Conspiracy Theory, Ritual Abuse, and the Rise of QAnon in Mormondom, Part II

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my fourth post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here, the most recent here, and part I of this post here.

Current news is this: According to David Leavitt, Utah County attorney, Utah County sheriff Mike Smith has accused Leavitt of participation in what Smith calls “ritualistic child sexual abuse,” involving cannibalism and child sex trafficking.

According to Sargent Spencer Cannon, the case involves conspiracy – not, as is typical in such situations, simply a family member or friend, but rather “a group of people . . . an organized effort.

The sheriff’s department claims that the conspiracy goes back thirty years, to 1990. It also has claimed that a “portion” of the reports are confirmed. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the only public information linking Leavitt to such a thing is a website apparently created by a man Leavitt prosecuted for rape who has since fled the country. It accuses Leavitt of not simply participating in, but running, a “widespread ritual sex abuse ring in Utah.”

Also notable is that Leavitt has been an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform; in his words, “decluttering” the county legal docket from smaller cases that he seeks to settle or send to rehabilitation or drug courts in order to focus on prosecuting violent crimes and felonies. He has stopped pursuing the death penalty. Smith has endorsed Leavitt’s opponent, Jeff Gray, accusing Leavitt of being “progressive,” and equating that position with being “anti-law enforcement.”

Now, I, of course, do not have definitive knowledge about what might be going on in Utah County, though Leavitt himself calls the accusations “ludicrous” and “a pack of lies.”

But, as I observed in Part I of this post, the links between conspiracy theory and fear of child abuse are strong, having been welded together for centuries. They go back at least to the medieval “blood libel” accusations of Jewish abuse of Christian children. In only the past forty years, accusations of “ritual sex abuse” have rocked the United States more generally and Utah in particular. In my earlier post, I document the accusations against the leadership of the Lehi Eighth Ward, none of which were proven, all of which emerged from the sketchy evidence of coached testimony and spurious “recovered memory” induced under hypnosis. And across the country, and even in the Lehi Eighth Ward, people went to prison on charges that later seemed self-evidently false.

I also observed how easily Church members fell for such accusations. The Cold War was a conspiratorial time in American history more broadly, and Church leaders like Ezra Taft Benson were primed to read the Book of Mormon through conspiratorial lenses, transforming the evil Gadianton robbers from Communists one decade to the Democratic Party the next to Satanic child abusers the third.

And of course, in the past five years the slow mainstreaming of this long-standing, fringe conspiratorial style has entered mainstream American politics. We have seen example after example of the language of conspiracy and child abuse being wielded in political campaigns. And now we have an example in Utah County itself.

Maybe this particular incident is not simply one more instance of conspiratorial moral panic, built of tired tropes, fear, and shreds of unrelated evidence. But maybe it is.


  1. Alison A. says:

    I wasn’t aware of this conspiracy involving David Leavitt, but I was alarmed when I read an appeal in the news feed this morning: “Utah County seeks info in ritualistic child sexual abuse investigation,” seriously asking for victims or “anyone with information” to come forward. I lived in California during the McMartin preschool scandal, and my first thought today was, “oh no, not again!” Satanic Panic 2.0…

  2. People of a certain mindset really want there to be underground child sex rings. It’s seems so foreign to me.

  3. I’m inclined to think this is mostly crazy, especially given the politics involved. (I’m no fan of Leavitt but for different reasons than Smith.)

    That said, I actually know personally victims of ritualistic abuse in Utah county. It’s not my story to tell, but I believe them and the abusers was excommunicated. So I would tread carefully when talking about something like this.

  4. Elisa, I can guarantee you that Leavitt is not ritualistically murdering and eating children.

    And, while I don’t live in Utah County, I’m pretty comfortable being sure that there is no satanic cabal of elites there abusing children. Is there child abuse in Utah? Unfortunately, almost definitely. But the Satanic Panic of the 1980s proved to be entirely imaginary, and the current Qanon version is too.

  5. Somewhere, we know, George Soros is at the bottom of this.

    Utah Mormons and MAGA are just made for each other: Make America Gullible Again.

  6. Sam, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s did not prove to be entirely imaginary, only totally unbelievable, and hopelessly confused. There were children with physical evidence of sexual abuse in some of those cases, even the McMartin preschool case. The case started out credible enough. But by the time the adults started panicking, started asking questions over and over until the children started making things up to give the adults what they were looking for, yeah the case worse than fell apart, it turned into a ridiculous witch hunt, and got so ridiculous that such cases just got unbelievable.

    It isn’t hard to confuse a 4 year old child to the point that their little imaginations get going, especially if the abuser gets the child started with some story and maybe a costume or two. And abusers do use costumes to confuse children. They threaten children with the death of their pets or baby brother if they tell. Abusers resort to anything they think they can get away with to keep the child from telling or being believed, threats, bribery, guilt, confusion, making the child doubt their own reality.

    Just as there are adults who are too quick to go on witch hunts, there are adults much too slow to believe children. We just don’t want to believe that somebody we know and like could do that to a child. But then again, when it is somebody we want to hate, too many people are too quick to believe the most outrageous rumors, like that Hilary Clinton is running a child sex/cannibal ring out of a pizza joint.

    Our too Puritan society has never learned to talk rationally about anything sexual, let alone any connection between children and sexual things. That is why allowing children to learn that some of their friends have two mommies or two daddies freaks out Republicans to the point they consider it “grooming”. Or allowing children or teens to know where babies come from, worries parents that their children will do it, or that learning there are LGBT people will turn straight children gay or cis children trans. So, people go into denial or panic because s.e.x.

    But having said that, I am pretty sure that the accusations against Leavitt are just some convict trying to get even with the prosecutor who got him convicted. He is just copying the conspiracy nut cases who like to accuse every liberal of the worst thing they can imagine.

  7. Anna, nobody is not believing children (unless, of course, you’re saying Mike Smith is a child, which strikes me as insulting to children). This is Mike Smith–and plenty of other right-wingers–making up vast conspiracies of child abuse.

    Like I said, I’m entirely sure that children are abused in Utah County. They shouldn’t be and it’s tragic, but it happens. But I’m equally sure there’s no conspiracy of Satanic ritualistic abuse (and cannibalism!) going on in Utah County. And frankly, baseless and political accusations like this likely devalue the word of children who actually face abuse.

    Did any child abuse happen during the Satanic Panic of the 80s? Maybe? Probably? But was it ritualized cultic behavior? Absolutely not.

  8. @sam to be clear I agree with you on the current allegations. Leavitt should not be re-elected but not because he’s in a conspiracy like this. He shouldn’t be re-elected because he lets well-connected people he had personal connections with off the hook. Smith shouldn’t be re-elected either because, well, this.

  9. Elisa, I don’t know anything about either of them, but am totally willing to believe you about why Leavitt shouldn’t be reelected. And I’m with you 100% that Smith shouldn’t be reelected just for this reason (though I presume there are other compelling reasons to not reelect him too).

  10. Angela C says:

    I’ve blacked out so many Bingo cards at this point that nothing will surprise me.

    As for the anti-LGBT rhetoric claiming that they are “grooming” or trying to make straight and cis kids gay or trans, or that allowing open identification that is not straight or cis will cause a “fad” of kids becoming gay or trans, I suspect the real issue is that freedom is contagious. When you lower the social cost of coming out, more people will come out. When you lower the social penalties for trans identification, when you reduce the bullying, when you affirm identities and provide support to people, more people will be trans. To quote an album I was raised listening to in the 70s that we could all use a little more of:

    There’s a land that I see where the children are free
    And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
    Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
    Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live
    In a land where the river runs free
    In a land through the green country
    In a land to a shining sea
    And you and me are free to be you and me

    “Free to be…You and Me” by Marlo Thomas & Co

  11. @Anna: “That is why allowing children to learn that some of their friends have two mommies or two daddies freaks out Republicans to the point they consider it “grooming”.” Please try to remember that it’s far more accurate, and thus gives you more credibility, if you write “some” Republicans. I know tons of them and none freak out if their friends have same sex parents, nor do they consider it “grooming”. You are being prejudiced and bigoted when you lump all into the views of some, mm? Let’s stop slinging mud along with conspiracy theories.

  12. I didn’t say “all republicans” are freaking out, and just meant that those who *are* freaking out are republicans. My husband is a Republican so don’t assume I would ever badmouth “all republicans” just because I don’t specify “some”. And I say it is Republicans because those who are freaking out are Republicans, they are nobody but Republicans. I honestly don’t know or have heard of any Dems or independents freaking out over this supposed “grooming.” Nope, it is just Republicans. So, I say it is Republicans who are freaking out. Like saying it is Democrats who are Bernie supporters. Not all dems are Bernie supporters, but no Republicans are. I probably should have broken it down into a still smaller group and said Trumpers, or maybe Fox News fans, but then someone would accuse me of lumping all Trumpers or all Fox News fans togethers. Sheesh, are we going to play generalization police.

