Ritual abuse

If you think you are a survivor of ritual abuse, then some of the following information may be triggering for you.

This is abuse that occurs in a context linked to some symbol or group activity that has a religious, magical or supernatural connotation and where the invocation of these symbols or activities, repeated over time, is used to frighten and intimidate children and gain control over them.

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. indecent images 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 people from all walks of life and geographic areas, both rural and urban. They may be of any age, gender or sexuality and are sometimes professional people whom nobody would obviously suspect.

In some instances, ritual abuse is centred around the family, and may be transgenerational meaning there is 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 adults (e.g. adults with learning disabilities).

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.

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?

Survive supports survivors of sexual violence and abuse who live in York or North Yorkshire, UK.

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.

If you live in York or North Yorkshire, you can phone our helpline or make an appointment for support work or counselling in the first instance before progressing to trauma therapy.

We may 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. You can borrow books or resources that can help you understand dissociation, flashbacks 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.

If you are not living in York or North Yorkshire, you can find your local support service here via The Survivor’s Trust.


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