“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.
“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 Co-defendant Anna Vasquez was already out on restrictive parole, but has now had those restrictions rescinded.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.
“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.
“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.