Conspiracy Theories, Ritual Abuse and the Rise of QAnon in Mormondom

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my second post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here

In 1983, Judy Johnson accused her estranged husband, Ray Buckey, of molesting their young son at the preschool where he worked. The McMartin Preschool, in Manhattan Beach, California, was a family business founded by Buckey’s grandmother Virginia McMartin, and operated by her children and grandchildren.

The police found little evidence for Buckey’s guilt, but as a precaution they sent a long form letter out to hundreds of parents whose children attended the school. The letter stated that Buckey was being investigated and asked parents to question their children if employees of the preschool had committed any of a series of detailed acts. The Children’s Institute International, a child abuse therapy clinic, was brought in to consult and by 1984 staffers had interviewed more than 400 children. They received dozens of reports. The McMartins were mutilating animals; they were dressing in robes and digging up corpses in front of children; they were holding satanic rituals in secret rooms and tunnels under the preschool accessed through a variety of methods, including down the toilets.

Forty-one children eventually testified in court. Five teachers were indicted on more than a hundred counts, including Ray and his mother Peggy.

Meanwhile, Judy Johnson continued to call the police, reporting more revelations from her son, Matthew. One such accusation ran, “At the church, Peggy drilled a child under the arms . . . Lots of candles were there, they were all black . . . Ray pricked his right pointer finger, put it in the goat’s anus.”

Johnson was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1987, four years after the original allegations, the McMartins went to trial. Three years later, the trials concluded. All charges were dropped; there were no convictions. In 1990, the head of Children’s International, Kee McFarlane, confessed she would probably do things differently could she return to 1984.

***

The McMartin scandal was hardly the only panic over child abuse and satanic ritual to erupt in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were similar cases in Bakersfield, California, in Martensville, Saskatchewan, and in New Jersey, to name only three that happened at almost exactly the same time.

Scholars call this the “ritual abuse panic,” or, catchier, the “satanic panic.”  It was a telling, but hardly unique, outbreak of conspiracy-oriented paranoia—something that tends to surface in the United States in times of social or economic stress.  Like today.

***

Between 1985 and 1987, similar accusations rocked Lehi, Utah. A woman named Sheila Bowers, worried that her children were talking too freely about sex, took them to see a therapist named Barbara Snow. Accusations mushroomed from there. Snow first became convinced that the children were being abused by their babysitter, the teenage daughter of the local bishop, Keith Burnham. She then asked for the names of other children the girl babysat and began interviewing them.

When the dust settled two years later, Snow had concluded that that children throughout Lehi had been forced to participate in Satanic rituals organized in part by the Burnhams, and she accused 40 adults of being members of a Satanic sexual abuse cult. Almost all were members of the Lehi Eighth Ward. One, Alan Hadfield, was convicted on the strength of Snow’s testimony and that of children she interviewed. He spent six months in prison.

Snow began publishing articles arguing that ritual satanic abuse was widespread, and that other community organizations, like churches, could facilitate its growth. In 2018, patients of Snow accused Brenda and Robert Miles, the daughter and son-in-law of Russell M. Nelson, of masterminding a Satan-worshiping sexual abuse ring in the Mueller Park area of Bountiful. They filed a lawsuit against the Miles family. It was dismissed with prejudice this past July. Snow herself was placed on probation for violating ethical and professional codes of conduct.

***

It appears that in 1989 and 1990, the Social Services office and Presiding Bishopric of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints investigated the possibilities that there were in fact Satanic cults operating in the wards and stakes of the Church. These investigations produced several documents, most famously one now termed the “Pace memorandum,” written by Glenn Pace of the Presiding Bishopric in 1990. It is famous because Jerald and Sandra Tanner, evangelicals devoted to debunking Mormonism, secured a copy and published it.

In the memorandum, at least, Pace takes the possibility seriously. He reports discussing abuse with 60 victims. He worries that there were in fact “covens” of Satan worshipers infiltrating the wards of the Church. He urges the First Presidency to issue a statement, concerned that in its absence too few members will take the supposed reality of Satanic cults within the Church seriously.

Finally, Pace spends the bulk of the memo arguing for the existence of such conspiracy using scriptural archetype and precedent. “We live in the last dispensation of the fullness of times and Satan is here with his secret combinations in all of the ugliness that existed in previous dispensations. The scriptures prophesy to that reality,” he says. He cites Cain’s plot to murder his brother Abel as the ur-example, and then as one might expect spends the bulk of his time outlining the various machinations of the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon, even arguing that such precedent demonstrates that conspiracies might penetrate Church and government leadership.

***

It’s that last part that I think is most relevant for today. The lawsuit against the Mileses was dismissed in part because the plaintiffs offered no evidence other than their testimony. The McMartin preschool cases fell apart after seven long years and a great deal of agony on the part of the McMartin family for the same reason.

And none of them—none of them—were true. The work of Pace and other Church agents led to a years-long state investigation directed by a Governor’s Task Force. It reported that polls indicated 90% of Utah residents believed that such abuse was happening.  It investigated 125 reported cases of ritual sexual abuse. It discovered one verifiable case—that of the “Zion Community,” a Mormon schismatic movement run by Arvin Shreeve, a self-proclaimed prophet to around 100 followers. Shreeve also engaged in molestation, and was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

None of the reports of secret abuse rings or hidden Satanic cults infiltrating the Church or state government could be verified.

More, it has been exhaustively documented that the sort of recovered memory that therapists like Snow used is unreliable. Snow, the Children’s Institute International, and many other therapists in similar cases wanted to document specific stories. They asked leading questions, they encouraged specific memories in their patients, and they got what they were looking for. This is verifiable. It has been documented that Snow berated and coached children.  There were no tunnels under the McMartin preschool.

***

Today, the QAnon conspiracy theory posits the existence of shadowy enemies not so different from those Barbara Snow or Kee McFarlane feared.

According to this conspiracy, dozens of high ranking government officials and famous celebrities are part of a secret, underground pedophilia ring. They are constantly covering for each other and manipulating the media and the American population with distractions like COVID-19.

Latter-day Saints, of course, feel spiritual warrant to care for families and children, which makes them vulnerable to the sort of fear-mongering QAnon proponents engage in. Sex abuse and sex trafficking are certainly real dangers—but these victims are overwhelmingly poverty-stricken, homeless, and refugees, not, for the most part, the children of any given Mormon ward.

More, there are certain aspects of the QAnon theory that intersect with the sort of thinking that made Glenn Pace prone to believing in the Satanic panic. Throughout the middle years of the 20th century, many members of the Church, including the apostle Ezra Taft Benson, seized upon the language of the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon as a type of what they saw as the communist conspiracy of the Cold War. “There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon,” Benson declared. “It is conspiracy fact.”

But notice that Benson’s conspiracy was comprised of communists. And notice how easily Pace transmutes his Gadianton robbers into Satanic cults. And notice how easily contemporary Mormons sympathetic to QAnon shift them into celebrities and the “deep state.” The great appeal of the language of conspiracy is, first, that it is mutable. The conspiracy always exists; the elite are always poised to destroy freedom. The Gadiantons can be Soviets or the Federal Reserve or even Tom Hanks (if you believe QAnon).  And Church members, prone to “likening” scripture as Church leaders urge them to do, tend to think that its politics must mirror onto ours.

Conspiracy’s second great appeal is that it endows the believer with a feeling of efficacy, of insight and of power. It makes the world—a random, chaotic, and sometimes frightening place—seem comprehensible, and the believer a hero, privy to special information essential for the salvation of truth and goodness.

The danger, of course, is that conspiracy is not only false—it is that it sows mistrust, encourages fear, and propagates conflict. The story conspiracy tells spirals slowly, slowly out of control and eventually wrecks the lives of individuals like Ray Buckey and Alan Hadfield, and the carefully built, precious, and ultimately fragile communities like the Lehi Eighth Ward. It is the snake in the Edens we strive to build.

 

***

I’ve relied on the following works in assembling this narrative:

Anne Roark, “Experts Fault McMartin Child Interview Methods,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 1990.

 

Richard Beck, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015). Quotation of Judy Johnson from 60.

 

Massimo Introvigne, “A Rumor of Devils: Allegations of Satanic Child Abuse and Mormonism, 1985-1994,” paper presented at the Mormon History Association, 1994. Copy in my possession.

Comments

  1. Part of the problem is that there really are conspiracies in the world, and there really are people abusing and hurting children. The difference between the real conspiracies and the crackpot theories is that large, widespread conspiracies almost always leave evidence of their existence. A few individuals can conspire to commit bank fraud, and there may be little evidence of it. But large conspiracies involving trafficking, silencing government officials, etc. leave evidence that they are happening, even if they don’t leave enough evidence to find and convict the perpetrators.

    The Gadianton Robbers were a large, widespread conspiracy. But the people knew they were there. They operated in secret and in darkness, but their presence was felt, and their crimes were well known. The real, modern-day Gadianton Robbers are the drug cartels and terrorists groups, whose crimes are well known, even if the precise perpetrators are not. I strongly believe that people comparing the Gadianton Robbers with groups that are so secretive that their victims aren’t even identifiable don’t really understand who the Gadianton Robbers were.

