While it would be foolish to claim that there is never a ‘link’ between violent behaviours, extreme or exotic cases cannot provide secure foundations for generalised arguments, predictions, or policies that can safely or ethically be applied to the mass of the population. Recent discussions have treated the Satanic panic as a modern day witch-hunt with little foundation, and I suggest that, in retrospect, similar comments will be directed at simplified forms of the links argument and the panic it has induced.

How many under-resourced individuals and families will have their lives disrupted or ruined in the meantime? How many children will have their lives wrecked by those very vetting procedures which it is claimed are in place to protect them? How much collateral damage is acceptable?

Heather Piper is a senior research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. A version of this article, entitled ‘Moral panics: past (Satanic) and present (links) – a cautionary tale’, was presented to the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Conference, New York, 10-12 August 2007.

(1) A beastly proposal, by Fiona McEwen

(2) The paedophile panic: A metaphor for mistrust, by Josie Appleton

(3) A Morality Play For Our Times, by Ann Bradley, Living Marxism 63, January 1994

(4) A full stop to the Satanic panic, by Dolan Cummings

(5) Understanding the Links – animal abuse and domestic violence, NSPCC

(6) The case against vetting, by Josie Appleton

(7) Who will vet the vetters and protect my children from fear and mistrust?, The Times (London), 20 January 2006

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Topics Politics


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