In 1992, an FBI agent from the Behavioral Science Unit of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime wrote a long report sharing his thoughts about Satanic Ritual Abuse. Since then, Kenneth Lanning's report has been referenced by numerous people trying to disprove the existence of ritual abuse. Most frequently, the citation comes offhandedly - "The FBI even investigated ritual abuse in the United States and couldn't find evidence of any!" - and the author moves on.

It never seems as though the authors of these pieces have read the report, and I occasionally come across contradictory writings claiming that that's not what the report says at all. So, finally, I read it for myself.

The Main Point

The biggest misconception about this report is that it represents the findings of an FBI investigation into the existence of ritual abuse in the United States.

This misconception seems to stem from the title: "1992 FBI Report - Satanic Ritual Abuse." In fact, Lanning never claims to have conducted or been part of a formal investigation, or to have any final answers about the existence of ritual abuse overall. He characterizes the entire report as merely being a "discussion based on my analysis of the several hundred of 'these kinds of cases' on which I have consulted since 1983." Some sources also give it the title "Investigator's Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse," which in many ways is a better description of the document's thrust.

Lanning's primary purpose here seems to be to challenge a specific claim made about SRA. His concern is with many of the statistics he has heard about SRA-related crimes - for example, "that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults, and there is little or no corroborative evidence." This report is often cited as evidence that Satanic or other ritual abuse never occurs. However, Lanning's position throughout is far more ambiguous, as we will see here. Perhaps most tellingly, most of the books on his recommended reading list have notes from him "dinging" them for not taking ritual abuse seriously enough.

His final conclusion is:

I believe that there is a middle ground - a continuum of possible activity. Some of what the victims allege may be true and accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be screened or symbolic, and some may be "contaminated" or false. The problem and challenge, especially for law enforcement, is to determine which is which.

The Main Problem

The main problem with Lanning's report is the same problem that most mainstream denials of ritual abuse have: a lack of understanding of what ritual abuse encompasses. All too often, they use faulty logic which says something like, "All ritual abuse is Satanic. All Satanic ritual abuse is part of a massive international conspiracy. The claims about the massive international conspiracy are ridiculous. Therefore ritual abuse does not exist."

Interestingly, Lanning's report points out many of this argument's flaws without following through on their implications. He often presents information which, to readers with a greater understanding of ritual abuse, proves that there is quite a bit more of it than he recognizes.

For example, the report is studded with rhetorical questions and descriptions of abuse which ask, over and over, why the focus in these crimes is on Satanic symbols and assumed Satanic involvement when the same kind of abuse is perpetrated by members of many other religions. As he puts it,

There are many children in the United States who, starting early in their lives, are severely psychologically, physically, and sexually traumatized by angry, sadistic parents or other adults. Such abuse, however, is not perpetrated only or primarily by satanists. (sic) The statistical odds are that such abusers are members of mainstream religions. If 99.9% of satanists and 0.1% of Christians abuse children as part of their spiritual belief system, that still means that the vast majority of children so abused were abused by Christians.
An excellent outside example of this can be found under Rock Theriault, a man who perverted Seventh Day Adventism to become the sexually, emotionally, and physically abusive leader of his own cult. Even had this fallen under Lanning's purview, he would have not have recognized it as ritual abuse. Ironically, of course, there was also an even larger example of overlooked ritual abuse going right next door to Lanning, in CIA projects like Monarch/MKULTRA.

Unfortunately, despite all this and despite his own stated dislike of the term "Satanic ritual abuse," Lanning still falls into the trap of thinking ritual abuse must only be Satanic and that therefore any similar behavior by non-Satanists must not be ritual abuse. This raises the question....

What is Lanning's definition of ritual abuse?

Lanning's report paints three basic pictures of ritual abuse:

  • The short form: "I cannot define 'ritual child abuse' precisely and prefer not to use the term.... The newer term 'satanic ritual abuse' (abbreviated 'SRA') is even worse.... Most people today use the term to refer to abuse of children that is part of some evil spiritual belief system, which almost by definition must be satanic."
  • The long form: This consists of all the different activity he describes when talking about ritual abuse. In brief:
    • " These cases seem to have the following four dynamics in common: (1) multiple young victims, (2) multiple offenders, (3) fear as the controlling tactic, and (4) bizarre or ritualistic activity."
    • Lanning references Dr. Lawrence Pazder's definition as "repeated physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual assaults combined with a systematic use of symbols and secret ceremonies designed to turn a child against itself, family, society, and God.... the sexual assault has ritualistic meaning and is not for sexual gratification."
    • As a law enforcement officer, he places tremendous emphasis on the motivation for the crime, and states that "Most... would probably answer that what makes a crime satanic, occult, or ritualistic is the motivation for the crime. It is a crime that is spiritually motivated by a religious belief system."
    • Finally and most emphatically, Lanning offers his own terminology. He states the four main dynamics he has found in ritual abuse cases, and announces that "For want of a better term, I have decided to refer to 'these kinds of cases' as 'multidimensional child sex rings.'"
  • The hidden form: These are the sometimes graphic examples of ritual abuse which Lanning throws out for not being Satanic or not being illegal. They are relevant here because they illustrate one of the basic problems with his report: the schism between what the media or police thought ritual abuse was, and what survivors describe.

More About "The Hidden Form" And How It Disproves His Point

Lanning's main complaint is that he is being asked to corroborate apparently impossible claims that tens of thousands of people are abducted and killed in Satanic rituals each year in the United States alone. As stated above, his mistake is that he then reduces all forms of ritual abuse to "things involving tens of thousands of people being abducted and killed in Satanic rituals...." Et cetera. He thus overlooks many of his own experiences and observations in the field.

For example, Lanning observes that "Most of the day care centers in which ritualistic abuse is alleged to have taken place are church-affiliated centers, and many of the adult survivors alleging it come from apparently religious families." Lanning suggests that this is because of all the "religious programs, books, and pamphlets that emphasize the power and evil force of Satan" -- surprisingly, in light of his previous statements about abuse committed in the name of religion. Many people making these allegations, however, establish very clear ties between the alleged abuse and the environment in which it took place.

On a similar note, Lanning asks rhetorically, "Why not label the crimes committed by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (as occult or ritualistic)? Are the atrocities of Jim Jones in Guyana Christian crimes?" His argument is that these are not considered ritual abuse, so why are we making such a big deal about other forms of ritual abuse? This would be a good point, if he were only using it to raise concern about the abuse committed in the names of other religions. In fact, many if not most of the people I've met who talk about having been ritually abused were abused with a perversion of some form of Christianity or Judaism. As Lanning observes, the population numbers make this far more likely. He even goes on to say:

"The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus, Mohammed, and other mainstream religion than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people, including myself, don't like that statement, but the truth of it is undeniable."

He also makes a connected historical argument about more obviously abusive organizations: "Probably the closest documented example of this type of alleged activity in American history is the Ku Klux Klan, which ironically used Christianity, not satanism, to rationalize its activity but which, as might be expected, was eventually infiltrated by informants and betrayed by its members." This is something of an odd statement given that the KKK is still active across the country; it gives the impression that the KKK tried to do a few terrible large-scale things and was finally shut down. In fact, I think it is a good example of the kind of organizations and behavior involved in perpetrating ritual abuse: it consists of small, very local, not very well-connected groups, doing things that are half social, half totally fucked up shit, which exist in their own nighttime world completely dissociated from everyday life, and which often slide under the law's radar, sometimes because what they are doing is legal, and sometimes because these people are themselves the law.

Part of the issue seems to be the presence or absence of the word "Satanism." Quoting scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell on "the universal consensus of modern historians on Satanism," Lanning (apparently without noticing) neatly summarizes the confusion on this issue. "(1) incidents of orgy, infanticide, cannibalism, and other such conduct have occurred from the ancient world down to the present; (2) such incidents were isolated and limited to local antisocial groups;... (5) no organized cult of Satanists existed in the Christian period beyond localities, and on no account was there ever any widespread Satanist organization or conspiracy." The fact is that the kind of behavior that people describe as ritual abuse demonstrably happens, and is demonstrably (as in this report) overlooked while people search for evidence of international Satanic cults.