  2. Stephen Fleming says:

    Great work, Matt. The thought of the 80s satan scare taking place on the scale of national politics is pretty frightening.

  3. Ooh, DSC, I just said that in fake Sunday School last week. The Gadianton robbers were an organized crime syndicate. Full stop.

  4. Oooh, Matt, this is a fantastic–but scary–essay. I had no idea about all this. And I currently live in the boundaries of the modern Lehi 8th ward! (To think that my neighbors still remember, and are probably scarred by, everything that went down. That would be a terrifying time-and-place to live in.)

    I’m curious if you read anything David French puts out? He wrote an article called Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment that puts a lot of this in context, and frames most conspiracy theories as a violation of the ninth commandment. It’s fantastic. It’s made me much more skeptical of these theories, which has been difficult, since conspiracy theories are (to some extent or another) codified in the Book of Helaman, as you point out. I’m grateful for your context. (And Dsc, Ann, yours too–that framing of the Gadiantons makes much more sense.)

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Excellent write-up Matt, with some tremendously important ideas relating past and present. Thank you.

  6. QAnon is still crazy, but this puts it in context really well and explains why it is so pervasive.

  7. Something I find interesting with Glenn Pace’s conclusion is how much importance he attributes to the church. From what I can remember the Gadianton robbers didn’t infiltrate the church. They were going after power, and even in the psudeo-theocracy of the Nephites the church wasn’t powerful enough to target. The church today is even less of a power broker in the world, and would be even less of a target for those who are corruptly attaining power.
    At the same time shouldn’t church leaders receive revelation if there are corrupt sub-cults in the church? I get that individual church leaders can fall to sin, and get away with it for a long time, but that’s different than an actual multi-person conspiracy. I would hope that leaders would receive revelation to a multi-person organization with corrupt intents within the church.

  8. Matt, I think you’re making a category error and it’s not actually possible to draw the connection you’re trying to make. The McMartinn preschool case was part of a broad moral panic that affected a broad swathe of American society at all levels. It wasn’t dependent on conspiracy-minded thinking. That’s quite different from the current issue with QAnon, which is more of a classic conspiracy theory that still largely exists at the margins of society. I don’t think comparing the two really reveals anything useful about either one, although there’s much to be said about both.

  9. margaretblairyoung says:

    What an excellent write-up. SO important. My sister worked as a nurse in a psychiatric ward in SLC and became aware that one of the psychiatrists was consistently finding satanic ritual abuse in her clients. My sister finally made it public. The psychiatrist was fired. Consequences to the clients? No idea.

  10. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I also think we would do well to think critically about the Gadianton Robbers. Portrayed as a conspiracy in the Book of Mormon, I can envision the possibility that they were merely a conspiracy theory of that time. I’m not saying this was actually the case, but it’s worth thinking about. I can imagine Moroni, looking over records that contained an account of secret combinations, taking them at face value but it’s possible that there was no more substance to those accounts than there is to what is being spread by QAnon today. Maybe this comment is merely a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories.

  11. Hi, It would be a kindness if you included a trigger warning, as you are documenting extremely violent accusations. Whether they ended up being true or not, it is extremely disturbing to read without a heads up, so I can CHOOSE whether to read further or not.

  12. Star, please tell us you are kidding. Or is what I have been hearing lately—that “we all live on campus now”—really true? If so, the Apocalypse cannot come soon enough.

    A Turtle Named Mack, I was going to make the same point, but you beat me to it. If the leaders of our church can exaggerate—or completely imagine—something that wasn’t genuine, there is no reason to believe their ancient predecessors didn’t make the same mistake.

  13. Excellent post. I have a friend who was directly affected by this as a young child; the mother and extended family were convinced the father was engaged in ritual abuse, and so the father was divorced and the family estranged him. The child never knew that the abuse was essentially a panic/hoax, until I shared the literature on the topic.

    Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne did a paper on it at MHA, for example.- https://www.cesnur.org/2001/archive/mi_mormons.htm

    And more broadly, he’s written about the connection between Evangelical accusations of LDS Satanism and traditional anti-catholicism.
    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/old-wine-new-bottles-story-behind-fundamentalist-anti-mormonism

  14. There’s also a recent podcast series by the CBC (Canadian version of BBC/NPR) about the Satanic panic in Canada. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/uncover/season-6-satanic-panic-1.5437487

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Not really the direction I was headed, FarSide, but ok.

