It’s thirty years now, more or less, since I first began writing for Fortean Times, and in all that time I doubt we covered a more shocking or more important story than the great Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of 1989-1991.
It’s hard, actually, to convey to those who did not live through those years just how widespread – and how widely accepted – allegations of SRA were. Cases actually began well before 1989, and ran past 1991, and they were reported from across the English-speaking world, most often from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. I know of no reliable overview of the entire panic, but it certainly involved, at minimum, well over a hundred individual episodes and must have affected several thousand families in all. What’s most remarkable, looking back, is just how outlandish many of the allegations were. High-profile cases typically included suggestions that large gangs of well-organised, hereditary Satanists were abducting, abusing and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of young children. Sometimes it was alleged that the abusers were using pre-schools to identify and groom their targets; in the UK, most of the cases involved families who were supposedly assaulting their own children. There were numerous allegations that the rituals included sacrifice – that is, murder – as well as abuse.
The numbers that were bandied about were frankly astounding – cults were taking 60,000 children a year, some said – and several of the cases were astonishingly complex. The most notorious, the McMartin Pre-School episode, in the US, which ran from 1984 to 1989, turned into the longest and most expensive criminal case in the country’s history up to that point. For all this, though, very little, if any, physical evidence was ever produced that so much as a single person had actually suffered at the hands of any Satanic group. There were no bodies, no traces, and though believers produced various elaborate theories to explain this – there were even outlandish suggestions that women were being kept as “brood mares” to produce babies whose births would never be registered – the police were, in the UK at least, admirably sceptical that anything was actually going on. The panic was, rather, driven almost entirely by social workers, a significant proportion of them evangelical Christians, working from what were clearly (even at the time) wildly dubious lists of “Satanic indicators” produced in the United States, but also circulated in the other territories to which the panic spread.
FT gave the scare extensive coverage, and we listed and did our best to cover the key UK cases: Kent, Rochdale, the Orkneys, Nottingham. It wasn’t easy. Several of these incidents were as poorly handled by the press as they were by the authorities, and thanks to various gagging orders it was hard, then and now, to uncover details, or even to know where a case of SRA ended and one of “ordinary” abuse began – not that any abuse is ordinary, of course. A number of key cases went virtually unreported – the Kent affair, which started the ball rolling here, for one; there were also similar incidents in Congleton and Liverpool that attracted practically no coverage. And there were many more that never got even that – in her book Speak of the Devil, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an anthropologist engaged by the Department of Health to produce the definitive report on the whole episode, lists a total of 84 incidents in England and Wales alone. Not all of these involved specifically Satanic allegations, but there were several that did and yet – generally for legal reasons – remained entirely unknown to the general public.
What I want to do now is take a look at one of these lost cases – an episode so lost, in fact, that it does not feature even in La Fontaine’s analysis. It took place in Pembroke, in the far west of Wales, in 1991, and it’s remarkable in at least two ways. Firstly, it resulted in a trial and in actual convictions; so far as I know, the only other UK case to go so far was the Nottingham affair, which was in important respects far from typical. Nottingham is still held up, though, by those who continue to promote belief in SRA, as “proof” – an example of an episode in which there was “real evidence”, and a jury to convince, and a judge passing sentence. In this respect, Pembroke has a very great deal to tell us about the nature and reliability of the sort of evidence that convinces courts – and it’s clear, to me at least, that simply obtaining a conviction in a case of supposed SRA does not mean that Satanic Ritual Abuse is real. Secondly, the Pembroke affair was covered, a few years later, by my favourite British journalist, the intelligent and thoughtful Byron Rogers [above left]. Rogers was not only born just up the road, in Carmarthen – and is thus ideally qualified to get under the skin of a West Wales community – but also possesses the rare ability to write eloquently and with insight about those living at the margins of our society. This is some skill – one seen at its most profoundly developed in the imperishable works of Joseph Mitchell, the American writer widely (and in my opinion correctly) regarded as the greatest colour journalist of them all. From this perspective I highly recommend Rogers’s touching and important article The Last Tramp, or any of his several books of collected essays – The Last Human Cannonball, or An Audience with an Elephant, or The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail, all of which contain a good deal of great interest to Forteans. But first, let’s follow him to Pembroke and to the depressing details of what remains (thanks to the Children’s Act) as “a story without names”. Those familiar with other SRA cases will recognise some features of the story – the broken homes, neglected council estate and families living on the edge of the law. But Pembroke was different, too, and in important ways, not least because, as Rogers astutely observes, it is a “large community”:”To live in a city is to live in a village of your friends and colleagues. To live in a town in west Wales is to know more people, and to know more about them, than you ever will again, because this is the noisiest, and most censorious, society on earth. If you stole a wheelbarrow, the whole town would know.” The whole case turns on this point, because, as Rogers asks, is it really credible “that for four years a conspiracy was in progress to abuse children and to practise Satanic rites in just such a community”?
