LANNING'S GUIDE TO ALLEGATIONS OF CHILDHOOD RITUAL ABUSE,
INVESTIGATING MULTIDIMENSIONAL CHILD SEX RINGS:
Multidimensional child sex rings can be among the most difficult,
frustrating, and complex cases that any law enforcement officer will ever
investigate. The investigation of allegations of recent activity from
multiple young children under the age of seven presents one set of problems
and must begin quickly, with interviews of all potential victims being
completed as soon as possible. The investigation of allegations of activity
ten or more years earlier from adult survivors presents other problems and
should proceed, unless victims are at immediate risk, more deliberately,
with gradually-increasing resources as corroborated facts warrant.
In spite of any skepticism, allegations of ritual abuse should be
aggressively and thoroughly investigated, This investigation should attempt
to corroborate the allegations of ritual abuse. but should simultaneously
also attempt to identify alternative explanations. The only debate is
over how much investigation is enough. Any law enforcement agency must be
prepared to defend and justify its actions when scrutinized by the public,
the media, elected officials, or the courts. This does not mean, however,
that a law enforcement agency has an obligation to prove that the alleged
crimes did not occur. This is almost always impossible to do and
investigators should be alert for and avoid this trap.
One major problem in the investigation of multidimensional child sex rings
is the dilemma of recognizing soon enough that you have one. Investigators
must be alert for cases with the potential for the four basic dynamics: (a)
multiple young victims, (b) multiple offenders, (c) fear as the controlling
tactic, and (d) bizarre or ritualistic activity. The following techniques
apply primarily to the investigation of such multidimensional child sex
a. MINIMIZE SATANIC/OCCULT ASPECT
There are those who claim that one of the major reasons more of these cases
have not been successfully prosecuted is that the satanic/occult aspect has
not been aggressively pursued. One state has even introduced legislation
creating added penalties when certain crimes are committed as part of a
ritual or ceremony. A few states have passed special ritual crime laws.
(Note 1) I strongly disagree with such an approach. It makes no difference
what spiritual belief system was used to enhance and facilitate or
rationalize and justify criminal behavior. It serves no purpose to "prove"
someone is a satanist. As a matter of fact, if it is alleged that the subject
committed certain criminal acts under the influence of or in order to
conjure up supernatural spirits or forces, this may very well be the basis
for an insanity or diminished capacity defense, or may damage the intent
aspect of a sexually motivated crime. The defense may very well be more
interested in all the "evidence of satanic activity". Some of the
satanic crime "experts" who train law enforcement wind up working or
testifying for the defense in these cases.
It is best to focus on the crime and all the evidence to corroborate its
commission. Information about local satanic or occult activity is only of
value if it is based on specific law enforcement intelligence and not on
some vague, unsubstantiated generalities from religious groups. Cases are
not solved by decoding signs, symbols, and dates using undocumented satanic
crime "manuals". In one case a law enforcement agency executing a search
warrant seized only the satanic paraphernalia and left behind the other
evidence that would have corroborated victim statements. Cases are solved
by people- and behavior-oriented investigation. Evidence of satanic or
occult activity may help explain certain aspects of the case, but even
offenders who commit crimes in a spiritual context are usually motivated by
power, sex, and money.
b. KEEP INVESTIGATION AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS SEPARATE
I believe that one of the biggest mistakes any investigator of these cases
can make is to attribute supernatural powers to the offenders. During an
investigation a good investigator may sometimes be able to use the beliefs
and superstitions of the offenders to his or her advantage. The reverse
happens if the investigator believes that the offenders possess
supernatural powers. Satanic/occult practitioners have no more power than
any other human beings. Law enforcement officers who believe that the
investigation of these cases puts them in conflict with the supernatural
forces of evil should probably not be assigned to them. The religious
beliefs of officers should provide spiritual strength and support for them
but should not affect the objectivity and professionalism of the
It is easy to get caught up in these cases and begin to see "satanism"
everywhere. Oversensitization to this perceived threat may cause an
investigator to "see" satanism in a crime when it really is not there
(quasi-satanism). Often the eye sees what the mind perceives. It may also
cause an investigator not to recognize a staged crime scene deliberately
seeded with "satanic clues" in order to mislead the police (pseudo-satanism). On rare occasions an overzealous investigator or
intervenor may even be tempted to plant "evidence of satanism" in order to
corroborate such allegations and beliefs. Supervisors need to be alert for
and monitor these reactions in their investigators.
||c. LISTEN TO THE VICTIMS
It is not the investigator's duty to believe the victims; it is his or her
job to listen and be an objective fact finder. Interviews of young children
should be done by investigators trained and experienced in such interviews.
Investigators must have direct access to the alleged victims for interview
purposes. Therapists for an adult survivor sometimes want to act as
intermediaries in their patient's interview. This should be avoided if at
all possible. Adult survivor interviews are often confusing difficult and
extremely time-consuming. The investigator must remember however that
almost anything is possible. Most important the investigator must remember
that there is much middle ground. Just because one event did happen does
not mean that all reported events happened, and just because one event did
not happen does not mean that all other events did not happen. Do not
become such a zealot that you believe it all nor such a cynic that you
believe nothing. Varying amounts and parts of the allegation may be
factual. Attempting to find evidence of what did happen is the great
challenge of these cases. All investigative interaction with victims
must be carefully and thoroughly documented.
d. ASSESS AND EVALUATE VICTIM STATEMENTS
This is the part of the investigative process in child sexual victimization
cases that seems to have been lost. Is the victim describing events and
activities that are consistent with law enforcement documented criminal
behavior, or that are consistent with distorted media accounts and
erroneous public perceptions of criminal behavior? Investigators should
apply the "template of probability". Accounts of child sexual victimization
that are more like books, television, and movies (e.g. big conspiracies,
child sex slaves, organized pornography rings) and less like documented
cases should be viewed with skepticism but thoroughly investigated.
Consider and investigate all possible explanations of events. It is the
investigator's job, and the information learned will be invaluable in
counteracting the defense attorneys when they raise the alternative
For example, an adult survivor's account of ritual victimization might be
explained by any one of at least four possibilities: First, the allegations
may be a fairly accurate account what actually happened. Second, they may
be deliberate lies (malingering), told for the usual reasons people lie
(e.g. money, revenge, jealousy). Third, they may be deliberate lies
(factitious disorder) told for atypical reasons (e.g. attention,
forgiveness). Lies so motivated are less likely to be recognized by the
investigator and more likely to be rigidly maintained by the liar unless
and until confronted with irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Fourth, the
allegations may be a highly inaccurate account of what actually happened,
but the victim truly believes it (pseudomemory) and therefore is not lying.
A polygraph examination of such a victim would be of limited value. Other
explanations or combinations of these explanations are also possible.
Only thorough investigation will point to the correct or most
Investigators cannot rely on therapists or satanic crime experts as a
shortcut to the explanation. In one case, the "experts" confirmed and
validated the account of a female who claimed to be a 15-year- old
deaf-mute kidnapped and held for three years by a satanic cult and forced
to participate in bizarre rituals before recently escaping. Active
investigation, however, determined she was a 27- year-old woman who could
hear and speak, who had not been kidnapped by anyone, and who had a lengthy
history of mental problems and at least three other similar reports of
false victimization. Her "accurate" accounts of what the "real satanists"
do were simply the result of having read, while in mental hospitals, the
same books that the "experts" had. A therapist may have important insights
about whether an individual was traumatized, but knowing the exact cause of
that trauma is another matter. There have been cases where investigation
has discovered that individuals diagnosed by therapists as suffering from
Post-Vietnam Syndrome were never in Vietnam or saw no combat.
Conversely, in another case, a law enforcement "expert" on satanic crime
told a therapist that a patient's accounts of satanic murders in a rural
Pacific Northwest town were probably true because the community was a
hotbed of such satanic activity. When the therapist explained that there
was almost no violent crime reported in the community, the officer
explained that that is how you know it is the satanists. If you knew about
the murders or found the bodies, it would not be satanists. How do you
argue with that kind of logic?
The first step in the assessment and evaluation of victim statements is to
determine the disclosure sequence, including how much time has elapsed
since disclosure was first made and the incident was reported to the police
or social services. The longer the delay, the bigger the potential for
problems. The next step is to determine the number and purpose of all
prior interviews of the victim concerning the allegations. The more
interviews conducted before the investigative interview, the larger the
potential for problems. Although there is nothing wrong with admitting
shortcomings and seeking help, law enforcement should never abdicate its
control over the investigative interview. When an investigative interview
is conducted by or with a social worker or therapist using a team approach,
law enforcement must direct the process. Problems can also be created by
interviews conducted by various intervenors after the investigative
The investigator must closely and carefully evaluate events in the victim's
life before, during, and after the alleged abuse.
