As I’ve noted before (when writing about the TV show Father Ted), allegations of improper conduct by Irish priests on a mass scale first came out in the 1990’s. Prior to this, the Irish public, somewhat conditioned by the decades of virtual Church rule, were slow to criticize or speak out against them. But once the first scandal erupted, hundreds more followed, as if some infernal floodgate of misery and suffering had been opened. Suddenly, people who had been abused, often many years ago, were everywhere. If you followed the story based on media coverage alone, it seemed as though there must hardly have been a one decent priest in the whole country.
Does this pattern sound familiar?
Firstly, I’d like to state that I’m not particularly inclined towards or against the Church. In this day and age, they are quickly becoming a somewhat irrelevant and powerless institution as far as many forward-thinking Irish people are concerned. So while I’m glad they no longer run the show, neither do I believe that they're all necessarily bad people.
I’m not particularly concerned in this article with whether or not the majority of Church scandals are based on real happenings (at the moment it certainly seems as though they are, unfortunately). What I am concerned with is how the pattern of Church scandals matches several other events that have occurred in the past.
‘Moral panic’ is the term given to those occasions in which the public and the media create a lot of hype over some new ‘threat’ to society. Typically, a fear will arise and very quickly spread, concerning some danger that was not present (or not known) previously. Large numbers of people will report having come into contact with this new threat. Sometimes the threat is real, but there are a surprising number of cases in which the moral panic was revealed to be ‘much ado about nothing’.
When I was a child in the early 90’s, there was a brief concern about child abductors who traveled in a white van. Children were warned not to talk to anyone who drove a white van- I remember being unable to understand why anyone would use this highly distinctive m. o. if everyone knew about it! Far from being local-specific, this panic has also occurred in the US and Australia over several decades, making it also a kind of urban legend. No white-van child abductors were ever linked to any real cases, so either this story is a kind of Chinese whispers corruption of a true story, or else child abductors internationally like to behave very suspiciously when they're on the job.
Day care abuse- these cases involved the 'ritualised abuse' of children on a massive scale in Australia, New Zealand and the US in the early 1980's. Again, there was a single well-publicised case, followed by many more. 'Coercive' questioning techniques were frequently used to get appropriate testimony from children, which rapidly began to include some pretty extravagant claims. If these stories were true, then day-care centers across the world were involved in incredibly well-organised paedophelia, child prostitution, cannibalism, animal sacrifice, abduction and blood-drinking on a massive scale, which they frequently carried out in enormous secret underground chambers (that never materialised upon inspection), and all without being noticed until roughly 1982. Hmm.
Out of all cases, many concluded without convictions, while some accused persons spent years in jail before having their convictions overturned. While some real cases of paedophelia were uncovered, the hysteria that accompanied these cases elevated them to an almost mythical, all-powerful network of Satanists.
Satanic abuse- oh boy. It gets even more unbelievable here, as allegations of Satanic covens exploded across Canada and America in the wake of the book Michelle Remembers, published in 1980. Turns out that Michelle remembered quite a bit. The boundary between reality and fantasy became completely destroyed in some of these cases when psychiatrists begun use 'recovered memories' as a tool for uncovering past atrocities by these groups. And what stories the children spewed- I really couldn't do it justice here. Suffice it to say that it will enlarge your view of the possible; the possible lengths the human mind will go to in order to construct a false reality. I have no beef with hypnotherapy- practitioners today understand that what comes out of a patients mouth while they are 'under' are as likely to be a product of their fear or longing as a true memory- but in those days, it seems to have been used pretty irresponsibly.
It has been noted before that the victims in these cases are almost unanimously white, middle-class women. It's almost as if the most well-off section of American society decided that it needed a reason to feel sorry for itself and get attention. And listening to these womens' stories, it really is all about attention. They are always the centre of attention. Entire cults dedicated masses of time and energy organising complex and lengthy rituals just for them.
One web site cannily puts it-
But why have only the stars of the rituals come forward to tell their stories? Where are all the minions? Where is the third torch-bearer from the right? The handmaiden, the second banana, the also-ran? No one's come forward to say, "Yeah, it was my job to bring the snacks," or "I set up the sound system."
Is this really any different from the narcissistic roots of many other strange phenomena, such as alien abductions and contactee cases? It seems to be a fact that people who are profoundly ordinary, who may have known no real trauma in their lives, often manufacture their own dramas in which they are the stars (or the victims) in order to fill some subconscious void. And once some new 'treat' meme is released by word of mouth or the media, it can shape the form that these fantasies take.The Halifax Slasher- probably the strangest, and most telling example of all. In Halifax, England in 1938, women began reporting attacks by a mallet-wielding man. Within one week of the first report, ten men and women claimed to have been attacked, many of them providing quite specific details about the assailant. But when one early victim admitted that he had inflicted his wounds himself and made up the story, others soon admitted that they had, independently, done the same thing. What does this strange tale tell us about the unconscious wish of the public to be 'involved' in a big story, whether pleasant or unpleasant?
It must be stated that in most of these cases, the ‘victims’ appeared to have themselves been convinced of the reality of the threat. They frequently exhibited fear, stress and other symptoms of psychological trauma. Moral panics are not frequently thought to be a simple case of fraud or hoaxing- on some subconscious level, the threat is real to the ‘victims’. So while I’m not saying that this is the case with the Catholic Church scandals, I certainly do find the parallels striking. Victims of clerical abuse, however, have never had dodgy 'memory regression' techniques used on them in order to bolster their claims, neither do their stories have that kind of 'me, me, me' touch about them.
So strong was the belief during the 1980’s of the existence of a vast satanic conspiracy that it left a noticeable mark on the popular culture of the time. Movies that ripped off the late 70’s Satanist-themed classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen flourished. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the 80’s remake of Dragnet certainly helped convince me at a young age that dodgy underground cults were an accepted reality. When Hollywood recently decided to re-create an ‘authentic’ early-80’s horror film with The House of the Devil, they chose for their subject a coven of Satanists who require a young girl to sacrifice. But my personal favourite cultural artifact of 80's Satanism panic was something else...
Someone very clever once said that the meeting of two minds is like the meeting of two chemical elements; if there is any reaction at all, both are changed forever. When the 80’s phenomena of Fighting Fantasy books and Satanic worship hysteria collided, the result was something that is still considered staggeringly inappropriate for children: House of Hell. Have a look-
I don’t know if anyone outside the Bible belt would consider this book inappropriate now; I certainly believe that a fascination for the macabre is a healthy interest in a young child. All the same, I don’t believe that this is the kind of book that would get greenlit now. At the time, even the name was considered beyond the pale- hence the publication of the book as House of Hades in America; obviously one mythical afterlife location was considered offensive while another was not. Though some of the artwork was admittadly strong stuff-
Most of the FF gamebooks take place in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world. House of Hell is the only one that takes place in the 'real world', ie, planet Earth circa the 1980's. The plot is a classic 'haunted house' set-up- the player's car breaks down in a remote area, and they enter a big ol' spooky house looking for a telephone. Instead, they find a host of horrors that trap them within the house. Most of the enemies in the game are classic stereotypical boogeymen- zombies, ghosts, vampirs, etc. But the main plot involves a group of Satanists (the word itself is not used, but c'mon, just look at the illustrations!). They dress in white robes with goat heads, and gather in covens to sacrifice young girls on altars. At the end, the heads of the manor turn into huge, cloven-footed demons, and the book distinctly mentions a smell of sulphur as he does so. The unspoken message is that this stuff is not just an invention of the author of a fantasy book, but in fact, by the consistency of such details, is based on aspects of the real world. ’s amazing to think that this version of ‘Satanism’ was taken so seriously at the time- was nobody aware that all of this stuff can basically be traced back to Dennis Wheatley in the 1930’s?
As a gamebook, House of Hell is notoriously difficult. The house itself is maze-like and the creature battles are cruelly difficult. I was slightly intimidated by it when playing as a youngster- even with the aid of self-drawn maps, I always felt as if the house was huge and unknowable, so cleverly was it designed. So punishing were it's traps and creatures that exploration was seldom rewarded. I still recall the feeling of being helplessly lost, opening doors blindly and waiting for some cruel executioner or hooded cultist to deal me the final blow.. Fans have been known to be unable to complete it after literally years of trying- and that’s scary enough even without the Satanism.
(Here's a link to an article by the great Mike Dash about an outbreak of Satanic Panic in Wales)