A Response to Oprah Bickel and the Public Broadcasting System...
Regarding the Frontline Documentary
"The Search for Satan"


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The majority of patients who do allege they have been ritualistically abused are destitute and underfunded. They are frequently unemployed or underemployed because their symptoms leave them incapable of behaving reliably and appropriately in a work or educational setting.

Having viewed the extremely biased and distorted indictment of the mental health community’s response to patient reports of ritualistic abuse makes me wonder if media representatives truly listen to the information they are given and if they are really invested in reporting the facts to the viewing public. The Search for Satan, produced for the Public Broadcasting System by Oprah Bickel, is representative of the distorted reporting we have come to expect from network news programs and syndicated tabloid shows.

The most blatant example of distorted reporting (or just bad research) is the item about the FBI study, a myth that appears to be perpetuated by various media reports on the ritual abuse phenomenon. Following an ABC Prime Time Live Program aired in January 1993 in which the FBI "study" was cited, I wrote to the FBI requesting a copy of the report. Cynthia J. Lent, Technical Information Specialist at the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, responded as follows: The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime has not been conducting a formal study into satanic ritual abuse. I am not aware of the exact quote in the ABC television show you are referring to, but perhaps the show indicated that Special Agent Kenneth Lanning of our staff has been dealing with cases of ‘ritual’ child abuse since about 1983 or 1984. Enclosed is Special Agent Lanning’s monograph on ‘ritual’ child abuse, and the history of his personal "study" is described in the Introduction. The report by Mr. Lanning was received and thoroughly reviewed. To quote the book, Cult and Ritual Abuse: Its History, Anthropology, and Recent Discovery in Contemporary America (1995) co-authored by James Randall Noblitt and myself: Rather, the document featured on the program and to which the correspondent referred, is entitled Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of "Ritual" Child Abuse and contains no data nor research methodology whatsoever. This monograph by Special Agent Ken Lanning (1992) is merely a guide for those who may investigate this phenomenon, as the title indicates, and not a study.

The author is a well-known critic of cult and ritual abuse allegations who has consulted on a number of cases but to our knowledge has not personally investigated the majority of these cases, some of which have produced convictions. (p. 139)

Another concern about this PBS program is the lack of balance demonstrated. It focused on the cases of two recanting former psychiatric patients knowing that the accused mental health professionals could not respond to their allegations because of pending litigation and the professional requirement to observe patient confidentiality. These patients are engaged in a lawsuit against these professionals with millions of dollars at stake. Their representations may not be completely accurate and yet they have been provided with an uncritical forum to air their complaints.

Denial and recantation of previously made allegations are characteristic of individuals diagnosed with a variety of severe psychiatric disorders, including multiple personality disorder. The two nurses who supported the documentary’s premise that abuses of the system had occurred may be accurate to some extent. On the other hand, these nurses may also have been disgruntled former employees who misunderstood or misinterpreted the patient’s symptoms and who may blame their hospital’s closing on the treatment program for severely traumatized patients.

That patients were being subjected to unusually lengthy hospital stays through the 1980s is a correct assertion. Some of the reasons for prolonged stays were justifiable, some were not. On the one hand, clinicians were overwhelmed by the intensity of patient reports and the violence, both self and outwardly directed they exhibited. Patients were reporting strong suicidal and homicidal inclinations. There were numerous suicidal and self-mutilatory behaviors. Patients reported they were being stalked and were in fear of their lives. Patients reported their children were in danger.

Clinicians are not law enforcers or criminal investigators. If a patient reports such intensely dysfunctional patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, mental health professionals are obligated by law and by the requirements of their licensing boards to protect the patient’s interests. I believe that many clinicians thought the only way to accomplish this goal was to hospitalize the patient in order to observe their day to day functioning to determine whether their reports were accurate. Psychiatrists also sought to protect patients from acting out against themselves and society by maintaining them in a controlled and protected environment until they could help the patient learn more appropriate and effective coping skills and behavioral responses to their internal turmoil.

Some hospitals may indeed have seen these patients as cash cows and they may have, in fact, allowed the generosity of the patient’s insurance benefits to influence the length of stay. However, this worked both ways. Many patients thought to be a clear danger to themselves and others were not permitted adequate or appropriate hospital stays because hospital costs were grossly inflated and their insurance coverage was not sufficient. There is no justification for private psychiatric hospitals to charge $1,200 per day or more exclusive of professional fees, medications, and special nursing requirements.

Hospitals actively recruited patients and paid bounties to brokers for referrals. They paid generous stipends to psychiatrists for exclusive referrals of their patients. There have been numerous scandals involving several of the large hospital chains including Psychiatric Institutes of America (PIA), Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), and Charter Hospitals, resulting in civil and criminal investigations, huge cash penalties, and hospital closings.

The majority of patients who do allege they have been ritualistically abused are destitute and underfunded. They are frequently unemployed or underemployed because their symptoms leave them incapable of behaving reliably and appropriately in a work or educational setting. They typically have very poor concentration, poor memory functioning, and may revert to infantile or violent behaviors without conscious awareness. If they are lucky, they have been declared disabled by the Social Security Administration and are funded through Medicare and can find a competent clinician who is a Medicare provider. In many cases, they must depend on dedicated mental health providers willing to see them on a sliding fee scale or pro bono. Patients who do have insurance benefits are often restricted by managed care from receiving even minimally effective treatment, leaving them chronically disabled, suicidal, and a danger to society.

There has been a recent trend in our society to deny and minimize reports of sadistic child abuse and to attack those who advocate on behalf of survivors. While pseudo-scientific organizations like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation dominate media attention with horrific tales of false allegations of abuse ruining families and innocent individual’s lives, children and adults are suffering indescribable torments. We owe these victims an opportunity to recover from these experiences and to have a chance to pursue satisfying lives. We owe it to society to uncover the meaning behind allegations of cult and ritual abuse and to prevent continued abuses.

Under the provisions of its charter as a not for profit educationally based organization, Public Broadcasting System is obligated to provide the public with educational material and has a special responsibility to provide balanced reporting in the public interest. The public is not served by the biased and prejudicial perspective displayed in this and previous efforts.

One could argue that such programming is in violation of its responsibilities under the provisions of its tax exempt status by promoting propaganda rather than educational programming. I encourage our membership, on behalf of survivors and their advocates, to write to your public broadcasting affiliate and demand it provide viewers with an alternative explanation for recent and historical accounts of cult and ritual abuse.

Additionally, you can register a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in that it appears that PBS is in violation of its 501(c) 3 tax exempt status. We do survivors and their advocates an enormous disservice when we do nothing. We have an ethical responsibility to voice our objections to injustice.

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