    And Sam, I thought I was pretty clear saying that some of the “Satanic Abuse scare” started out as most likely real abuse, that doesn’t mean that what went on at the McMartin preschool was an organized ring of ritualistic abuse. Of course not. What I am saying was that in all the cases that I know of, things started with a pretty credible case of child abuse, but that ended up being ignored, when everyone threw their hands up in the air because the whole case became unbelievable. The abuse that started things was probably not imaginary. The ritualistic Satanic crap probably was just imaginary.

  13. Read April Daniels”s “Paper Dolls”. Pub 1992. Ed by a Scott and lfa

  14. A Nosy Mouse says:

    Part 1 is an excellent, amazing and objective summary of a crazy chapter in our history. This article stirs memories I have never been able to process and will never forget. I will describe them as objectively as possible and see if you can offer insight into them.

    Around 1980, I began to date Jody, the love of my life at that time. Aside from getting secretly engaged 5 days after meeting, we were not a couple prone to religious excesses. Jody was an attractive and popular girl who was more interested in helping include and uplift the girls her age than her own social status. She was a practical, no nonsense, minimally sentiment, get-the -job-done kind of person. Jody was the youngest of 7 by several years, her mother being 58 years old when she was born, and it was expected that she would be the one to care for her aging parents. I think the most desirable trait she liked about me was that I somehow stumbled onto a way to please her mother, which had never been done before by any romantic partner of any of her siblings. Although living with her parents, the balance of direction and control in the workings of the household had already shifted away from her mother and onto Jody’s more than capable shoulders.

    Fawn was one of Jody’s many friends. She was strikingly attractive but an obviously frail and troubled soul. She was a math major getting excellent grades in hard college classes when not distracted by personal problems. She eschewed any interactions with boys. Jody thought it would do her good to go on a double date with us and a nice, polite, and handsome guy she selected, and I convinced to do it. We went to a church dance devoted to western swing which Jody liked and previously taught me how to do. We had switched partners to teach them how and Fawn seemed to really enjoy it, especially being twirled. Out of the blue she had an anxiety attack and totally freaked out. Jody gave her a firm hug, hustled her out of the dance and into an empty room. I listened outside the door and Jody was praying, maybe more like giving her a blessing without the standard rituals while Fawn sobbed. Jody did not want to discuss with me what was going on.

    A few months later in early April, Jody made a most unusual request. She gave me a list of personal items a young adult girl might want to take on a long trip. Things like contact lens supplies, toothbrush, underwear, shoes, only a couple of nice church dresses, and a favorite small stuffed deer. She instructed me to drive to the house where Fawn lived, to quietly enter the back door, which was usually unlocked, go to Fawn’s room (last door on the right). Collect and put the items in 2 brown paper grocery bags, exit the house quickly through the front door preferably without talking to or being seen by anyone and bring them to her.
    Now Jody was capable of a rare but elaborate prank, and I thought this was some kind of belated April fool’s joke. I agreed on condition she went with me. She explained Fawn was moving in with her and Jody needed to stay with her. I compromised and we had Fawn hide on the floorboards of the back seat under a blanket, while Jody rode with me but stayed in the car. I parked about a block away and noticed the driveway was full of cars and several more parked on the street. Maybe 10-15 excess cars.

    The mission was almost accomplished, and I was headed for the front door. A middle-aged woman who looked so much like Fawn it had to be her mother came climbing up the stairs. She wore a short black bath robe that reached to the mid-thigh level and it was open in front showing far more than I thought was proper. She looked at me strangely and asked if I was the accolade that night. I did not know what accolade meant until I looked it up later that night. But under the circumstances a simple yes, I’ll be back after running an errand seemed warranted.

    As I opened the door, I noticed a man laying on the parlor floor with his arms extended out like he was pretending to be on a cross. He wore only white boxer shorts and seemed to be in a trance.
    I recognized him as a former member of my ward, Brother S. He was once one of the most openly spiritual and (I thought) self-righteous members and he weaseled his way into many church callings but not bishop or stake president. He had a daughter a couple of years older than me. One night at MIA they were trying to teach us to do formal dances and they randomly forced us to dance together. When I touched her back, she shivered and cringed. I thought she found me touching her to be so horrible because I was such a contemptible and undesirable boy and I never forgot it. She went off to BYU and did not last a quarter. She came home, Bro S. was excommunicated and her parents divorced. The rumor was that she finally told her bishop at BYU that her father had been molesting her and her sister. It was dealt within the church so as not to bring bad press on the church or disrupt fragile testimonies.

    But that wasn’t all. Bro S. had a son my age and he was a real jerk. My little brother beat him up once for tormenting me. He left high school early, was dealing drugs, shot at a police officer who did not shoot back and was locked up in prison for decades. There were 2 more sons who became non-violent drug users and I hope maybe straightened up later. We knew Bro S. beat the hell out of those boys but most of our parents hit their kids once in a while, not hard enough to injure them but to get their attention.