First, the details of the case. Then, a rare opportunity to hear the voices of some of the accused commenting on the evidence against them.
It all began in May 1991. A local boy of nine, already in care for a year, suddenly accused his father of sexually abusing him. The boy, subsequently the main accuser in the case, was a disturbed child from a broken home, and had been put into voluntary care by his mother, who felt unable to cope with him. Nobody had ever paid the child much heed. But then, after prolonged counselling by social workers, he was the centre of attention. The social workers were to set up a Child Sexual Abuse Therapy Group, which, to one defence solicitor, was ‘a combine harvester awaiting its first harvest.’
The boy described orgies in barns, in which men in gowns fired shotguns into the roof to ensure the silence of children who were being abused. Goats were ritually slaughtered in the local cemetery. The boy went on to accuse his mother, then other local adults, and how many he named is not known, for the judge was to tell the jury, ‘If everyone had been charged, the case would have gone on for ever.’
The first arrest came in August 1991, when the Pembroke police detained the boy’s father, “a well known local man who drove around town in a tractor and trailer.” His three remaining children, meanwhile, were taken into care. The man was a well-known and successful womaniser, which led some to wonder why he would have needed to prey on children, though of course there are plenty of examples of similar men who had similar success, but became criminals nonetheless – Ted Bundy springs immediately to mind. Whatever the truth, the charges did not stick on this occasion; the man was freed after a month on remand, and none of the several other adults the child had accused were even arrested. Of course, social services were not bound by any of this; the man’s children remained in care.
It was not until the summer of 1992 that there were any further developments. Then a 14-year-old girl, who had run away from home, accused her father of rape. He admitted the offence and received a seven-year sentence – a significant escalation, as it happened, because the girl was a member of one of the other families, living on the same council estate, who had been accused but not charged in 1991. The fact that there were real offences happening, Rogers points out, “would have a considerable effect on the [SRA] trial, because, brought out of gaol, [the rapist] was placed in the middle of the dock among defendants some of whom said they had never seen him before. He pleaded his innocence of being part of any paedophile ring, but the jury saw every day in court a self-confessed child abuser and the prosecution made much of his being there.” But some of the girl’s other allegations struck many locals as less credible than the admitted charge of rape. “Interviewed for the second case by social workers, she now began to talk about orgies, and named adults; but her orgies – unlike those described by the boy – had a marine setting. She mentioned beaches and caves, even on a February night… The one defendant credited with practical experience of al fresco sexual activity would later say, ‘February in west Wales? Don’t they know that would freeze the…’”
Things began to move relatively quickly after that. Other children from the same group of families were questioned, and began to make their own allegations; a total of 18, from nine families, were taken into care. There were 13 more arrests, two of them of women. They included a couple of farmers, one of them 80 years old and so decrepit that “he had to buy a new hearing aid just to hear the charges against him,” another an Englishman who had only recently moved to the area – something of a high risk recruit to a gang of Satanic abusers, one would think. In the end, 12 people stood trial, in January 1994, but the proceedings were held in camera and hence went unreported.
The trial, Rogers writes, did not go smoothly, despite some fairly typical pressure applied on the part of the social workers involved in the case to keep their witnesses onside:
Within four months, the twelve in the dock had dwindled to seven, as the judge directed the jury that some defendants had no case to answer. The two adults expected to be prosecution witnesses, the former wife and the girlfriend of the man first accused, also recanted statements in which they had named people. The girlfriend said she had only named them because social workers had said she would otherwise never see her children again. ‘I knew what they wanted me to say – I just added on and on, but none of it was true.’