Other Questionable Arguments in Lanning's Report

Most of Lanning's supposed counter-examples really illustrate the pervasiveness of ritual abuse. Likewise, he presents several arguments which disprove the existence of ritual abuse by changing his definition to exclude classic and essential ingredients.

One of the main questions of his report and one of the primary concerns around ritual abuse is the existence of horrific memories which can't be corroborated or which seem to have been disproven. For example, a child remembers being buried alive with no one around to witness it, or remembers being cut deeply with a knife yet bears no scars. On this subject, Lanning comments that "Perhaps a horror-filled yet inaccurate account of victimization is not only not a counterindication of abuse, but is in fact a corroborative indicator of extreme physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse." Despite the fact that "extreme physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse" is a common definition of ritual abuse, and that he himself uses "multiple offenders" and "fear as a controlling tactic" as key aspects of ritual abuse, he actually uses this statement to argue that people are misremembering their abuse and weren't ritually abused at all.

Despite these many problems, a great deal of Lanning's report is extremely important, well-written, and well-thought-out, most notably the section in which he outlines his advice to other law enforcement officers on how to investigate this kind of crime. We'll address some of that below. Unfortunately, there are moments when the legal definition of these activities gets in the way of how they are experienced. For example, Lanning says that "Sexual ritual is something done by an offender because of a need. Deviant acts, such as urinating on, defecating on, or even eviscerating a victim, are far more likely to be the result of sexual ritual than religious or 'satanic' ritual."

That's a tricky point. From his legal point of view, unless something is specifically done with a religious ritual in mind, it can't be considered ritual abuse, and that's certainly one possible definition. However, from the lay perspective, if you're forced to eat shit, you might not care whether it was because your perpetrator intended to get some kind of occult power from it or whether they simply got off on it.

When this fine line becomes the basis for dismissing the existence of ritual abuse instead of the basis for questioning the possibility of prosecution, we have a problem.

Point By Point

The main portion of Lanning's report, then, can be summarized as follows:

  • It is extremely difficult to define ritual abuse; he admits that "I cannot define 'ritual child abuse' precisely and prefer not to use the term." From a law officer's perspective, classifying something as ritual abuse requires knowing the perpetrator's motivation, which is virtually impossible.
  • The information about ritual abuse which he's seen given out at special law conferences and trainings on the subject, and in the mainstream media, is largely contradictory and often has apparently impossible statistics for the crimes involved.
  • Most people he's seen giving out this information focus entirely on "Satanic ritual abuse," which also requires knowing the perpetrator's motivation and which causes him (and many other people) to throw out a huge amount of other experiences of ritual abuse.
But after all of that, he gets to the good stuff: his analysis, based on years of experience, of how such cases should be handled.

The Good Stuff

Lanning begins his report, very intelligently, with an explanation of the way that child abuse in general has been viewed by the public and the police in the United States over the fifty years or so prior to his writing. He says, at one point, that:

Society's attitude about child sexual abuse and exploitation can be summed up in one word: denial. Most people do not want to hear about it and would prefer to pretend that child sexual victimization just does not occur.
Ironically, this is exactly the purpose for which his report is often used, albeit with regards to a more specific kind of abuse. For example, an online review of a book entitled "Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore, and Popular Culture" says that "One of the appendixes to the book is the 1992 FBI report on satanic ritual abuse that generally demolished the concept."

Lanning's report opens with an analysis of the cause of "Satanic panic." I would not deny the existence of "Satanic panic," the "unfortunately-named witch hunt" in which people with too little information point too many fingers, choose bad targets, and generally make it seem like all claims of ritual abuse are just hysteria; I would say that none of that seems to me to have anything to do with whether and how ritual abuse exists, only with how it looks to the public and the media. Lanning explores some of the causes of this drama and talks about his own experiences with it, to great effect.

Ritual Abuse as a Protected Act

This report's greatest value, to me, is in Lanning's unique perspective as an agent of the law. One of his most interesting points is, essentially, that (in the United States) the fact that a given abusive act is done within a religious context not only does not qualify it as a crime in the eyes of the law, but can actually make it a protected act.

Part of what makes this fact so interesting is that while analyzing the questions he is asking about ritual abuse, Lanning makes the point that

"After all the hype and hysteria are put aside, the realization sets in that most satanic/occult activity involves the commission of no crimes, and that which does usually involves the commission of relatively minor crimes such as trespassing, vandalism, cruelty to animals, or petty thievery,"
even though he has already shown that the legality of an action has nothing to do with whether it is abusive. As is illustrated above, since he is analyzing these cases strictly from a legal perspective, he throws out a lot of the behavior that people call ritual abuse because it is not illegal.

As a law enforcement officer, Lanning is very clear that his perspective on these cases has to be different than that of a survivor, family member, therapist, social worker, academic, or sociologist. In the eyes of the law, a large part of what makes something a crime is the motivation involved. As he explains,

"Certain acts engaged in with children (i.e. kissing, touching, appearing naked, etc.) may be criminal if performed for sexual gratification. If the ritualistic acts were in fact performed for spiritual indoctrination, potential prosecution can be jeopardized, particularly if the acts can be defended as constitutionally protected religious expression. The mutilation of a baby's genitals for sadistic sexual pleasure is a crime. The circumcision of a baby's genitals for religious reasons is most likely not a crime."

This fact creates a huge dividing line between "ritual abuse as seen by the law" and "ritual abuse as seen by those experiencing it."

As anyone concerned with, for example, any of the extremely controversial aspects of childhood genital mutilation knows, motivation does not necessarily have any effect on whether a child experiences a particular act as traumatic or abusive. Nor is Lanning wrong in observing that those things do not make something a crime. It is this dividing line that makes it so important to read Lanning's report carefully: he is discussing ritual abuse in terms of criminal acts with Satanic motivation only, and that leaves out a lot - maybe the majority - of what survivors describe as ritual abuse.

Destigmatizing the "Occult"

One of the best statements Lanning makes is the following:

"Many police officers ask what to look for during the search of the scene of suspected satanic activity. The answer is simple: Look for evidence of a crime."
As a young Pagan, I was vehemently in denial about the existence of any form of Satanism, and even more about ritual abuse. I thought, "There are no actual Satanists. That's just what the religious right wing uses to demonize us. They make up all this Satanic ritual abuse stuff to attack us and make us look bad." Eventually, as I educated myself on different Pagan and Neo-Pagan religions, I discovered that actually there were several very different things that called themselves Satanism - some of which I thought were very positive - and that opened my mind enough that I could accept the idea of ritual abuse as more than just "some mythical weapon they made up to use against us."

I think this experience, overall is a very common one within different Pagan communities; many of us feel so attacked because of our religion that we have to come out very strongly against anything used to attack us. Lanning's statement should be welcome to many of us, because a large part of his position on this subject is that it is the crime, not the particular religion of anyone involved, which is the problem. Furthermore, it opens the door to the realization that the crimes and abusive acts involved in ritual abuse can take place within religions other than Satanism.

Lanning's Guidelines for Investigating Multidimensional Child Sex Rings

"In spite of any skepticism, allegations of ritual abuse should be aggressively and thoroughly investigated. This investigation should attempt to corroborate the allegations of ritual abuse, but should simultaneously also attempt to identify alternative explanations. The only debate is over how much investigation is enough. Any law enforcement agency must be prepared to defend and justify its actions when scrutinized by the public, the media, elected officials, or the courts. This does not mean, however, that a law enforcement agency has an obligation to prove that the alleged crimes did not occur. This is almost always impossible to do and investigators should be alert for and avoid this trap."

