What did Archbishop Viganò mean when he declared in a recent interview that “Trump is fighting pedophilia and pedosatanism”? Even for Viganò, whose descent into conspiratorial and apocalyptic thinking should by now be obvious to everyone, this is a jarring and confusing claim. Trump has not made fighting pedophilia any more of a government priority than it usually is in the United States, and he has said nothing about “pedosatanism.” The statement makes perfect sense, however, as yet another example of Viganò attempting to tap into a larger discourse of moral panic.
The United States, amidst all its other problems, is currently in the thrall of a moral panic regarding the alleged threat of organized pedophilia and Satanism. Some of it has a very modest basis in reality. When it comes to organized pedophilia, one can point to the many horrific allegations regarding the activities of the late Jeffrey Epstein, for example. On the Satanism front, we have seen some well-publicized stunts by the (non-theistic) Satanic Temple. Still, what is remarkable is how much of it is based entirely on rumour or conspiracy theory, amplified through social media. Well-known examples include the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that emerged during the 2016 US election and the QAnon movement which started the next year, both of which are founded upon the idea that many of the world’s political and cultural ‘elites’ are Satanist pedophiles. QAnon in particular has experienced remarkable growth and has garnered a flurry of media coverage in recent months. The QAnon mentality has also emerged in camouflaged forms in “Save the Children” hashtags and public rallies and threatens to break into the mainstream, if it has not already. Consider Netflix’s bungled American release of the French coming-of-age film Cuties, which drew a wave of accusations of normalization of pedophilia from both the general public and prominent politicians like Ted Cruz and Tulsi Gabbard—a reaction with an intensity far beyond what might be considered a normal expression of concern. Panic is in the air, and the lives of children are allegedly at stake, even if the threats still lurk mainly in the shadows.
As Viganò’s statement shows, Catholics are not immune to such moral panics, and there is indeed a legacy of moral panic that still haunts the Church. On the fringes of Catholicism, moral panic has become almost a worldview or way of life, and social media has allowed this sort of thinking to flourish in new ways. By examining Catholic complicity in moral panic, however, we can learn how to identify it by its signs, so that we can either avoid it or combat it with the kind of sober analysis, critical thinking, and adherence to truth of which Catholics are eminently capable. In this post I will look at the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which is commonly regarded as the predecessor of Pizzagate and QAnon, as an instructive and still-relevant example. The Satanic Panic had Catholic origins, even if it was more often associated with the protestant “Christian right,” and its lingering influence can be felt in the Church today.
I should clarify that moral panic is different from conspiracy theory, though they often go hand-in-hand. While conspiracy theory generates an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue, moral panic is much more visceral because it invokes an immediate threat. The word panic is derived from the name of the Greek god Pan, who is typically associated with unrestrained sexuality, the forces of nature both pleasant and terrifying, and (for us as Christians) the pre-Christian world of paganism. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man (1925), “It is said truly in a sense that Pan died because Christ was born.” Anyone who has experienced panic attacks knows that feeling of dread and helplessness as one becomes caught up in a carousel of terrifying thoughts and sensations. Panic brings us back to a world under the influence of fickle or malevolent gods—a world without Christian hope. It deprives us of sobriety and the use of reason, forcing us to take desperate measures in attempts to dispel forces that seem to be raging out of control. And too often there are those who are willing to play the role of Pan with his flute, keeping the frantic music going.
During the Satanic Panic, large numbers of parents, psychologists, social workers, and clergy in North America became convinced that pedophilic or child-murdering Satanic cults posed a threat to children everywhere. In the end, no hard evidence of any such cults was ever found, but many innocent people went to prison and many families were ruined. I actually have faint memories of when the Satanic Panic came to Canada with the “Martensville Nightmare” in Martensville, Saskatchewan in the early 1990s. The tales of rampant pedophilia, animal sacrifice, and other atrocities received heavy news coverage and were taken seriously by many, even though they turned out to be nothing more than fevered fantasies. Those interested in learning about the Martensville Nightmare can listen to the recent CBC podcast on the subject, or have a look at this CBC video from 2003:
The cases in the US were often larger in scope and length, including the notorious McMartin preschool trial—the longest and costliest trial in American history. Tragically, the general public largely forgot about the Satanic Panic and thus learned little from the damage it caused, and many Catholics have forgotten about or are unaware of its Catholic genesis.
As has been noted by others, the roots of the Satanic Panic, as well as Pizzagate and QAnon, go back to the Blood Libel that first appeared in Medieval Europe—namely, the accusation that Jews steal Christian children and sacrifice them for Passover. The first documented appearance of the Blood Libel involved the unsolved murder of a young man, William of Norwich, in 1144. An enterprising monk named Thomas of Monmouth, who might be though of as one of the Church’s earliest “grifters,” recast William’s death as a case of Jewish ritual murder, in part as an attempt to drum up money from pilgrims looking for a new saint to venerate (see E.M. Rose’s The Murder of William of Norwich for a well-researched study of the case). What started as a useful and profitable myth spread throughout Europe over the centuries, fuelling untold panics and pogroms that left a violent path leading all the way to the Holocaust.
