In the early 1990s, the CBC newsmagazine The Fifth Estate interviewed therapist Lynn Edwards in connection with their investigation of Satanic Ritual Abuse allegations in Saskatchewan. Their reporter, using Edwards' published work, concluded that if her claims are correct more than 175,000 Canadians have recently died as a result of murders by Satanic cults.
EDWARDS: And your problem is...?
REPORTER: Does that make sense?* You would stick with that number?
EDWARDS: Yes. I think that I would.
REPORTER: And no one ever finds anything?
REPORTER: They must have conveyer belts going into these things.... Who are these 175,000 dead Canadians? Are they missing people?
EDWARDS: Some of them are imaginary murders, with children.
REPORTER: You don't say that. You say, and you have said, "murders."
EDWARDS: Well, I would change that. Imaginary murders, possibly, with children.
As outlined in the Satanic Panic metanode, the developed world experienced a witch hunt in the late twentieth century, in which many people became convinced, against all evidence, that vast, Satanic cults were ritually abusing children, and had been doing so for generations. Two of the Panic's more infamous legal cases took place in the heart of Canada's Bible Belt. While the two Saskatchewan incidents never went to quite the disturbing lengths of the more notorious U.S. cases--the McMartin Preschool Trial and the Kern County Ritual Abuse Case-- the consequences for all involved were dramatic and often depressing.
The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan case begins in 1987, when the American Satanic Panic neared its hysterical height. Three children, Michael Ross, and his younger twin sisters, Kathy and Michelle, were placed in a foster home run by and Dale and Anita Klassen. Young Michael had a history of violent and disturbing behaviour, and was sent for therapy. He was later removed from the Klassen home. At that point, he began to tell stories of sexual abuse, orgies, bestiality, and Satanic Ritual Abuse.
Years later, he admitted he fabricated these stories in order to have the twins removed from the Klassen home and placed with him. His reason?
He himself had been sexually abusing his younger sisters, and wanted access to them. Against their wishes, the girls were, in fact, moved to the new foster home with Michael in 1990. Incredibly, this occured after Michael admitted that he had been molesting his sisters-- though with the implication always that he was copying behaviour initiated by the Klassens.
Dale and Anita Klassens, Dale's brother Richard, and others, meanwhile, were investigated for the alleged abuse. Under repeated and often leading questioning, the sisters corroborated some of Michael's tales, including the claim that a baby had been skinned, barbecued, and eaten.
An unlucky 13 people, most of them members of the Klassens' extended family, were charged 1991. No compelling evidence was introduced. Indeed, the testimony was often absurd. Marie Klassen allegedly chased Michael down a public street and then dragged him forcibly back to a place where he was abused. In fact, the older Mrs. Klassen's physical disability made this scenario impossible.
Three of those charged-- the Ross's birth parents and one other, also not a member of the Klassen family-- were convicted, but later had their convictions overturned. Peter, Richard and Dale's father, admitted to abuse, because, he claims, he hoped to take the fall for the others and end the trial. He subsequently spent four years in prison. Charges against others were stayed in 1993. As a result, suspicion continued to hang over the Klassen family. In fact, prosecutors took the position that the trial was avoided only so as to not further traumatize the children, and publically held that position long after these same children recanted their testimony.
In 1998, a friend of the Klassens began a website, "Injusticebusters" to completely clear their name. Michelle Ross, then 17, learned of the website, and as a result contacted its webmasters, fully recanting her claims and apologizing for her role in the Klassens' prosecution.
In 1999, Michael Ross-- then in prison-- admitted in a signed declaration that he had fabricated all tales of abuse, ritual and otherwise, save for his own incestuous interference with the girls. He also maintains his claim that he had, however, been sexually abused by his biological father. This may be true, though no conviction stands against the man, and this claim comes without the trappings of Satanic Ritual Abuse. But here the Satanic Panic rears its ugly head; Michael Ross states that the references to ritual abuse and Satanism were borrowed from the then-current media accounts of the Satanic Panic. He felt that these details made his accounts more interesting, and that they would get the attention of authorities. We have here a documented case of one of the methods by which an "extraordinary popular delusion" spreads.
In 2001, Kathy Ross, who had been separated by social agencies from her twin for three years, was reunited with Michelle, and also acknowledged that all claims against the Klassens were false.
