Chasing Satan in Sacramento
By MARK SAUER
Claims that a secret network of Satanists is abusing children in rituals featuring blood, urine, feces, etc., seem to have finally gone the way of the Red Scare in the 1950s and the Salem Witch Hunts of the 1690s.
After a decade of digging, the FBI could find nothing to indicate the existence of a satanic conspiracy anywhere in the United States; in San Diego this month, the county grand jury declared it "found no evidence of satanic ritual child molestation" here.
But state Sen. Newton Russell is not convinced.
In each of the past two years, the conservative Glendale Republican has sponsored legislation that, if passed, would have placed the state of California's imprimatur on the highly controversial notion of ritual abuse.
Russell's initial effort was to commission a Ritual Child Abuse Advisory Committee to study the prevalence of the problem. That idea was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but derailed last year by the Assembly's Public Safety Committee.
This year Russell came back with SB 1997. It sought to add three years to the sentence of anyone convicted of molesting a child "as part of a ceremony, rite or any similar observance."
Yet ritual-abuse investigations elsewhere have turned up nothing.
Lawmakers in Virginia studied the tales of abuse and found them as baseless as they were lurid. Months-long investigations in Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania were also fruitless, as were similar probes in dozens of communities across the United States and in Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries.
Ritual abuse, as defined by Russell's bill, might involve:
þ "Actual or simulated torture, mutilation or sacrifice of any warm-blooded animal or human being."
þ "Forced ingestion or external application of human or animal feces, flesh, blood, bones, body secretions, nonprescribed drugs or chemical compounds."
þ "Involvement of the child in a mock, unauthorized or unlawful marriage ceremony with another person or representation of any force or deity, followed by sexual contact with the child."
þ "Placement of a living child into a coffin or open grave containing a human corpse or remains."
þ "Unlawful dissection, mutilation or incineration of a human corpse."
Arlene McElhenney, legislative aide to Russell, said the senator's staff has been researching ritual abuse for 3 1/2 years.
"Law-enforcement people have come to us and said there is a valid need for such a bill, McElhenney said. She was referring to a handful of district-attorney investigators from Orange, Monterey and Butte counties who insist the ritual-abuse threat is real.
But when pressed to cite a single case of verified ritual abuse in California, McElhenney said: "None that I could talk about."
Russell himself could not be reached for comment.
But in a recent speech before the National Crimes Against Children Conference in Washington, D.C., the state senator stated that he has "read many reports of physical/sexual abuse of children, which included being urinated and defecated upon, made to eat feces and drink blood, put in cages, forced into sexual contact with other children, adults and animals and babies."
He did not cite any specific case in his speech, however.
Russell did say that at first he was skeptical of ritual abuse. But he came to realize that, like most people, he was "in denial."
Earlier this year, Russell's latest bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a vote of 8 to O. The idea is being studied now in the Assembly's Public Safety Committee.
After hearing testimony from supporters and detractors, the Assembly committee decided this week to table its vote on Russell's bill until next Tuesday.
>> Perplexing to prove
A 24-page report on Russell's proposed legislation, prepared by the Assembly Office of Research, notes the "perplexing matter of proof."
"No courts have found evidence of the existence of ritual child abuse," the report says, adding that the phenomena owe entirely to anecdotal reports from psychotherapists, parents, children, religious zealots, certain law-enforcement personnel and preachers.
The report also notes that Sen. Russell's staff provided as evidence of the ritual-abuse conspiracy a paper by Mark Phillips of Nashville.
"Phillips has accused the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency of creating Project Monarch, a genealogical mind-control research project ...
"Victims, according to Mr. Phillips' paper, are frequently tattooed with blue or other-colored monarch butterflies. Survivors are said to always possess homicidal and/or suicidal tendencies which only recently have been determined to be the result of `sophisticated trauma-based psychological programming.'"
Critics of Russell's indefatigable efforts to pass ritual-abuse legislation say that not only are California's myriad child molestation laws sufficient to protect children but also that validation of a dubious phenomenon could lead to hysterical prosecutions.
"When crimes are on the books, district attorneys tend to charge people on those offenses," said deputy public defender Kate Coyne, who led the successful defense of Dale Akiki last year in San Diego's longest and costliest criminal trial.
"If crimes like this do not occur, as the FBI says, then why take the chance that some zealous cop or DA will deprive someone of their freedom for 2 1/2 years?" said Coyne, referring to how long her client was in jail without bail.
>> Unfounded issue
The San Diego County grand jury, in its report, decried the formation three years ago of the county's ritual-abuse task force - several of whose members were involved in the prosecution of Akiki.
"We don't think there should be guidelines for (ritual abuse) cases when cases of that kind aren't occurring," said grand jury foreman Joe Dolphin at a press conference. "It kind of perpetuates itself."
Jeffrey Victor, author of "Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend," said such a law would "provide government sanction and credibility to the unfounded faith of those who believe ritual abuse exists."
"I believe that public opinion and that of the authorities has finally shifted toward extreme skepticism," said Victor, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York.
When a San Diego jury last fall rejected prosecutors' ritual- abuse charges in the Akiki trial, some critics declared the swift and decisive verdict was the beginning of the end for the phenomenon.
But Victor predicts that "People with extremist beliefs about this will be promoting it till the end of the century, although they will essentially be ghettoized."
"Some people say, 'Well, what does it hurt to have such beliefs?' But we don't need fools in government; there is plenty of serious business for state representatives to attend to," Victor said. "It's the same with certain police officers who run around looking for Satanists.
"These people are spending taxpayers' money, and victims of real crime are being ignored in the process."