    I remember the “Satanic Panic” of the 80’s. The potential presence of Satanic cults was discussed in my Ward, in my neighborhood, in my school, in my home. It was something we used to accuse social outcasts in our neighborhood of being associated with. It was something youth leaders cautioned us about on Sundays, and in firesides and Youth Conferences. It had a prominent presence in Seminary and Institute. This just blossomed/mushroomed. We had “experts” in our Ward who were college professors in religion, sociology, psychology, and people in law enforcement who would give talks, or informally consult with Ward members. Bishops became concerned about certain YM who didn’t attend Church regularly. Fun times!

  16. As I read this I keep thinking about the Salem Witch panic. It’s ironic, I think, that we have so universally come to see that episode not just as wrong, but as quaintly ridiculous, so much so that that “witch hunt” has become a proverb, but yet we keep repeating similar patterns of mass paranoia.

  17. I hadn’t thought about the Satanic Panic for decades until I read Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places a few years ago (highly recommend). There was an issue across the country with people being terrified there were Satan worshipers in their midst, and when I moved to Utah for college, I was told very matter-of-fact that it was totally happening, that there were secret covens of devil worshipers. It wasn’t confined to Utah in the 80s, and neither is QAnon, but it spread like wildfire among religious conservatives, perhaps because it fits with the narrative that the world is wicked, and that Satan and God are in a literal battle for human souls on earth. There’s a willingness to believe that one’s normal neighbors are involved in some very outlandish stuff on the downlow when these things spread.

    When some of my RS friends started talking about the Wayfair child sex trafficking, I hadn’t heard of it, but immediately said, “BS, there’s no way that’s a thing.” For one, if random people think they are paying for a cabinet and get a child instead, that’s got to be the dumbest way to traffic children I’ve ever heard of. Regardless, I googled and found 10 articles debunking it instantly. I know a conspiracist would say “That’s what they want you to think.” But come on. Why are people so gullible? It fits their worldview, and they aren’t exposed to enough varying viewpoints.

  18. Stephen Fleming says:

    Yes, the witch hunts (Salem was just a small example of a much larger European movement) was this weird conspiracy theory that started in the 1400s, that evil women were conspiring with Satan to cause pretty much all the bad stuff in the world. Harm of children was an aspect. Witches were responsible for the deaths of infants from this conspiratorial point of view at a time when infant mortality was pretty high. They were also accused of stealing and eating babies. At that time, the society took it very seriously and executed a ton of people (just 19 at Salem, thousands and thousands in Europe). So it’s interesting that things have improved in terms of the legal response, (it was generally law enforcement that debunked the ritual-satanic abuse claims put out by therapists in the 80s) but also interesting that these kinds of worries persist.

  19. Stephen Fleming says:

    Belief in witches had always been around, but the idea of a big conspiracy started in the 1400s and lasted until the legal system debunked it in the late 1600s. People still believed in witches at the end, but stop believing that the methods they courts were using to catch witches were effective.

  20. To me, the important question that Matt’s post brings out is – how do we not fall prey to deception? It is clear that truth is mixed in to these theories, that is why so many people fall prey to them. Which parts are true, and which are false? In the 3 examples declared false, it still has not been proven that pedophile rings and SRA do not exist, nor that, though QAnon may be ridiculous, all conspiracy theories are false.

    Honestly, from the comments, it feels like we have all fallen prey to what Matt calls conspiracy’s second great appeal. Do we share with the conspiracy theory believer these same traits after reading this article: have we been endowed “with a feeling of efficacy, of insight and of power”? Does it make “the world—a random, chaotic, and sometimes frightening place—seem comprehensible, and the believer a hero, privy to special information essential for the salvation of truth and goodness”? How do we not fall prey to confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance?

    These topics are complicated and one blog post barely scrapes the surface. So how do we not fall prey to falsehood? I have thought about this a lot. I feel the single most important thing is to acknowledge that I am susceptible to error, deception, etc. My intelligence, college degree, and access to better information does not make me immune to deception, and can, according to Jaques Ellul, make me even more susceptible to propaganda. It is so easy to point it out in others, how about ourselves? The scriptures are full of admonitions against pride and for the importance of humility. Yet according to Nephi, even the humble followers of Christ do err in many instances because they are taught by the precepts of men. I believe the characteristics of the wise virgins listed in D&C 45 are critical and show the importance of not being deceived… they “have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived…”

    As this world gets more and more polarized, I am discovering that both “sides” of almost any topic are full of truth and error. I believe God can help us discern the mess as we study it out. We can receive the truth even when it is unpopular or upsets our worldview. We can pray for the gift of discernment… that we are not deceived by the doctrines of men or devils.

