Against Satanic Panics > GLBT > 2006 Gay Pride Day pamphlet

Below is the text of a pamphlet I distributed at New York City's Gay Pride parade on June 26, 2006.

Sex panics, 'Satanic' panics, and the GLBT community

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2006 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

Imagine being arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison for many years for a crime which not only did you not commit, but which never even happened at all.

Too horrible to be true? Alas, it has happened to many.

In 1980-1995, there was a worldwide epidemic of probably-false accusations of child sexual abuse, in some cases allegedly involving incredibly grotesque and very messy "Satanic ritual" atrocities that should have left some physical evidence, but didn't. One early victim of the 1980-1995 panic was a young gay man who is still in prison.

More recently, there have been signs of at least a mini-revival of the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" panic.

The witchhunt

In the 1970's, a lot of people had rightly complained about the opposite problem -- that many real cases of child sexual abuse were not being taken seriously enough. The feminist movement gave birth to the child abuse survivors' movement, which succeeded in pressuring governments to spend more money on protecting children.

So a lot of new, inexperienced, and overzealous social workers were hired. Too often, they asked children lots of leading questions - and used other subsequently-discredited techniques to elicit testimony from children about alleged sexual abuse, such as giving the children "anatomically correct dolls" to play with. (Supposedly, a child who had not been sexually abused would not find the dolls' private parts particularly fascinating.... Yeah, right.)

Other factors contributing to the panic included homophobia and conservative Christian paranoia about "Satanism."

In the United States, starting in southern Califorinia in the early 1980's, a lot of people were jailed for being part of alleged "child sex rings." In some of the most infamous cases, such as the McMartin Preschool case, the entire staff of a daycare center was arrested and charged. In Canada and the U.K., the panic more often took the form of children being taken from their homes and put in foster care, while their parents were arrested for allegedly abusing them. Cases typically began with accusations by a mentally unstable adult.

Meanwhile, among psychotherapists, it had become fashionable to believe that many common emotional problems were most likely caused by repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Highly questionable techniques, such as hypnotic regression, were used by some therapists to "recover" their adult clients' supposed childhood "memories." Soon there was an epidemic of adults breaking off contact with their elderly parents, in some cases even suing their parents for alleged long-ago abuse. Some later realized that their "recovered memories" were false and sued their therapists instead.

The threat to lesbians and gay men

In an atmosphere of sex panic, obviously the people most vulnerable to false accusations are members of unpopular minorities, such as gay men and lesbians, who have long been misperceived as child molesters.

Kelly Michaels, one of the best-known falsely accused daycare center workers, was in a lesbian relationship at the time of her arrest. According to Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who wrote major newspaper articles exposing the child sex panic in the late 1980's, "Cops and prosecutors made a big deal" about Kelly Michaels's lesbianism, "usually sub rosa, to the press."

According to Debbie Nathan, "homophobic paranoia" was a big factor in launching the sex panic. "In the late 1970s and early 1980s," said Nathan in a January 1999 article by Bob Chatelle and Jim D'Entremont in The Guide, "a Boston-area child protection researcher, psychiatric nurse Ann Burgess, began elaborating the totally unfounded idea that gay men were organizing into international 'sex rings' to fly boys around the world, distribute them among networks of men, and make child pornography. This notion enjoyed a lot of currency in the Justice Department and police departments during the Reagan years."

Homophobia was often a factor in the sex panic even in cases where the falsely accused were heterosexual. According to Debbie Nathan, "In many cases, prosecutors and/or the community at large engaged in rumor mongering about the defendants' supposed homosexuality."

Yet most of the best-publicized cases of probably-false child sex abuse accusations have involved heterosexuals.

According to Bob Chatelle, a longtime activist against sex panics, it has been much harder to publicize the plight of falsely accused gay men. Not only is the popular press uninterested, but many gay leaders have shunned the issue out of fear of being accused of condoning child sexual abuse.

Worse yet, other lesbians and gay men have outright endorsed the sex panic or even played leading roles in it. Examples include Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, leading popularizers of the idea of "recovered memories" in their book The Courage to Heal, and Mike Lew, author of Victims No Longer.

The threat to people of various religions - or of no religion

Besides sexual minorities, other people especially vulnerable to false accusations are adherents of minority religions, including real-life Satanists and those who have been commonly confused with Satanists, such as modern Pagans.

Within the past several years, Roman Catholic priests have become another likely target of false accusations. For many years, probably-guilty priests had been unfairly protected by the Church and by local authorities. But now the pendulum has swung the other way for Catholic priests in particular, thanks not only to the abuse survivors' movement, but also to scaremongering by traditionalist Catholics about an alleged conspiracy of "Satanic pedophiles" who have supposedly infiltrated the Catholic hierarchy.

Yet the vast majority of the falsely accused have been ordinary mainstream folks, including Christian laypeople, Jews, and secular humanists. A sex panic or a "Satanic" panic can harm almost anyone.

For more information:

More information, including details about many flimsy alleged criminal cases, can be found on the following websites:

  1. Imaginary Crimes: Real Life Cases of People Sent to Prison for Crimes That Never Happened
  2. Good overview of some of the better-known "Satanic Ritual Abuse" cases.

  3. Help us Free Bernard Baran!
  4. Website by Bob Chatelle about Bernard Baran, a gay man who was convicted, on exceedingly questionable grounds, of sex crimes against children in a daycare center back in the 1980's. Baran is of Catholic background, now nonreligious. Many things were wrong with the case against him, including the credibility of the original adult accusers, the techniques used to elicit the children's testimony, and blatant homophobia on the part of the prosecutor. But Baran is still in prison. For many years he was a forgotten man, until the Bernard Baran Justice Committee was formed by Bob Chatelle in 1999.

  5. The National Center for Reason and Justice
  6. Educational organization and fiscal sponsor of defense committees for various people who were wrongly convicted during the 1980-1995 wave of sex panic. (Contributions to NCRJ are tax-deductible, whereas contributions directly to the defense committees themselves are not.)

  7. Against Satanic Panics
  8. Website by Diane Vera, the author of this pamphlet, emphasizing recent cases and the impact of "Satanic" panics on religious minorities. Diane Vera has no affiliation with the other websites listed here.

Back to: