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Ritual abuse

(Please take care: if you think you may have been the victim of ritual abuse, then some of the following information may be triggering for you….)

What is a ritual?

Rituals form a normal part of most of our lives. A ritual is a symbolic action. Individuals may use rituals as means to feel reassured or encouraged. For example, we may use a ‘lucky’ mascot in exams or sport activities. Similarly, we may develop routines or customs as individuals, families, or groups, which help to reassure us or enable us to bond with each other.

What is ritual abuse?

The term ritual abuse is generally used to mean repeated, extreme, sadistic abuse, especially of children, within a group setting. The group often has an ideology of some kind which is used to justify the abuse, and the abusive rituals in turn are used to reinforce its ideology. These activities are kept secret from society at large because they violate society’s norms.

What is meant by ‘an ideology’?

An ideology is a framework of particular values and practices that a group may hold. Any ideology can be twisted or adapted to abusive ends. Groups practising ritual abuse may have a religious or pseudo-religious ideology, or they may not. They may be networks of paedophiles who use techniques to indoctrinate and manipulate children or young adults for their own gratification and profit ( e.g. pornographic photographs or films of those whom they abuse.) Sometimes a particular religious group (usually a cult or fringe group) has a small network of leaders who carry ‘spiritual’ authority over vulnerable children or adults, and can justify their abuse as ‘exorcism’ or even ‘healing’.

Who perpetrates ritual abuse?

Ritual abuse is perpetrated by men and women from all walks of life and geographic areas, both rural and urban. They may be of any age, and are sometimes professional people whom nobody would obviously suspect.

In some instances ritual abuse is centred around the family, and may be transgenerational. There can be a tradition of abuse within particular families which stretches back for generations.

Other perpetrators may be non-related adults who recruit and groom children whom they access through social groups, schools, or church activities. Sometimes groups of teenagers who may have been abused themselves form ad hoc groups which target younger children or vulnerable (e.g. learning disabled) adults.

What kinds of abuse occur?

Physical abuse can occur as beatings, torture, cutting, confinement, forced ingestion of drugs or bodily fluids. Emotional abuse involves trickery, deceit, emotional manipulation, mind control, and blaming the victim. Sexual abuse is sadistic and may involve anal, oral or vaginal penetration, even of extremely young children. Spiritual abuse manifests itself as reversal of good and evil, a destruction-based morality, and the denial of autonomy and freedom of thought.

Why do so few people believe ritual abuse survivors?

Abusive groups keep their secrets well, and terrorise their victims into silence. When survivors of ritual abuse do disclose, their stories can sound fanciful, horrific, and extreme. It is easier for listeners to dismiss survivors’ stories as barely credible. Society does not want to believe that norms and laws can be so blatantly and extremely violated, and often turns its back in denial that such activities could actually occur.

What are the symptoms of ritual abuse in children and adults?

All abuse causes trauma, but ritual abuse can cause trauma that is especially severe and deep-rooted.

Sometimes survivors have a fascination with or a phobia of particular objects, events, times of the year, or places. There may or may not be a conscious memory connected with childhood events, but such objects or events may trigger strong and disturbing feelings and thoughts, or periods of ‘zoning out’ – forgetfulness, and/or a lack of awareness of the passing of time, known as dissociation. This happens because an abused child learns how to cope with extreme and repeated stress by ‘leaving their body’ in order to survive psychologically. This becomes a pattern for coping in later life. The child’s consciousness can split into a multiplicity of ‘selves’ in order to get through life. These separate personalities are sometimes known as alters. They may not be aware of each other. Certain types of therapy can help alters to integrate and communicate with each other, thereby bringing some healing and resolution.

Sometimes a person who has suffered ritual abuse may find themselves experiencing intense fear, dread, or audiovisual sensations ‘out of the blue,’ and as if it is happening in the present – this is known as a flashback. Flashbacks are fragmented memories rising up into consciousness.

How can Survive help me if I have suffered from ritual abuse?

The first thing we do is to believe you. We have many years of experience between us of hearing ritual abuse survivors’ stories. We will validate your experience and allow you to share it. We will not judge you.

You can phone our helpline or come and see us personally for a occasional or ongoing 1-1 confidential contact.

We might also be able to provide some advice on staying safe and looking after yourself. We may be able to suggest simple practical techniques that will help you to stay grounded and aware of the present moment.

We can offer you books and resources to borrow that can help you understand dissociation, flashbacks, alters, and other effects of ritual abuse.

We can recommend particular counsellors and therapists who have knowledge of ritual abuse, and help you to access their services, if that is what you feel you need.