Witch-hunts and pogroms are not confined to medieval times but occur with monotonous regularity today. The form of the witch-hunt is similar with a number of clear elements. I will compare two local contemporary witch-hunts the attacks against Bill Henson and the claims of ritual satanic abuse (mostly from the 1990s).
One organization, Bravehearts, will appear in both witch-hunts.
At the start of the witch-hunt the agitators, who are devout Christians, repeat an old slanderous and salacious story in a current context. There is popular enthusiasm for the story due to long-term and short-term economic and political pressures. The story is then repeated and amplified by the media and politicians.
The story of ritual satanic abuse has a long history dating back to the blood libel of medieval tradition, the new twist was using ‘repressed memories’. Sensational media stories from the USA were copied and repackaged for an Australian audience. Senator Bill Heffernan, better known for his unfounded attacks against High Court Judge Justice Kirby, and New South Wales MP Franca Arena repeated these stories and drew more media attention. The ritual satanic abuse hysteria has been likened to witch hysteria by Edward Ogden in his thesis for Advanced Studies in Criminology “Satanic Cults: Ritual Crime Allegations and the False Memory Syndrome’ (University of Melbourne, 1993).
The story of an artist having sexual relations with their models is also a very old story. Sensationalised stories about artists and underage nude models have previously appeared in the USA with attacks on photographers Jock Sturges, amongst others. And so the attack on Bill Henson followed a model copied from US media and Christian organizations.
The Australian organization Bravehearts has been involved in both Bill Henson controversy and allegations of ritual satanic abuse. Bravehearts don’t have a reputation for dishonesty, but they should have as their members have consistently tried to fuel witch-hunts. In 2005 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) sued Dr Michaelson, who runs Bravehearts Victoria, for claiming that it conducts ritual satanic abuse. The terms of settlement from the Victorian Civil And Administrative Tribunal state that: “Dr Michaelson has not produced any proof that OTO members are or have been involved in such practices.”
The subjects of allegations are generally successful, upper middle class men. These men appear to be ordinary respectable members of society. But, it is alleged; behind closed doors they abuse children. It is further alleged that these men are protected in by a vast evil conspiracy (Satanists or the arts elite) further enhancing their power. Targeting upper-middle class men who have some power, or at least success, in society is evidence that the intention of the allegation is a grab for power.
Other examples of subjects of such allegations drearily come to mind: Jews in Nazi Germany or Tsarist Odessa; communists in the Cold War, and the unsubstantiated allegations of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, although in this case the accusers are devout Moslems whom I’m sure have a similar morality to their Christian brothers and sisters.
Encouraged by politicians and the media police, mob or military violence is taken against the subjects of allegations. Subsequent investigation finds no physical evidence to support any of the allegations. However by then irreparable damage may have already been done.
What is frightening is that very little is learnt in the aftermath of these witch-hunts. The same people, especially the politicians, who expressed enthusiasm for taking action against Bill Henson would have, in other times, expressed enthusiasm for witch-hunts and pogroms. Their irrational beliefs make them a stupid and brutal force that can easily be manipulated.
Richard Guilliatt, Talk of the Devil, Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt (Melbourne, 1996)