The Ongoing Ugly Legacy of the Satanic Panics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 6, 2013 — 16 Comments

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner

Two recent news stories reminded the United States of something many would like to believe never happened, the systematic imprisonment of hundreds of innocent people for “Satanic” ritual abuse. Four women, known collectively as the San Antonio 4, were released from prison last month, as it became increasingly clear that their case had more to do with a vindictive homophobic relative than ritual sexual abuse.

The San Antonio 4

The San Antonio 4

“He had evidence that the father of the child accusers had been angry with one of the women (in part because she was gay) and pressured his young daughters to bring false accusations. The case closely resembled that of the Kellers, with bizarre, improbable accusations and intimations of Satanism. [...] In late 2010, the first big investigative article about the women came out in the San Antonio Express-News. Days later, the NCRJ received a call from one of the accusers, who by then was in her 20s. Tearfully, she said that when she was 7, her father had forced her to lie about being raped by the women. She didn’t remember that happening. But he’d threatened that if she didn’t say it had, he would beat her and she’d be jailed.  [...] Last month, three of the four – Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh – were released from prison pending later review by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Co-defendant Anna Vasquez was already out on restrictive parole, but has now had those restrictions rescinded. The process is being repeated for the Kellers.”

Then, Frances and Dan Keller of Austin. Texas, were released from prison this week as their 20-year-old case continued to fall apart under scrutiny.

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

“The Kellers were among hundreds of child-care workers across the nation who, in the Eighties and Nineties, were accused of being part of a network of Satan worshippers who abused children taken to day care. In 2008, the Chronicle began a reinvestigation of the case against Fran and Dan Keller. We discovered that Austin Police and prosecutors were embarrassingly credulous in their belief that the children had been abused in all manner of unbelievable – often literally impossible – ways, despite the fact that there was scant evidence to suggest any crime had ever occurred at all.”

While this long-overdue justice is welcome, what’s chilling is that we just don’t know how many more innocent people are still rotting away in jail cells, accused of unspeakable acts and quickly locked away during a time of moral panic.

The West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three

“No registry exists of old ritual abuse cases. People still in prison may be discovered by chance, as the San Antonio women were. Or they may never be found. That’s a chilling possibility. Equally chilling is the temptation to believe the panic is over. It’s not. While satanic abuse cases are rare or even passé, the NCRJ hears persistently of less dramatic but common scenarios. Incest, arson, shaken babies – sloppy, unscientific investigations into such accusations can and do railroad many innocent people.”

2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the “Satanic Panics” emerging into our culture, and we’re still trying to heal, to find real justice, and move forward. Indeed, despite the high-profile release of the West Memphis 3, and other victims who’ve managed to draw media attention, we are still wrestling with a justice system littered with individuals who stand by their old convictions. People are still arrested and thrown into jail on evidence that could be called questionable at best, so long as it sounds “Satanic” and diabolic enough. Meanwhile, true believers lay in wait, champing at the bit to put more imaginary “Satanists” behind bars.

“[Judy] Byington is an authority on Satanists, and as a clinical social worker she spent years helping others heal from wounds so deep most would shrink from the task. With the permission of her clients, she has written about one woman’s experience of growing up within a coven and surviving. The book is called “Twenty-Two Faces.” “This is a huge breaking story validating the existence of human sacrifices of children in our society,” Byington said. [...] They have secret combinations. They live in duplicity. They torture and sacrifice the innocent. They give birth in secret so the babies they sacrifice have no birth certificate record. They take the time to learn speaking Latin backwards from what is called the Black Bible.”

In the current light of day people like Byington sound like lunatics, but we have to remember that thousands of people once took this very, very, seriously. That mainstream news outlets treated the accusations as though they had merit.

So yes, we laugh when we read sites like Right Wing Watch, where fringe Christian religious leaders say that same-sex marriage will lead to the Satanic killing of Christians, but we forget that moral panics are panics, they aren’t rational. Small eruptions of hysteria on a variety of topics happen every day, but we don’t know which one will erupt at the right time, and at the right place, to trigger some atavistic impulse in our society. To lead us down a path of madness, where we destroy the innocent to keep us safe from an invisible danger. The Salem Witch Trials didn’t need ergot poisoning, because many of us saw the phenomenon play out in our lifetimes. The legacy of the Satanic Panic is still ongoing, it isn’t a closed subject, because people are still being made to suffer for its sins. Let’s hope these recent moves towards justice, these prisoners freed, will bring us all closer to the light of reason.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • PegAloi

    It’s crazy that we have to still have these discussions.

  • Kelly NicDruegan

    As equally sad that so many people have spent decades unjustly imprisoned is that no one will have to pay for the lies that imprisoned them. They will have no justice of their own, not even so much as an “Oops, sorry. My bad” from an accuser, a judge, or a prosecutor.

    And anyone who thinks something like that couldn’t happen again is naive in the extreme.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Without taking an iota from the horrific nature of the Satanic Panic, let’s remember that lots of innocent people remain incarcerated on all sorts of charges due to the crap evidence that regularly gets through the “justice” system. We don’t hear as much these days about new discoveries of innocent convicts because The Innocence Project had the bad luck to invest its endowment with Bernie Madoff.