  21. Brother Sky says:

    This is a good and timely post. I’ll leave it to others to debate the finer points of history and psychology, but it strikes me that Mormonism involves a lot of conspiracy theories: 1. Forces of darkness tried to stop the B of M from coming to light. 2. Secret combinations (liberal political viewpoints? equal rights for all?) are still trying to undermine the church today. 3. People conspired to destroy Joseph Smith because of the truths he was bringing to the world. 4. Satan continually seeks to deceive the righteous and confound the plans of God. 5. Rock and roll seeks to corrupt and destroy our youth. Ad infinitum. In fact, Mormonism depends a great deal on paranoia and conspiracy theories in order to sharpen the binaries upon which it is built. Anytime one tries to point to subtle complexities or shades of gray, such thinking is seen as the camel’s nose peeking into the tent and as such must therefore be eliminated because that kind of thinking has the potential to implode the black and white worldview that is at the heart of Mormonism and many other religions. And of course, the OP’s point about giving the believer a sense of efficacy and power, rendering the world more certain, is exactly what the church purports to do: It offers people answers to questions and claims it, and no other religion, has all the answers, thus providing certainty and safety in a (for some) frightening world. It is the One True Church, which means that one needs only to believe in it and accept the conspiracy theories the church itself embraces and teaches. And members therefore indeed believe they are privy to special information. I disagree with the final metaphor about the snake in Eden. The snakes entrance into Eden led to higher and deeper knowledge of the consequences of moral choice and was therefore a fortunate and necessary event in the biblical version of human history. I’d suggest that conspiracy theories are actually a kind of Eden; they provide the illusion of safety and certainty, but end up severely limiting the moral and intellectual development of the people who believe them.

  22. Billy Possum says:

    Yes, Jared Cook. In fact, the work through which most Americans are introduced to the Salem witch trials – Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – was itself a Cold-War-era parable aimed at McCarthyism. Miller was investigated and questioned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities just after the play opened.

    You’d think the committee members would have known better than to play into his (and history’s) hand like that. But I guess the Q12 often do the same thing. We should pray that Tituba’s ghost will pay them a visit.

  23. A member of my ward has posted a thing on their facebook page about the meeting of the world bank on the affect of climate change and how to combat it. That Trump would not comply, that within months the carona virus was relesed on America, so you have to vote Trump to save America.
    Are you having extreme weather in America? Climate change? Thats what Trump refused, but that that relates to the virus that he mishandled to the tune of 400,000 deaths by Christmas, crazy.
    If Trump declares himself winner before postal votes are counted, and then he or republican governors refuse to count postal votes, how many republicans still support him? How many members? Is democracy more important than Trump?
    If there is not some leadership from the Prophet by October on these questions, he looses credibility. His country is in cricis. His church too.

  24. Re: Trigger Warnings

    No, I am not kidding. I believe that trigger warnings help people make informed decisions about being able to pace their exposure to difficult passages. Do you not read the jacket or back of a book before reading it, or read a summary of movies on IMDB before letting your children watch them or watching them yourselves?

    I believe that general discussions of violence or abuse probably don’t need a TW, but if you are going to detail using a drill on a child, even in accusation, that is detailed and brutal enough to provide a simple “due to the brutal nature of some ritual abuse, readers should be informed that this contains graphic descriptions.” Or simply “may contain graphic descriptions.”

    Not hard, and helps us to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand un need of comfort.” I believe it has to do with compassion and empathy, not being a snowflake.

    There is enough brutality in the world that people are inadvertently exposed to. Let’s help them choose when it is possible.

  25. While I definitely think QAnon is NUTS and I find the information in this post to be believable/reliable—

    I’m not sure I draw the same conclusions about how and where conspiracies exist. I do tend to think much of it happens in ways that are not always prevalent or obvious. The oaths and covenants of these Book of Mormon societies were most certainly meant to enforce secrecy. I’m inclined to believe there are still secret “covens” (to employ that word) among us that will rattle us when the truth is revealed.

    There’s too much of a jungian archetypal undercurrent of sickness in society for their not to be something fairly secret undergirding it.

    Just consider how QAnon itself exists in so much cloud and secrecy. What’s behind that? Let alone Trump, the horrible human that he is, and all the secrecy he works so hard at maintaining with outright lies.

  26. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Conspiracies exist. Baseless conspiracy theories also exist. And are also dangerous. QAnon has been designated a “domestic terror threat” by the FBI.