The accused launched a lawsuit for malicious prosecution, naming police superintendant Brian Dueck, therapist Carol Bunko-Ruys, and Crown prosecutors Matthew Miazga and Sonja Hansen. Among their evidence: the first Crown Attorney who examined the case rejected it out of hand, and Matthew Miazga proceeded with no more evidence than that earlier prosecutor had. Documents also indicate Miazga and Bunko-Ruys knew that the child Kathy Ross could be easily led to fabricate stories which were obviously false, and they were aware of troubling contradictions and inconsistencies in the children's stories.
On December 30, 2003, the Klassens won their lawsuit.
A similar case took place in the same province, in Martensville, in 1991-92. The accused would also be cleared, but they would became pariahs in their community.
While the Klassens were making headlines, a mother noticed a suspicious rash on her daughter, a toddler sometimes left with a local baby-sitting service owned by Ron and Linda Sterling. Allegedly, the daughter claimed someone had poked her bottom with a pink rope. Initial investigation into the Sterling's baby-sitting service revealed little of interest. Later, the police investigator teamed up with Rod Moor, a Saskatoon officer. As they continued to question, stories emerged of sexual abuse at both the baby-sitting service and a "Devil Church" alleged to stand on the outskirts of the town.
Local police faced tremendous external pressure, especially once the claim emerged that members of the force were involved in the abuse. They also faced internal pressure. Mike Smith, hired as the city's new police chief at the height of the investigation, had an a priori belief in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults. As the stories proliferated, a blue building outside of town was identified as the "Devil Church," headquarters of a cult allegedly named the Brotherhood of the Ram. This would all make for a great horror movie-- but people took it seriously, and lives and reputations were destroyed as a result.
On April 24, 1992, police officers staked out the building. No one ever showed, nor did any evidence emerge to link this site with such activities. A Luma Light search found no evidence of blood, semen, or other traces of the rituals which prosecuters claimed occured there. The building did contain cages, in which the children later claimed they were confined. The cages were, however, designed for birds, and physically too small for a child.
Ron and Linda Sterling were arrested, along with their son, Travis, and a 20-year-old woman whose name has never been publically identified. Five police officers were also later arrested, including John Popowich, on whom much of the case would later center.
Ron was suspended without pay from his job as director of the Saskatoon Correctional Centre; Linda's home baby-sitting service closed down. They eventually lost their home. Ron Sterling's father died of a heart attack the day the trial began.
The charges against most of the officers collapsed in court; the children Popowich allegedly abused could not identify him. The trial against the Sterlings lasted five months. Travis Sterling was the only one convicted-- of fondling children. Many doubt the validity of the charge against him. Others note that he faced earlier allegations of a paedophiliac nature in 1988-- though these claims did not include references to rituals or Satanism and he was never convicted. The 20-year-old woman was convicted of sexual crimes against children supposedly commited while she was a teenager, but the conviction was soon overturned.
No evidence of a Satanic Cult or Satanic Ritual Abuse ever emerged. The RCMP investigators, meanwhile, began to have serious doubts about the entire case. They would later cite leading questions which allowed the children to build stories around photos they were shown of police officers and of the building that had been identified as the "devil church."
In 1993, the Martensville police force was disbanded, and law enforcement in the community taken over by the RCMP.
In 2002, John Popowich received 1.3 million compensation. In November 2004, the Sterlings received $925,0000.00 in compensation from the province. Other lawsuits remain before the courts.
The Crown Attorney's office and the local RCMP have both completed investigations, detailing what went wrong and making recommendations to prevent a case of this nature from occuring in the future.
Surely, a justice system driven to find the truth of each case based on evidence and reason would be a good start.
*The murder rate suggested by Ms. Edwards would soon depopulate the country. One would think we would've started noticing.
"Hell to Pay." The Fifth Estate.
"Judge rules child sex prosecution was malicious." http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2003/12/30/abuse031230
"The Martensville Nightmare Ritual Abuse Case." ReligiousTolerance. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_marte.htm
"The Red Deer, Saskatchewan Ritual Abuse Hoax." ReligiousTolerance. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_reddeer.htm
"The Scandal of the Century." The Fifth Estate. Broadcast November 29, 2000. Information from the TV report appears at http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/featurestories/scandal/index.html
"Struggle to clear Sask. family name took 12 years and much pain, says member." http://www.canoe.ca/NationalTicker/CANOE-wire.Foster-Sex-Lawsuit.html
"Wrongly accused in ritual abuse launch $10 million suit." September 9, 2003. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/storyview/CBC/2003/09/09/abuse_suit030909
Other sources may be found at the Satanic Panic node.