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    That 20/20 segment really brings back memories. To my knowledge, there were few actual Pagans imprisoned during the Satanic Panic – the West Memphis 3, maybe a few others. But the psychological effects of the fear spread during that era were very real. I lived in small town America then, and it was not any fun, I can tell you. As late as the late ’90s, I attended a lecture on “Satanism and the Occult”, which was also given to the local police department, in which they told people to be on the lookout for “adult recruiters”. I guess I didn’t fit the profile, because I kept my job and my freedom. I used to keep a PO box under a false name one or two towns over. That way, the neighbors wouldn’t see anything that would raise suspicion. In the early ’90s, I once asked some Pagan friends if there was any way they could tell by looking at me if I was Pagan. They said I looked like and had the “feel” of a conservative Christian. That was what I was aiming for, that was what was necessary. Outside I looked like anyone else. Inside I was filled with rage and fear, because I couldn’t practice my religion the way others could.

    I think the legacy of that time still effects the Pagan Community. It has a role in our internal struggles, the nature of our organizations. Our community is more insular because of that legacy, less trusting of the outside world, less trusting of their own ability to get things done. When a good portion of your members are in hiding, it is harder to organize anything, from temples, to gatherings, to disaster relief, to assistance for the homeless. This doesn’t explain or excuse all of our problems and shortcomings, of course, but a decade of Satanic Panic can’t help but have an influence that is still felt.

    To this day, I am very careful who knows my real name, and what gets attached to it. To this day, I maintain a carefully professional, nondescript appearance, though not as much as I used to. I still don’t trust the mainstream world. The respectable, mainstream media and criminal justice system persecuted and imprisoned hundreds of innocent people, while spreading terror among so many others. They could easily do it again.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      As late as the late ’90s, I attended a lecture on “Satanism and the Occult”, which was also given to the local police department, in which they told people to be on the lookout for “adult recruiters”.
      During the Satanic Panic, there was quite a cottage industry of Satanic Ritual Abuse experts going around the country lecturing churches and training police departments and government agencies on The Vast Satanist Conspiracy (for a hefty fee, of course). You probably encounted one of the diehards or stragglers from that little racket. Which part of the country was this in? (I suspect the Former Confederate States/Bible Belt.) I suspect the Satanic Panic died out in some areas while others held on.
      As late as the early 21st, my main writing partner (a burned-out Anabaptist pastor, gamer, and Brony since G1) encountered full-honk “D&D IS SAY-TANN-IC!!!!!” Satanic Panic types; he related a horror story of how one of these (a pastor of another church) destroyed his gamer son as a functioning human being in the process of Saving His Soul(TM) from Satanic D&D(TM).

  • Charles Cosimano

    The lesson that comes from this is the same as the lesson of the Templars. If the King is after your head, take his head off first. Prosecutors are rarely squeaky clean and a concerted attack on the character of the prosecutor who tries to bring such a case can poison the jury, making conviction impossible, as well as acting as a strong deterrent to other such folk, who, after all, like their jobs and their families.

  • Julie Biggerbear

    While I usually enjoy reading the articles here, the layout of this article is so terribly done that I had to stop reading. The italicized parts were taking up too much space, when the information in those sections could have been added in the main body of the story.
    This article’s layout needs about as much help as the unfortunate people it is about.

  • mamiel

    Thanks for covering this story. I do hope every innocent person arrested for this “crime” is released.

  • Z54

    Good christians sacrifice children all the time. It’s called war!

  • David Tiffany

    The worship of Satan is real, and perhaps is becoming more emergent, as we see in the recent article about satanists wanting to erect a monument in Oklahoma City.

    • Ravenix

      As much as I agree that Satanism is a genuine thing and indeed that Satanists aren’t necessarily bad people (I know some lovely Satanists), the people accused had *nothing* to do with Satanism, and the Satanism they were accused of was the Christian scaremongering ideal of Satanism.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Ravenix, without offense, I’d like to make explicit to Mr Tiffany exactly what you’re saying — that none of the accused engaged in ritual abuse of children. That was the charge, and it was bogus.I stuck my oar in, Ravenix, because I went to Mr Tiffany’s link. It’s about bringing Jesus to men on the streets. From its rhetoric I doubt Mr Tiffany can tell the difference between Satanism and the Christian scaremongering idea of Satanism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        No, the Satanism they were accused of was the Witchcraft(TM) of the Malleus Malefacarium. Minus the original author’s obvious obsessive kink for demon-slash-witch sex.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Well, it’s still better than the worship of Christ.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I am a D&D Gamer and a practicing Christian. I had to pretty much go into hiding during the Satanic Panic of the Eighties. After the fact, it came to light that many of the movers and shakers of the Vast Satanic Conspiracy theory were outright frauds (Mike Warnke, John Todd) or seriously delusional.
    In the gaming world, this drove a wedge between Christians and Gamers that continues to this day, and energized a lot of Dark Fantasy (no, DARKER) game systems and campaign backgrounds in a backlash to “stick it to those Xians”.
    For whatever reason, American Evangelicals seem very prone to Grand Unified Conspiracy Theories and an image of themselves as the poor minority being persecuted by everyone outside the four walls of their church.
    P.S. Janet Reno jump-started her career climb to Clinton’s AG by prosecuting Satanic Ritual Abuse cases in Miami, Recovered Memory Spectral Evidence and all. Last I heard, some of those steppingstones to her career are still in prison.

  • Gwyn

    Thanks, Jason, for your timely writing and posting of this. A UK Pagan Way page member is trying to dredge up the hysteria once again, and some of the newbies could easily be sucked into it. A link to The Wild Hunt here provided a valuable, “no comment necessary” rebuttal. Cheers.