    Anyway, as I left Fawn’s house, I said, “having another powerful spiritual experience, Bro S.?” I slammed the door and ran to the car and drove away quickly. Jody was delighted to see I got all the requested items. But she was not so happy when I told her that yes 2 people saw me and who they were. Fawn began to cry or maybe moan like a wounded animal. Again, Jody told me to not worry about it she would deal with it. I returned to the library.

    I studied until midnight when the library closed. The previous event disturbed me deeply. I decided to return to Fawn’s house alone. Many cars remained parked around it. The house upstairs was dark. Flickering lights could be seen in the basement. I again entered the back door. I could hear chanting and crept down the stairs. I saw a bunch of naked adults of both sexes kneeling in a circle. I remember candles and did not look long or notice any further details. Suddenly they stopped. I thought they must have noticed me. I bolted and ran out of that house. I jumped the back fence. I was on the track team in high school and ran about a 50 second quarter mile then and I was running harder than that and not towards my car. Eventually I circled back around to my car down the block. Most but not all of the other cars had left.

    It was around 1:00 am but lights were still on at Jody’s house. I rang the doorbell, and the lights went out. I called out to them and they seemed relieved and let me in. Jody’s father put his shot gun back in the coat closet. I privately whispered to Jody what I had witnessed, and she did not seem surprised. Her mother and Fawn were on the other side of the room and her mother had an amazing sense of hearing especially for her age. She came over to set me straight.

    She explained there had always been wickedness in high places and that included within the church. This sort of thing had been going on when she was young (about the time of WWI) and before. She advised me to not further meddle in it because you never know who they are and that includes the police who were not to be trusted. Fawn lived secretly in Jody’s house for a few weeks until she was “’strong enough” and then moved to live with one of Jody’s siblings’ relatives.\

    Several months later, after Jody and I broke up (for other reasons) I took an institute class and a girl who bore a family resemblance to Fawn sat by me. I asked her if Fawn was her sister and she hesitated before saying yes. I explained that I dated Jody and Fawn was one of her friends. I pretended to not know anything else. I chatted with her a few times and asked her out a couple weeks later. She said no, because she was married. I asked where is the ring? She explained she was not exactly married. When she was in high school, she married her bishop’s son and moved into their house. But it was only a marriage of convenience, they did not even like or hate each other. This was done to “get her out of a bad family situation.” So actually, the truth was that she did not want to date me because I might know too much. I have wondered what more I might have learned if Fawn’s sister had dated and married me.

    I heard or read about many other incidents later, some described above others not. When I first read the Glen Pace report, I thought how stupid could the church leaders have gotten? Maybe it was just him. Certainly, they already knew about this small but persistent and ugly blemish in the church.

    I still don’t know what to think. I agree it appears the ritual satanic abuse scandal was way overblown. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It would not surprise me if this problem was a bit worse than we now assume.

  15. people don’t want this to be happening but child trafficking is happening and has been for years my 60 year old friend was taken to mexico at the age of 12 by some neighbors and sold to men for sex until he used a bottle of alcohol to knock the guy out long enough to get to help from some good people who helped him get back to the states…this is not a new thing AT ALL y’all are just too chickenS#%#$ to look at it

  16. The Grand Scoobah says:

    How am I only just discovering your articles?? This is right up my alley. I’ve been working on a related topic for a while now. Looks like I have a bunch of reading to catch up on.

  17. Nosy Mouse, that type of wickedness needs to be reported to the First Presidency who are not part of the higher ups engaging in that behavior. Those people should be excommunicated at the very least. This is not something one tolerates and keeps quiet about.

  18. has remarkable coverage of these types of cases, that are clearly organized throughout the country.

  19. Lori Ann Martin says:

    I am not an survivor of ritualistic child abuse but a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse at a elementary school in Utah in the 1970’s .. I have many people accusing the same individuals who abused me being named in ritualistic abuse.. I never forgot my childhood experience that ended abruptly when my dad came to the school and intervened by eating lunch with me several days a week . I never had a mental block or forgot this experience.. I have given my account to Riverton city police but have heard nothing back .. it’s not something people want to be known for or even related to .. it’s also too horrible to believe people can or are that bad or evil to twist religion and sexual abuse and use a child in theses horrible ways .

  20. Sheriff Smith doesn’t like the killing of a BYU student by a deputy being sent to Park City to be addressed independently instead of summarily sweeping it under the rug by the DA to “back the blue.”

    No surprise he’d throw out urban legend accusations.

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