Events to be evaluated before the alleged abuse include:
- Background of victim.
- Abuse of drugs in home.
- Pornography in home.
- Play, television, and VCR habits.
- Attitudes about sexuality in home.
- Extent of sex education in home.
- Activities of siblings.
- Need or craving for attention.
- Religious beliefs and training.
- Childhood fears.
- Custody/visitation disputes.
- Victimization of or by family members.
- Interaction between victims.
Events to be evaluated during the alleged abuse include:
- Use of fear or scare tactics.
- Degree of trauma.
- Use of magic deception or trickery.
- Use of rituals.
- Use of drugs.
- Use of pornography.
Events to be evaluated after the alleged abuse include:
- Disclosure sequence.
- Background of prior interviewers.
- Background of parents.
- Co-mingling of victims.
- Type of therapy received.
e. EVALUATE CONTAGION
Consistent statements obtained from different multiple victims are powerful
pieces of corroborative evidence - that is as long as those statements were
not "contaminated". Investigation must carefully evaluate both pre- and
post-disclosure contagion, and both victim and intervenor contagion. Are
the different victim statements consistent because they describe common
experiences or events, or because they reflect contamination or urban
The sources of potential contagion are widespread. Victims can communicate
with each other both prior to and after their disclosures. Intervenors can
communicate with each other and with victims. The team or cell concepts of
investigation are attempts to deal with potential investigator contagion.
All the victims are not interviewed by the same individuals, and
interviewers do not necessarily share information directly with each other.
Teams report to a leader or supervisor who evaluates the information and
decides what other investigators need to know.
Documenting existing contagion and eliminating additional contagion are
crucial to the successful investigation and prosecution of these cases.
There is no way, however, to erase or undo contagion. The best you can hope
for is to identify and evaluate it and attempt to explain it. Mental health
professionals requested to evaluate suspected victims must be carefully
selected. Having a victim evaluated by one of the self-proclaimed experts
on satanic ritual abuse or by some other overzealous intervenor may result
in the credibility of that victim's testimony being severely damaged.
In order to evaluate the contagion element, investigators must meticulously
and aggressively investigate these cases. The precise disclosure sequence
of the victim must be carefully identified and documented. Investigators
must verify through active investigation the exact nature and content of
each disclosure outcry or statement made by the victim. Second-hand
information about disclosure is not good enough.
Whenever possible, personal visits should be made to all locations of
alleged abuse and the victim's homes. Events prior to the alleged abuse
must be carefully evaluated. Investigators may have to view television
programs, films, and videotapes seen by the victims. It may be necessary to
conduct a background investigation and evaluation of everyone, both
professional and nonprofessional, who interviewed the victims about the
allegations prior to and after the investigative interview(s).
Investigators must be familiar with the information about ritual abuse of
children being disseminated in magazines, books, television programs,
videotapes, and conferences. Every possible way that a victim could have
learned about the details of the abuse must be explored if for no other
reason than to eliminate them and counter the defense's arguments.
There may, however, be validity to these contagion factors. They may
explain some of the "unbelievable" aspects of the case and result in the
successful prosecution of the substance of the case. Consistency of
statements becomes more significant if contagion is identified or disproved
by independent investigation. The easier cases are the ones where there is
a single, identifiable source of contagion. Most cases, however, seem to
involve multiple contagion factors.
Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy are complex and
controversial issues in these cases. No attempt will be made to discuss
them in detail, but they are documented facts (Rosenberg, 1987). Most of
the literature about them focuses on their manifestation in the medical
setting as false or self-inflicted illness or injury. They are also
manifested in the criminal justice setting as false or self-inflicted crime
victimization. If parents would poison their children to prove an illness,
they might sexually abuse their children to prove a crime. "Victims" have
been known to destroy property, manufacture evidence, and mutilate
themselves in order to convince others of their victimization. The
motivation is psychological gain (i.e. attention, forgiveness, etc.) and
not necessarily money, jealousy, or revenge. These are the unpopular, but
documented, realities of the world. Recognizing their existence does not
mean that child sexual abuse and sexual assault are not real and serious
f. ESTABLISH COMMUNICATION WITH PARENTS
The importance and difficulty of this technique in extra-familial cases
involving young children cannot be overemphasized. An investigator must
maintain ongoing communication with the parents of victims in these abuse
cases. Not all parents react the same way to the alleged abuse of their
children. Some are very supportive and cooperative. Others overreact and
some even deny the victimization. Sometimes there is animosity and mistrust
among parents with different reactions. Once the parents lose faith in the
police or prosecutor and begin to interrogate their own children and
conduct their own investigation, the case may be lost forever. Parents from
one case communicate the results of their "investigation" with each other,
and some have even contacted the parents in other cases. Such parental
activity is an obvious source of potential contamination.
Parents must be made to understand that their children's credibility will
be jeopardized when and if the information obtained turns out to be
unsubstantiated or false. To minimize this problem, within the limits of
the law and without jeopardizing investigative techniques, parents must be
told on a regular basis how the case is progressing. Parents can also be
assigned constructive things to do (e.g. lobbying for new legislation,
working on awareness and prevention programs) in order to channel their
energy, concern, and "guilt".
||g. DEVELOP A CONTINGENCY PLAN
If a department waits until actually confronted with a case before a
response is developed, it may be too late. In cases involving ongoing abuse
of children, departments must respond quickly, and this requires advanced
planning. There are added problems for small- to medium-sized departments
with limited personnel and resources. Effective investigation of these
cases requires planning, identification of resources, and, in many cases,
mutual aid agreements between agencies. The U.S. Department of Defense has
conducted specialized training and has developed such a plan for child sex
ring cases involving military facilities and personnel. Once a case is
contaminated and out of control, I have little advice on how to salvage
what may once have been a prosecutable criminal violation. A few of these
cases have even been lost on appeal after a conviction because of
h. MULTIDISCIPLINARY TASK FORCES
Sergeant Beth Dickinson, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, was the
chairperson of the Multi-Victim, Multi-Suspect Child Sexual Abuse
Subcommittee. Sergeant Dickinson states (personal communication, Nov.
"One of the biggest obstacles for investigators to overcome is the
reluctance of law enforcement administrators to commit sufficient resources
early on to an investigation that has the potential to be a
multidimensional child sex ring. It is important to get in and get on top
of the investigation in a timely manner - to get it investigated in a
timely manner in order to assess the risk to children and to avoid
hysteria, media sensationalism, and cross- contamination of information.
The team approach reduces stress on individual investigators, allowing for
peer support and minimizing feelings of being overwhelmed."
The team approach and working together does not mean, however, that each
discipline forgets its role and starts doing the other's job.
The investigation of child sex rings can be difficult and time consuming.
The likelihood, however, of a great deal of corroborative evidence in a
multivictim/multioffender case increases the chances of a successful
prosecution if the crime occurred. Because there is still so much we do not
know or understand about the dynamics of multidimensional child sex rings,
investigative techniques are less certain. Each new case must be carefully
evaluated in order to improve investigative procedures.
Because mental health professionals seem to be unable to determine, with
any degree of certainty, the accuracy of victim statements in these cases,
law enforcement must proceed using the corroboration process. If some of
what the victim describes is accurate, some misperceived, some distorted,
and some contaminated, what is the jury supposed to believe? Until mental
health professionals can come up with better answers, the jury should be
asked to believe what the investigation can corroborate. Even if only
a portion of what these victims allege is factual, that may still constitute
significant criminal activity.
- 4 states have anti-ritual abuse laws: Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana and
Texas. We are unaware of any charges or convictions which have been made
using these laws. Individuals and groups who attempt to raise people's
consciousness about ritual abuse often say that ritual abuse must exist
because we have laws to fight it.
- We would add: attempts by parents to extract disclosures from children;
rumor sharing among parents of different families; precise interview
techniques used by professionals (did they include direct questions,
repeat questions, manipulation, rewards, humiliation, use of anatomically
correct dolls with young children)
Return to the OCRT home page, or
"Not So Spiritual" page, or
"Ritual Abuse Studies" page,
"FBI Report" page.