September 1, 1993
Kim Hill - Interview with Dr Sherrill Mulhern
Anthropologist, Expert on "Ritual Child Abuse"
University academics believe a
rising moral panic is an element in the Civic Creche trial in Christchurch. The trial
saw former child care worker Peter Ellis jailed for 10 years for sexually
abusing young children, while four women had similar charges against them
dropped. A paper by sociology
professor Michael Hill and thesis scholar Jenny Barnett called When The Devil Came To Christchurch
claims to establish a clear link between community fears of Satanic ritual
abuse and Christian fundamentalism.
Marie Hosking reports.
The paper, which is about to be
published in the Australian Religious Studies Review, suggests there's been a
Satanic panic in New Zealand and that it's been fuelled by
Christian fundamentalists who have been presenting themselves as experts in
this previously unfamiliar field of child abuse.
The pair say these so-called experts have been invited to speak at social
work and police seminars where their ideas gained acceptance from those at
the forefront of child protection.
Michael Hill and Jenny Barnett traced the roots of the Christchurch
creche case back to late 1991 when a visiting American Christian sexual abuse
therapist addressed fundamentalist-backed workshops, stating that the usual
damage caused to children by Satanic abuse was multi-personality disorder and
that research showed that about half of all children suffering from this
condition had been victims of Satanic ritual abuse.
Then there was the Christchurch Family Violence Prevention Seminar a month
later, where a group called the Ritual Action Group presented a paper on
Satanism and ritual abuse. It
attracted a lot of media coverage and Hill and Barnett believe this served to
fuel the moral panic.
A short time later there was publicity about a prominent New Zealand policeman who had
been studying US ritual abuse investigation techniques. It was shortly after this that the first
allegations were made in the Christchurch
creche case that eventually led to the conviction of Peter Ellis. Hill and
Barnett say that when the four women were arrested in the creche
investigation the case changed in the public mind from one of a lone
predatory male abuser to one of organised abuse.
The paper also links the preoccupation of ritualised abuse with other high
profile cases involving allegations and convictions associated with other
religious groups including Catholic priests, the leader of Centrepoint
Community, the leader of the Cooperite sect and the investigation into a
group known as The Family in Australia.
for Morning Report, Marie Hoskings.
Well, as explained by our
reporter, the paper which talks about elements of moral panic seems to have
infiltrated into New Zealand
from the United States. In the States there have been a series of
bizarre allegations from people who claim to have been ritually abused. There have also been scares over
paedophilia and child care centres tied in with so-called Satanism. An
academic who has been researching this area is Dr Sherrill Mulhern, an
anthropologist based in Paris.
She's on the phone now. Good
Is there an agreed-on definition
of ritual abuse or satanic abuse?
No, that's one of the big problems
is that over the past 10 years, or a little more than 10 years, when this
panic, as you call it, began, we've had seven to eight different definitions
which have been proposed by believers.
None of them of course speak about the allegations that children and
adults are making. They talk about a
horrible kind of abuse perpetrated by some kind of a believer but of course
that is very abstract and practically anything can be put into it. So we really have no consensus about what
we're talking about when we use the term ritual abuse.
In the paper we've just heard
about there's been a link with a trial based on a child care centre. Are there these sort of links involving
child care centres in the United
Well we've had a lot of cases like
that in the United States.
The first ones begin in the early 80's and there's some characteristics about
First, the quality and the quantity of the allegations that were made by very
young children. They were particularly
horrible, they were made by children who did not make them at the beginning
of the interrogation but made them after many months and sometimes years of
The second important point is that the therapists have been playing the role
of interrogators as opposed to having the police interrogating.
And finally the salient point is that in all of the cases which I'm familiar
with, and that's over about a hundred of these kinds of cases involving day
care there's never been any material evidence produced that will corroborate
the extreme allegations.
And I am very careful to say I am talking about allegations including murder,
cannibalism, torture, satanism, robes, knives, stuff like that. I'm not
talking about allegations of possible fondling.
But the quality and the quantity of these kinds of allegations have been
absolutely extraordinary in these cases in the United
States and that seems to be what you're talking about
in your case in New
So are you convinced that this is
a form of perhaps hysteria?
Well that's not, hysteria is a big
term, I actually use it, it certainly, I think what we decided to use the
term moral panic, a little; more accurate. Hysteria is in fact a
psychological term. It is definitely a social panic insofar as that it's
being carried by groups of believers.