A teenage boy also recanted, claiming he, too, had been pressured into giving a version of events by social workers. The prosecution case thus rested on the evidence of six children speaking over a video-link, and it was hard for the defendants to establish an alibi, for no dates or times were given. There was much medical evidence, bitterly contested, but there was no corroborative evidence, no forensic testimony.
Week after week, month after month, the jury (one of them with a T-shirt inscribed “We’re Only Here For The Beer”) heard all of this.
‘I kept waiting for someone to say, “Hang on…”, but nobody did,’ said one defendant. “I think I’d have found myself guilty in I’d heard all that stuff.”
What’s most significant, certainly, is that mention of rituals, and devil-worship, were consistently played down. The authorities recognised that such details were likely to encourage scepticism in the jury. Instead, the case was tried as one involving a relatively straightforward paedophile ring – something very different, but very likely indeed to persuade the jurors that things were serious, and that there were hideous risks in finding the accused not guilty if there were, in fact, abusing children. To make matters worse, the prosecution had amassed such a vast body of testimony – more than was typically seen in a major fraud trial, according to the defence – that, in the words of one solicitor involved in the case, the jurors “were lost by day three. In the end they didn’t know what was going on. They heard months of evidence so complicated that, as far as they were concerned, they might have been asked to decide on whether there were black holes in space.” Seen from that perspective, it is not very surprising that there were six convictions. One man, the first accused, received a sentence of 15 years. The other sentences were less severe, but still considerable. All in all the judge ordered terms of confinement totalling 53 years, or an average of nearly nine years for each convicted prisoner. In jail, none of the men confessed. In fact, they not only maintained their innocence, but refused to submit to court-mandated counselling. That meant no open prison, no home leave, no parole.
Far from everybody was satisfied by the evidence in the case, however. One woman, whose husband had been found guilty and sent down for seven years, fought a court order obtained by social services which allowed them to take her children permanently into care. She won, the judge in the Family Division of the High Court throwing out the case against her husband. The civil verdict was admitted, after much legal manoeuvring, when the criminal one came to appeal, and the husband saw his verdict overturned. It was OJ Simpson in reverse.
Not even this case, though, turned out to have a happy ending. The marriage broke down, and two of the three children in the case went to live with the wife. The third and youngest stayed with the husband, his (or her) supposed abuser. This man had had his house searched for “gowns, wigs, cloaks and guns”. The police took away a clown mask that he had purchased at a street market for his daughter. He later gave Rogers a tour of the barns and sheds involved in the case, which were said to have been the headquarters of the Pembroke Satanists. These spots, incidentally, had not been shown to the jury, on the judge’s orders.
‘Right, this is the first one.’ It is 50 yards from his house and is a small, corrugated-iron shed in the grounds of a small-holding. The shed is full of rusting machinery and old clothes, a mess that had built up over many years. ‘They said there were 30 people in there shouting and squealing and letting off guns. Can you see any holes in the roof? It was supposed to be like a colander, the boy said, but they crawled all over it and didn’t find a single hole. Now look at that house on the corner. How far away would you say that is? Ten yards? And there’s a window at the side. Didn’t they hear what was going on?’
He drove me through a town to a council estate. There was a graveyard on our left. ‘That’s where they were pouring goats’ blood on the gravestones, but they never found any.’ We turned into the council estate. ‘ That’s the garage where they were supposed to be spinning a bottle to see who would go with who. See the size of it? If you dropped a hammer, the neighbours would hear.’
We were driving through the lanes. ‘See those mud flats? They were doing something down there… Ah, here we are.’ It was another shed that, like most of those I was shown, looked as though it was about to fall down. ‘They’re supposed to have brought a Land Rover full of kids to that. But see how close that house is? Did nobody hear anything? And these lanes were supposed to have 30 or 40 people walking along them. Nobody saw them. If you or I saw 40 people in a lane, we’d never forget it.’
We drove out of Pembroke to the farm that was mentioned in some scenarios. ‘There were 40 children screaming in a trailer pulled by a tractor. Now wait.’ He had slowed, for on the Cleddau Bridge there is a tollbooth where you pay to cross. ‘Odd nobody in that noticed 40 screaming children.’
In jail, on remand, the man encountered another prisoner. “This chap asked me what I was in for. I said I’d been charged with being part of a paedophile ring. ‘Whereabouts?’ he asked. ‘Pembroke,’ I said. ‘Good God,’ he said. ‘And me.’ I’d never met him before.”
