Macquarie University
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Truly evil empires: the panic over ritual child abuse in Australia

posted on 2022-03-28, 12:16 authored by Timothy Lynch
Allegations of "ritual abuse" were first made in North America in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was claimed that an extremely severe form of sexual and physical child abuse was being perpetrated by Satanists or the devotees of comparably unorthodox religions. Perpetrators were often supposed to be invloved in other serious criminal activities. Allegations were subsequently made in Britain, Holland, Australia and New Zealand. The thesis examines the bitter debates that these claims provoked, including the dispute about whether ritual abuse "really happens". -- The thesis also contributes to the debate by providing some anthropological insights into why these strange and incredible claims were made and why they were accepted by certain therapists, officials, journalists and members of the public. It is argued that the panic over ritual abuse was a panic about what anthropologists know as "witchcraft" and the thesis makes this argument through an analysis of the events (mainly discursive events) of the panic. The thesis in particular takes up Jean La Fontaine's argument about the similarities between accusations of ritual abuse and those made against "witches" in early modern Europe and in non-Western societies. The similarities between the kinds of people typically accused of perpetrating ritual abuse and those accused of practising witchcraft are considered, with a special emphasis on those cases where accusations were made by adult "survivors" and where alleged perpetrators were affluent and of relatively high social status. The thesis examines how supposed perpetrators of ritual abuse were denied the social support properly due to them and how accusations--and the persecution that followed--achieved certain political, professional and personal ends for survivors and their supporters. -- The thesis also considers similarities between "crazed" witch hunting and the recent spread of the panic about ritual abuse throughout much of the English-speaking West. The peculiar panic about witch-like figures that occurred in Australia -- especially in NSW--is examined. The thesis shows how, at a time when Australians had become very sceptical about claims of ritual abuse, activists were able to incite and affect the latest of a succession of homophobic panics in Australia.


Alternative Title

Panic over ritual child abuse in Australia

Table of Contents

Characteristics of ritual abuse discourse -- A plethora of theorists (and of differences between them) -- Defining ritual abuse: differences, disputes and bad faith -- Allegations, investigations and trials -- Abuse accomodation and recovered memories -- Moral panic and witch hunt -- Witch craze -- Outsiders, accusations and obligations -- Accusations of ritual abuse in Australia -- Witches and pedophiles -- Conclusion.


Bibliography: leaves 327-357 "December 2005".

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD) , Macquarie University, Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Anthropology

Department, Centre or School

Department of Anthropology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Nick Modjeska


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Timothy Lynch 2006.






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