Updated: Feb 28
It’s ancient history, ancient like the Neolithic sites which are scattered all over the Orkneys, ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, the circle of standing stones that speak of a long forgotten religion once practised in these remote northern islands. Talk to young people now of the sex abuse scandal that took place here 30 years ago and they look blank. Satanist ritual abuse? Sounds crazy.
It did sound crazy. People dancing round in a quarry dressed in turtle costumes? Parents sexually abusing their own and other people’s children in the name of Satan, a concept long downplayed, if not totally abandoned, by modern religion?
On the 30th anniversary of the dawn raids that saw nine children forcibly taken away from their own homes and removed into care, those who remember the scandal at all will talk of the social workers swept up in a ‘moral panic’ that came from the United States and had them seeing satanists round every corner. They will talk of the poor, innocent parents and of children badgered into telling lies.
What they will not talk about is the way a sheriff, David Kelbie, unilaterally decided to send the children home without testing the evidence in court.
They will not talk about the bizarrely sexual things the children said to their foster parents while in care. Nor about the child who cried and refused to board the plane taking him back to his home. They will not talk about the girl from the original family who first talked about the satanist abuse - she never went back home but chose instead to live with adoptive parents.
The first time I investigated satanist ritual abuse was a similar case in Ayrshire, where several travelling families were accused of operating a satanist abuse ring. I had no idea where to start and consulted Sarah Nelson, an eminent writer and academic who had attended the Orkney inquiry. Sarah, who has since published the definitive study, Tackling Child Sexual Abuse, published by Policy Press (which has a whole chapter on Orkney) and has been awarded the OBE for her services to combating child abuse, gave me the most useful piece of advice: Read the court documents. In other words, Go to the source.
By that time the children had been sent home to their parents. The sheriff who conducted the final hearing, Sheriff Miller, called the five year old boy who had led the accusations a liar, a devious and manipulative child, though it’s unclear what a five year old would have been trying to achieve with his fiendish machinations, other than being removed from an intolerable situation.
Reading the court documents left me dismayed. Sheriff Miller discounted all the evidence that a previous sheriff, Neil Gow, had accepted, including compelling evidence of a child’s teeth being removed with a surgical instrument – the child said his aunt had crawled up his body and snapped his back teeth sheer off with what he called a big pair of scissors. Sheriff Miller had no explanation for the clean break in the teeth, nor for the origin of such an extraordinary story.
The media stopped going to the source. By then they’d reached an unspoken consensus that satanist abuse does not happen, which is something that not even Jean La Fontaine, who wrote the 1994 government report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse, ever claimed. When I interviewed her around that time she said she didn’t deny that satanist abuse did occur, she just didn’t believe it was organised.
That was not the way the press reported it then. Now, 30 years of media bias and failure to go to the source have created what research and development psychologist, Dr Rainer Kurz, calls a discourse of disbelief that has prevented therapists in all disciplines from accepting the testimony of survivors. ‘I want to make psychologists better at their jobs,’ says Dr Kurz, who was banned from discussing SRA at an international psychology conference because another speaker objected to his presence on the platform.
There is nothing dismissed as absurd more readily than satanist ritual abuse - the most damning criticism of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that its proponents believe people at the top of society are engaged in devil-worshipping. Given what we now know of people like Jimmy Savile, the MP Cyril Smith, possibly the former prime minister, Edward Heath, and even a member of our own royal family, that does not seem to me the most incredible part of QAnon’s theories.
Money was part of it, of course, as it always is. It’s far less expensive to pronounce poor parents innocent than to face libel action from investigating them. The press didn’t want to know. Even Lord Clyde’s judicial inquiry into it didn’t want to know. Deciding whether the accusations were true was not part of its brief.
Over the years pressure groups like the British False Memory Society poured thousands into the propagation of a so-called syndrome that has still not been endorsed by any professional body, whereas dissociative identity disorder, the fragmentation of personality and memory caused by extreme trauma, is an accepted condition treated by many NHS practitioners. False memories undoubtedly can exist but it’s very rare for therapists to be able to implant traumatic memories for good in people’s minds, as the FMS people claimed.
Several of the movement’s most prominent figures were forced to resign because of their proven links to paedophilia. In September 2019, Karl Sabbagh, a writer and film-maker on the board of the British False Memory Society, was convicted and jailed for 45 months for grooming a 14 year old girl. Ralph Underwager, who started the movement in the US, had proclaimed that 60 percent of women abused in childhood said the experience was good for them. That didn’t preclude him from being on the board of the US society – it was his statement to a Dutch paedophile magazine that did for him: Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian, I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: ‘This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made.’
The False Memory Sydrome Foundation in the US closed down in 2019 but its influence has been immense over the last 30 years. After its closure Dr Kate McMaugh told the International Society for the Study of Trauma:
‘It is almost as if the field has been driven more by the needs of legal defence teams than by true scientific enquiry…two generations of therapists have studied incomplete and biased information about recovered memory, false memories and even trauma memory itself... It goes without saying that the “false memory” movement enabled society to ignore a whole new generation of abused children.’
When you do go back to the source you discover decades of pain, dysfunction and distress in the survivors of this form of abuse. One woman I know, SW, is the eldest daughter of the family at the heart of the Orkney case and ended up in a mental hospital as a young woman. She’s a bright, clever woman who reads John Stuart Mill for pleasure, something I, with my university education, have never done, yet she doesn’t have the concentration to pursue higher education and has worked for years in old people’s homes, being paid a very low wage. In every home she’s worked in she’s been bullied – predators recognise prey.
I visited her sister in a sheltered home once. They hadn’t met for years. The sister was a large, slow-moving, slow-speaking woman who seemed to be drugged. SW said that as a child she had been mercurial, full of life and fun. Now she was incapable of independent living and lived with a carer.
Another survivor found himself unable to deal with the trauma when his childhood memories erupted in his adult life. He sought psychiatric help but was told he was a fantasist and eventually had to give up his job as a college lecturer. He lives in a remote area and has made a good life doing his own scientific research but his life has been diminished greatly, not just by the abuse he suffered in childhood but by the lack of belief and support he encountered later.
Fake news did not start with the internet. It is time to take another look at a form of abuse that has been around for millenia. Thirty years on, the survivors of Orkney still wait to be believed, yet the lack of belief they faced has not just affected them – it has betrayed all the generations who came afterwards, all the little children who were tortured and abused but had no-one to turn to because people didn’t want to know.
To read an authoritative and considered piece on what happened in Orkney, read Sarah Nelson's article in The Herald:
To read more about a subject which has been consistently under-reported and even repressed in the media, read Sarah Nelson's book, published in 2016 by Bristol University's Policy Press.
To read a new review of my novel about satanist abuse, Foul Deeds Will Rise, read Dr Rainer Kurz's latest post.
Dr Kurz is a psychologist who has been investigating satanist abuse and fighting on behalf of its victims: