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America's Magic Cult of Ignorance

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America's Magic Cult of Ignorance
Faulty memories?
Mass-market nightmares
Lives on the edge

8 Aug, 1993, San Jose Mercury News: Section: Living Page: 1L

by: DAVID O'REILLY, Knight-Ridder News Service

ON NOV. 19, 1987, Geraldo Rivera hosted a national TV special called "Satanic Cults and Children."

"Estimates are that there are over 1 million Satanists in this country," Rivera declared. "The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography and grisly satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town."

Just then a rumor began to spread through rural Jamestown, N.Y.

A lot of non-conformist teen-agers--wearing dark clothes and offbeat haircuts--had a party in an old warehouse on Halloween.

People said it had been a satanic Mass. The local Humane Society started getting calls about ritually slaughtered cats and dogs. A fundamentalist minister wrote letters warning about the surge in local Satanism.

Teens who had attended the Halloween party got threatening phone calls, and young thugs began to prowl the town, beating up those they suspected of Satanism.

Then, around April 1988, the rumors began to escalate. Jamestown police--who had been unable to find any evidence of slaughtered cats and dogs--began fielding dozens of calls warning that the Satanists were planning something awful for Friday, May 13.

And as the date drew closer, the rumors intensified: The Satanists were preparing to kidnap a blue-eyed, blond virgin and sacrifice her on the 13th.

Parents kept their children indoors as the date approached. Young women armed themselves. And then . . .

Nothing. On Saturday morning, all the local virgins were accounted for, and the hysteria was deflated.

But across the nation, satanic panic still surges, fanned by sensationalist journalists, preachers, zealous police and eager psychologists who contend that countless infants are being slaughtered in secret satanic rituals. The numbers offered range from 5,000 a year to 2,000,000.

But FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, the FBI's leading authority on child abuse, sees it differently. After more than a decade spent chasing down rumors of ritual child abuse, Lanning came to the conclusion that "there is little or no corroborative evidence" to support the claims, he wrote in a report last year. Although some Satanists are practicing in the United States, he wrote, there was no reason to believe that such activities are widespread. The hysteria, he contended, was distracting the nation from the real crisis, child abuse being perpetrated by parents and stepparents and boyfriends.

Lanning's reassurances outraged some on the religious right who once applauded his investigations. Lanning, they said, was a secret Satanist out to lull the nation so that Satanism may flourish.

The charge is "absurd," he wrote.