Judy Steed Toronto Star
18 January 1995
The Toronto Star
I will be presenting my research about ritual abuse at the Thunder Bay conference, along with leading members of the Prescott investigative and therapeutic team.
In 1991, I covered the trial of Billy Elliott, 26, who pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing three children. He was convicted on these and other charges.
Elliott was one of the perpetrators identified by Project Jericho, a six-year Ontario Provincial Police investigation centred on Prescott, where more than 55 adults have been accused of sexually abusing 225 children. (To date, prosecutors have achieved a 95 per cent conviction rate.)
In writing about Elliott for The Star, I detailed evidence brought forward at the trial, amplified in interviews with investigators and social workers, about the ritual abuse in which Elliott had been involved.
This evidence was cut from the story, deemed too disgusting to be printed in a family newspaper. I am not blaming The Star; I did not argue with my editor.
I later wrote in Our Little Secret: "Linked by kinship and friendship ties, Prescott's perpetrators abused their own children, their neighbors' children and their grandchildren in a multi-generational network that was staggering in its reach and its routine violation of hundreds of victims. Some were terrorized in nightmarish ways that can only be termed ritual abuse. The police had evidence that Billy Elliott had been in the habit of digging up bodies in the graveyard, pulling the heads off skeletons and engaging in makeshift basement rites in which adults disguised in costumes sexually abused children; sometimes the activities were recorded by videocameras."
I can understand why no one would want to believe that such things happen. Yet ritual abuse deniers, like Holocaust deniers, are trapped in an untenable position.
The Holocaust really did happen. The Prescott case is real.
Those who are caught in the hysteria of denial that surrounds ritual or cult abuse may say that what happened at Prescott doesn't count. But ritual abuse doesn't have to involve Satanic ceremonies.
Cults can be small or large, based within families, communities or quasi-religious groups, organized with crude informality or using more sophisticated techniques drawn from, and distorting, biblical teachings. Convictions are hard to get because victims are too terrified to tell; if they do, they usually can't identify masked participants.
The practices are handed down from generation to generation, acted out on a spectrum that, at its low end, is exemplified by the Prescott case, reaching the more complex tortures that shattered the psyche of a young Shirley Turcotte.
Now an internationally respected therapist, Turcotte - a Metis from Manitoba - was a teenage runaway when she was referred, 26 years ago, to Dr. Harvey Armstrong, a Toronto psychiatric intern.
Today Armstrong is a staff psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He is the recipient of two major awards from the American Psychiatric Association.
He is an establishment figure, in other words, and he helped Turcotte unravel the twisted knot of multiple personalities she had developed as a protective device to survive unspeakable abuse by a cult.
Turcotte is well known to North American audiences. In 1987, the National Film Board released a documentary about her, To A Safer Place, that won international awards. At that point, she had not yet spoken publicly about being a survivor of a Christian cult.
In my book, I wrote that her parents belonged to a group connected to a hospital run by priests and nuns, who participated in the ritual abuse.
Turcotte says she witnessed young children being killed in ceremonies. Her experiences have been corroborated by other family members.
"Ritual abuse is just organized crime against children," Turcotte says. "It's obvious that it happens. Abuse in residential schools is ritual abuse. What the Ku Klux Klan did was ritual abuse, though not primarily to children."
As for Satanic abuse, "it's on the far end of the spectrum. It happens, but kids are tricked and lied to by adults, they're told in these 'ceremonies' that they're holding a heart that is actually a piece of liver, that the pig fetus that's being 'sacrificed' is a baby - and sometimes it is a real baby. What's important here is not the details - was it a liver or a heart? - but the fact that children are being tortured in horrendous situations."
Another reputable professional who believes that ritual abuse happens, sometimes with Satanic dimensions, is Roberta Sachs, a psychologist at St. Luke's Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, where she specializes in treating survivors.
Armstrong, Sachs and Turcotte are brave pioneers, willing to break through the societal denial that engulfed us for centuries. They are the leaders of the first generation in history that is willing to look into the dark corners of the human psyche and explore the dark closets of human behavior.
A generation ago, the hysteria of denial was focused on sexual abuse; even today, in every case I investigated for The Star or for my book, most adults responded to children's allegations with a denial so frenzied it was scary.
I see that same hysteria around ritual abuse.
Mary Armstrong, a psychotherapist (and wife of Harvey Armstrong), observes that ritual abuse is the taboo topic. "People react toward ritual abuse today just at they did 10 years ago when we started to talk about sexual abuse: with disbelief."
When Harvey Armstrong began treating Turcotte, even to hear her was a radical act. He - like Alice Miller, the world-famous Swiss psychoanalyst - had to break out of his training in Freudian orthodoxy, which held that children fantasized about sex with parents.
Armstrong sought guidance from senior pyschiatrists about how to treat sexual abuse. "They looked at me as if I was crazy," he says. "It didn't happen."
Today, we know child sexual abuse is prevalent throughout every socioeconomic strata. We know, indisputably, that some cases of ritual abuse have been documented.
"There are seven organized pedophilic societies in North America, including NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Assoc.)," Armstrong says. "That's organized child sexual abuse. If that can happen, why can't it happen in other ways?"
In order to go forward, to deal with the sexual violence that is still hidden at the roots of our major social problems, we need to act calmly and responsibly, to investigate allegations carefully, without preconceptions.
The Freudian myths have been shattered, but there are many fears to be overcome before we can confront the abusive acts that are still perpetrated against children - that are dismissed as fantasies.