Lanning outlines, again, the four basic dynamics he finds in multidimensional child sex rings, and lists the points he thinks are most important to remember in their investigation.

  • Minimize the Satanic or occult aspect: both because he (like opponents of hate crime laws) opposes considering these as a separate kind of crime, and because he argues that (as in cases of religious discrimination) a suspect's religion can mislead law enforcement officials into assuming a crime has taken place despite the lack of any other evidence.
  • Keep investigation and religious beliefs separate: As with his first suggestion, this one is designed to reduce the amount of religious discrimination involved. He also raises the strange and interesting (to me) point that it is possible for law enforcement officials to "attribute supernatural powers to the offenders.... Law enforcement officers who believe that the investigation of these cases puts them in conflict with the supernatural forces of evil should probably not be assigned to them."
  • Listen to the victims: Lanning illustrates this point in several ways. Firstly, he emphasizes that law enforcement officials are there to listen as objective fact finders, not to believe the victims. Secondly, he makes it very clear that "interviews of young children should be done by investigators trained and experienced in such interviews." Thirdly, he reminds investigators to remain unbiased on every point they hear: "Do not become such a zealot that you believe it all nor such a cynic that you believe nothing." And lastly, he makes what may be the most important point: "All investigative interaction with victims must be carefully and thoroughly documented."
  • Assess and evaluate victim statements: In Lanning's opinion, this part of the investigative process has been lost. He reminds investigators to keep an eye out for things that make them question allegations, but to thoroughly investigate them nonetheless. Better still, he reiterates this by counseling investigators to "Consider and investigate all possible explanations of events. It is the investigator's job, and the information learned will be invaluable in counteracting the defense attorneys when they raise the alternative explanations." No one is served either by a false conviction or a false acquittal.
  • Evaluate contagion: This point reflects the common belief that alleged ritual abuse survivors just pick up stories from other alleged victims or from books and articles on the subject. One result of this belief has been to make many ritual abuse survivors (or those who suspect they might be ritual abuse survivors) quite paranoid about reading anything on the subject, terrified that they will somehow turn out to have made it all up. On the bright side, a well-informed investigator can consider the instruction to "evaluate contagion" in a spirit of unbiased investigation which allows them to counteract the arguments of cynical defense attorneys. Lanning also maintains that evaluating contagion may lead to eliminating possible "unbelievable" aspects of the case and obtaining a successful conviction on "the substance of the case."
  • Establish communication with parents: This is a suggestion for extrafamilial cases of abuse. Lanning emphasizes the difficulty of this task, but points out that parents might take on the task of interrogating their own children and confusing their testimony. He offers positive suggestions like keeping the parents up to date on the progress of the investigation and assigning them "constructive things to do (e.g. lobbying for new legislation, working on awareness and prevention programs) in order to channel their energy, concern, and 'guilt.'"
  • Develop a contingency plan: In Lanning's own words, "If a department waits until actually confronted with a case before a response is developed, it may be too late. In cases involving ongoing abuse of children, departments must respond quickly, and this requires advanced planning."
  • Use multidisciplinary task forces: Lanning quotes Sergeant Beth Dickinson, the chairperson of the Multi-Victim, Multi-Suspect Child Sexual Abuse Subcommittee in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, as saying that "one of the biggest obstacles for investigators to overcome is the reluctance of law enforcement administrators to commit sufficient resources early on to an investigation that has the potential to be a multidimensional child sex ring." She advocates using a multidisciplinary team approach to avoid overwhelming individual investigators and increasing the efficiency of the entire department. Lanning adds that investigators need to maintain their boundaries in that situation and avoid crossing disciplines to do someone else's job.


Agent Kenneth Lanning's report provides a fascinating perspective on these cases, despite its potential and real flaws. It is a much more complex document than it is generally made out to be. In some ways, it is also useful as a historical document: at this writing, it is over a decade old, and there is much more known about ritual abuse. This report was written during a backlash against reports of abuse in general, and particularly against reports of ritual abuse, and as such it is both a surprisingly open-minded document and a reflection of its time.

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