There are claims in the paper that
we've just heard about that in fact the groups set up to deal with the
problem, perhaps social workers or police groups, in themselves propagate the
claims. Do you believe that?
Yes, it's a real problem because
if you know anything about interrogation. If you have an interrogator going
in with a potential victim or witness with a pre-established belief system
they will tend to selectively listen to things that confirm their
pre-established belief and isolate and disregard things that are not
corroborating their belief system.
This is why we say that this is being propagated by trained police and or
social workers. People who've heard about the supposed panic and then go in
and try and prove it.
They don't necessarily do it intentionally
but it's how they've come to believe there's a thing out there and they don't
look at what's happened in the case, they're more interested in proving that
Have in fact in the United States,
have any of these cases been proved.
We've had some cases where there
have been convictions. Now, in saying that there's been convictions you don't
have to necessarily say that the case has been proven.
There, people have been, I know of several cases where people were convicted
to very long prison terms and they were overturned on appeal. Every one that
has gone to appeal has been overturned because there was never any
corroborative evidence and then each time these cases have gone on to an
appeals court there has been a feeling that the evidence or the interrogation
process was completely at fault.
It seems in some of their cases,
if they were in fact true, there should have been evidence. They talk about
the deaths of babies ...
Yes, I know.
... have bodies been found, have
scars been found on people?
Have bodies in fact been found,
have children found to be scarred?
No. One, bodies haven't been found
and the questions of children being scarred. In fact, even from medical
evidence, it's been very; very poor what we've had in cases like this.
Originally you will get something that a medical practitioner will say, well
it could be sexual abuse, at least it's compatible with it but it's certainly
not significantly indicative of sexual abuse. Now as of saying children are
scarred because of rope burns, torture burns, no we have no evidence like
Well, there is a claim in the
paper that we've been hearing about that in fact the rise in allegations of
ritual abuse is linked to the rise in the use of child care centres because
parents feel tension about leaving their children behind in the hands of
other people for such a long period of time. Do you believe in this?
I say that I would agree in the
sense that it makes parents worry, okay. I wouldn't say that child care
centres are responsible for it but I think that makes parents, they are
vulnerable because they are not with their children. So if this kind of thing
begins they can become very easily frightened and they can actually fall into
patterns of behaviour which encourage the panic and it's not an intention on
their part, it's because they have become frightened that something might
And they may question their children repeatedly believing they're doing the
best thing for their child but, you know, this is where they're caught in the
situation where they don't know exactly what happened, they want to do the
best thing. They become frightened and then your situation, which could begin
with a simple incident in the school, for example, of a child receiving a
spanking, or something like that, it can get the panic started.
People who are frightened questioning children, in the space of a few months
you can have a full-blown moral panic where you can't ever find out what
happened in the first place because you've got people talking about dead
babies and spaceships and sacrificed animals. And those kinds of things, of
course, if any of it had happened would have left some kind of material
evidence. So you know, you've destroyed the problem that you were trying to
A lot of concerns have been
raised, both by the case and this kind of paper. Do you have any advice for
Who get involved in this sort of
Yes, or who feel that they may be?
I think one thing parents should
know is that these, as far as I know, and I've been researching it for 10
years, we do not have convincing evidence that any kind of organised
conspiracy perpetrating the kinds of things that you're describing in your
case or that we've seen in the United States exist. That's the first thing.
And when you have an investigation in a child care situation one must be very
cautious about what's going because children who are very young are very
easily influenced by well-meaning and sincere people trying to get at the
Unfortunately little children will follow your worst fears, they don't
necessarily, you don't accept their answer that nothing happened and
continually repeat your questions to them they will pick up on your fears and
will project into them. So that parents must be very cautious and if an incident
does occur when their child is in a child care situation they really need to
work very closely with responsible police investigators and hopefully
responsible social workers who are cautious and conscious of the fact that we
just don't have any kind evidence that would prove the kind of things we're
seeing in these cases.
And also, a final thing, in each case, it has to be investigated for itself,
because something happened or might have happened or could have happened in New York City doesn't mean that that same thing happened
in New Zealand.
Dr Mulhern, thank you. Dr Sherrill Mulhern is an
anthropologist, based in Paris.