Rogers spoke to one of the defence lawyers. He had been concerned at first at the seriousness of the charges against his client, but after reviewing the evidence came to the conclusion that it was worthless – worse, ludicrous. Of course, the jury had not been convinced of that, but still…
‘I read about a barn at harvest time in which 20 to 30 people, in capes and balaclavas, were having an orgy, with children in a pit being made to eat excrement and a fire blazing on the floor. I was brought up on a farm, they were terrified of fires in barns. Where was the smoke going? And how could a barn be empty in the middle of harvest?
‘I was being asked to take seriously the idea that convoys of cars had rushed through the countryside and that all those children had just gone to school on Monday morning. Had nobody noticed anything, no teachers, no GPs? At the end of the first file I thought the prosecution were insane. As for the social workers, I thought they needed help.
‘There was also one thing nobody mentioned. They talked about orgies on beaches in summer. In Pembroke in summer every bed and breakfast is full. For God’s sake, where were all the tourists when all this was going on? When the trial judge refused to let the jury see the locations, one of the defence solicitors made a video of them. Do you know the greatest problem he faced? It was that wherever he filmed, people kept straying into shot.’
The judge, in the solicitor’s view, was too inexperienced to run the case successfully – “Mr Justice Kay… he took everything so seriously. It was probably his first case of this nature, and he lacked the experience a Family Court judge could bring.” The defendants, this man believed, paid the price for this.
‘Some of the children had genuinely come to believe that they had been abused. I don’t know. What I do know is that vulnerable children suddenly found all this interest being taken in them. As for the nine-year-old boy [the original accuser], he was out on his own, a highly manipulative boy, capable of telling a QC to ‘F— off’ when he did not like a line of questioning.
‘But I also remember a 12-year-old insisting that nothing at all had happened. The prosecuting counsel, Gerard Elias QC, grilled him for two hours, to the point where the boy could not remember his own age, but he could not be shaken. Elias kept asking him about naughty videos and in the end he said yes, he had seen one. It had the comedian Chubby Brown in it… It was like attending a Beckett play, except that when the curtain came down, people were ruined.’
For Byron Rogers, the most revealing evidence of all never featured in the case – it came in the form of the reaction of the neighbours of the convicted men. Convicted paedophiles, as the reporter observes, are not generally welcomed back into their communities, but these men were.
“All I’ve got to say is that he’s back in the darts team,” said a man who had worked with the convicted paedophile who had shown Rogers around the estate.
‘Now, I don’t know if you or your readers realise the significance of that. Pub darts teams are made up of big, hairy-arsed drinkers. Something like this would be guaranteed to rile them up, especially after a shed-full of beer. And nobody has ever said anything to him... It’s just “How’s it going, then?” Something stinks about this case, mate, and people know it… Around here everyone believes that it’s a load of bollocks.’
Not everyone. To members of the county’s Social Services department the accused were ‘formidable and frightening, even in the dock.’ To the chief constable of the investigating police force the inquiry was ‘a model of perfection’. But the local MP has ‘serious reservations’ about the case and wants to see it referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
For odd things keep surfacing. In gaol with [one of the defendants, a seaman] was a man, also convicted of being part of the ring, whose son, then 11, initially testified against him but then in court denied there had been any abuse. He said he had been pressurised into giving evidence by social workers. Nevertheless, a condition of the subsequent care order was that he should not see his father. This year  the boy went to court to get the condition overturned, and now visits his father, who is still serving an 11-year sentence. ‘That was an eye-opener,’ said the seaman.
The seaman, who had been absent at sea for most the time and claimed not to know any of the other defendants, now doesn’t see either of the two sons who persisted in accusing him. “Nor do I want to ever again.”
‘I go to see my parole officer every Friday and I used to be asked about my offending behaviour. They’ve stopped doing that now. I just get asked, “Everything all right, any problems, how do you feel?” How do I feel? I’ve no job, I’m skint, and I have a record.’
And every Friday night, said a man who has all the time in the world on his hands, he played darts.
Source: Byron Rogers, ‘The child snatchers’. In The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the Wilder Reaches of Wales (London: Aurum Press, 2003) pp.227-242.
Afterword: There’s now an update on the case and its aftermath available here.