Evangelical Christians and health-care professionals using dubious information were held responsible yesterday for the myth that children have been victims of widespread ritual and Satanic abuse.
A report ordered by Mrs Virginia Bottomley, the Health Secretary, said Christians campaigning against new religious movements had been "a powerful influence encouraging the identification of Satanic abuse".
They were joined by psychologists and childcare workers who engineered the hysteria which led to children being taken from their parents in Rochdale, Nottingham, and Orkney.
Of 84 cases examined by the researchers, however, no evidence was found to justify any allegation of Satanic abuse and only three claims of ritual abuse were substantiated. Professor Jean La Fontaine, the report's author, said that even these three cases did not merit the description of ritual abuse as the desire for sex was more important than the element of ritual.
"I think the evangelicals created the climate in which people could believe this sort of thing was happening" she said.
"People began thinking that perhaps it was something they hadn't seen because they hadn't looked and though they had better start looking. That argument is mistaken because we are not talking about a different kind of abuse. It is the same old sexual abuse."
Prof La Fontaine added: "In these cases, the children were worryingly disturbed. It was easy to make a mistake by assuming that, because the children were so damaged, what had happened to them must have been so much worse than normal sexual abuse".
She said claims that the children themselves alleged Satanic and ritual abuse were false. "The fact is that the small children didn't actually say these things. They said bits and pieces that were picked up by the adults."
"You can never say that something doesn't exist. All I can say is that there is no evidence in the cases I have examined."
Prof La Fontaine's report was welcomed by Mrs Bottomley, who said there had been "speculating and scaremongering" for years. Calling on professionals to study it, she said: "Professor La Fontaine has abused the myth of Satanic abuse". The 36-page study, called "The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse," was commissioned in 1991 after children were removed from their homes in Rochdale and Orkney.
It defines ritual abuse as "sexual abuse where there have been allegations of ritual associated with the abuse, whether or not these allegations have been taken any further or tested in the courts". Satanic abuse is defined as "a ritual directed to worship of the Devil".
Aided by researchers at Manchester University, Prof La Fontaine asked for details of organised and ritual abuse of children reported between January 1988 and December 1991 and received 211.
Researchers studied the records of police and social services departments in eight local authority areas. The Lord Chancellor's Office gave Prof La Fontaine and her team access to 34 files referring to children who had alleged ritual abuse and had been made wards of court.
Researchers found that 967 cases of organised abuse and 85 of ritual abuse had occurred over four years - meaning that eight percent of all sex abuse allegations involved ritual abuse.
Nearly a third of the cases came from the East Midlands, with 21 of those in Nottinghamshire. London had 12 and another 14 occured in the South East. Twelve cases were found in the North West. Primarily, the cases involved "very poor people". Of the men said to have been involved, fewer than a third had a job and only three had middle class occupations.
[Nottinghamshire has a population of about 1 million and London (for these purposes) about 6.5 million, out of a total for England and Wales of 49 million (I believe that the study excluded Scotland and Northern Ireland).]
The killing of humans was alleged in 35 cases but could not be proved in any of them. Ceremonial robes were mentioned in 28 cases but evidence was found in only two.
Once allegations had been made, Prof La Fontaine found that interviews with children were badly conducted, with frequent and aggressive questioning. "What is defended as 'what children say' may be nothing of the sort", the report said.
The myth distracted attention from the real plight of many abused children.
Ms Valerie Sinason, a consultant child psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic in London, said: "I think it is very worrying to have Mrs Bottomley, a former social worker, discounting the pain of children and adults who come forward and say this is happening to them".