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Although I have treated a significant number of abuse survivors throughout my career, I have only worked with two people who identified themselves as survivors of ritual abuse. Thus, most of what I will say about this issue is derived from the literature, much of which is available on the internet.
The abuse of children (and adults) by cults has likely been present for thousands of years. According to a review on the website of C.A.R.E., Inc.:
“Public concern over the undesirable and damaging effects of some cults is not new. The Roman historian, Livy (b. 59 B.C.E., d. 17 C.E.), wrote about the Roman Senate’s investigation of the cult of Bacchus. According to Livy, this cult practiced human sacrifice and sexual rituals which included incest. Subsequently, the cult’s criminal acts eventually led to its dissolution and being outlawed by the Roman senate in 186 B.C.E. (Livy, 1976). The Bible is another document which attests that there were ancient people who believed that some middle-eastern religions engaged in child sacrifice and other abusive ritual acts. In fact throughout recorded history there have been numerous accounts of abusive practices and ceremonies discovered or alleged to exist in a wide variety of cultural contexts [e.g., see Katchen M. H. (1992). “Satanic beliefs and practices.” In Out of darkness: Exploring satanism and ritual abuse. (Sakheim, David K. and Devine, Susan, Eds.) New York, NY: Lexington Books/Macmillan, Inc., pp.21-43]” The extent of satanic or cult ritual sexual abuse is difficult to determine because of several factors, not the least of which is that cults are experts at secrecy and programming and threatening their members to keep silent about cult activities. Further, the human tendency to use denial to keep the truly horrific out of awareness, to deny that such things could possibly exist, and cultural pressures to accept the status quo and official explanations for phenomena also serve to hinder awareness of all types of abuse.
According to Sylvia Lynn Gillotte’s excellent review “Forensic Considerations in Ritual Trauma Cases,” published by the International Council on Cultism and Ritual Trauma:
“While obtaining truly accurate figures on the prevalence of ritual trauma would be difficult given the secrecy and criminality surrounding the phenomenon, there is nonetheless growing evidence that the problem of ritual trauma is considerably greater than ever imagined. Out of 2,709 members of the American Psychological Association responding to a poll, 30% responded that they had seen cases of ritual or religious-related abuse. Of these, 93% responded that they believed the reported harm and/or alleged ritualism had actually occurred.” [Bottoms, B.L., Shaver, P.R., & Goodman, G.S. (August 1991). “Profile of Ritualistic and Religion-related Abuse Allegations Reported by Clinical Psychologists in the United States.” Paper presented at the ninety-ninth annual convention of the American Psychological Association. San Francisco, CA.].
“In a similar survey involving therapists treating clients with dissociative disorders, 85% of 1185 respondents reported a parallel belief in ritual trauma, including the existence of related mind control and programming [Perry, N.E. (1992). “Therapists’ Experiences of the Effects of Working with Dissociative Patients.” Paper presented at the 9th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation. Chicago, IL.]
In a 1995 article entitled “Cultural and Economic Barriers to Protecting Children from Ritual Abuse and Mind Control,” Dr. Catherine Gould states that “(I)n 1992 alone, Childhelp USA logged 1,741 calls pertaining to ritual abuse, Monarch Resources of Los Angeles logged approximately 5,000, Real Active Survivors tallied nearly 3,600, Justus Unlimited of Colorado received almost 7,000, and Looking Up of Maine handled around 6,000.
On the other hand, the Fact Sheet: Ritual Abuse, published by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children http://apsac.fmhi.usf.edu/ cites F.B.I. investigator K. V. Lanning’s conclusion “that there is no evidence for a widespread satanic conspiracy perpetrating cult-based ritual abuse,” [Lanning, K.V. (1992). Investigator’s guide to allegations of “ritual” child abuse. Quantico, VA: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime].
With regard to your question regarding the recognizable characteristics and symbols of ritual sexual abuse, one of the most concise statement can be found in a 1993 report from a federal government task force. According to the manual Child Sexual Abuse: Intervention and Treatment Issues, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
“As best can be determined, ritual sexual abuse is abuse that occurs in the context of a belief system that, among other tenets, involves sex with children. These belief systems are probably quite variable. Some may be highly articulated, others “half-baked.” Some ritual abuse appears to involve a version of satanism that supports sex with children. However, it is often difficult to discern how much of a role ideology plays. That is, the offenders may engage in “ritual” acts because they are sadistic, because they are sexually aroused by them, or because they want to prevent disclosure, not because the acts are supported by an ideology. Because very few of these offenders confess, their motivation is virtually unknown.
I hope that this information provides a start to answering your question. To pursue this subject further, I would recommend the following websites:
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