The Satanic Panic, being a postwar North American phenomenon, had little connection to European anti-Semitism, even if the Blood Libel functioned as its historical model. It emerged in the aftermath of the explosion of popular interest in exorcism and the occult triggered by the release of the film The Exorcist in 1973, based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. In a society that was dealing with rapid and often bewildering social changes, The Exorcist struck a nerve, conjuring up the idea of malevolent forces seeking to defile children and invade the homes of even the white and wealthy. It mixed skilfully the genre of the morality tale with voyeuristic and nearly pornographic thrills, creating a potent and addictive brew.
The Exorcist spawned innumerable copycat films and books, the most notable and influential of which was Fr. Malachi Martin’s bestselling book Hostage to the Devil, which appeared in 1976. Hostage used the formula established by The Exorcist across several different cases of possession and exorcism—all of which are likely fictional, given the highly literary quality of the stories, Martin’s reputation as a serial fabulist, and the book’s lack of any sort of documentation. Each case involves a person experiencing gradual moral decline, usually due to the influence of post-1960s cultural trends, followed by demonic possession and the gruelling experience of an exorcism during which the afflicted person spews profanities and obscene comments, offering naïve readers a glimpse into a hidden world of deep perversion. Ostensibly, Martin’s purpose was to educate readers regarding the spiritual dangers that lie around every corner, but the effect was to create a literary genre through which devoutly religious readers could be at once religiously terrified and also experience the kind of titillation that was usually reserved for fans of horror stories and soft pornography. Martin, like Blatty, did not invent this kind of literature, but he certainly updated it for postwar generations. He was a remarkably skilled Pan-figure who successfully plied his trade for many years, and his influence can still be felt in the lurid sensationalism of some traditionalist Catholic discourse. (See Michael Cuneo’s 2001 book American Exorcism for more on the cultural influence of The Exorcist and Hostage to the Devil.)
The exorcism craze set the stage for the larger panic to come. In 1976, shortly after Hostage to the Devil became a massive publishing success, a Victoria, BC woman named Michelle Smith paid a visit to her psychiatrist, a Catholic named Dr. Lawrence Pazder. She was complaining of bad dreams following a difficult miscarriage. Pazder worked with Michelle to determine the source of her problems, and what they discovered together—through extensive sessions that he meticulously recorded—was that Michelle was repressing memories of her nightmarish childhood, during which she had allegedly been abused by a Satanic cult that included her mother. The therapy sessions were edited, narrativized, and turned into the 1980 book that is almost universally acknowledged by researchers of the topic to have started the Satanic Panic in earnest. It was called Michelle Remembers, and although it was later discredited it was taken seriously by many at the time (See Jen Gerson’s comprehensive article on the book in Capital Daily for the full story.)
While I have no direct evidence showing that Michelle Smith’s troubles were triggered by reading Hostage to the Devil, the timing of her visit to Pazder suggests a possible connection. Further, in Michelle’s account of her childhood trauma, the most charismatic and manipulative of the Satanic cult members is named Malachi—perhaps an echo of Fr. Martin’s memorable first name—and another member of the cult is possessed. In structure, too, it uses the formula from The Exorcist and Hostage to the Devil in which a great battle between good and evil plays out over the soul of a single person, offering graphic depictions of human depravity within the framework of a morality tale. It might best be described as a fusion of The Exorcist and Hostage to the Devil with Rosemary’s Baby, but even more visceral and gratuitous.
Michelle Remembers begins with two quotations. The first is from Pope Paul VI on the influence of the Devil from his General Audience of November 15, 1972. The other is from Remi De Roo, bishop of Victoria, BC, in which he makes an oddly guarded statement regarding the veracity of Smith and Pazder’s claims. He writes, “I do not question that for Michelle this experience was real. In time we will know how much of it can be validated. It will require prolonged and careful study. In such mysterious matters, hasty conclusions could prove unwise” (ix). Although the epilogue of the book states that Bishop De Roo’s study of the matter was, at the time, still ongoing (296), I have not found any evidence that it was actually completed. One has to wonder whether the Satanic Panic might have been avoided if Bishop De Roo had been more hasty in his conclusions, instead of giving Pazder and Smith the benefit of the doubt.
Bishop De Roo, despite his apparent hesitations, helped bring Michelle’s story all the way to the Vatican. The prologue to the book describes Smith and Pazder’s trip to Rome in February 1978 with a sympathetic Canadian priest named Guy Merveille, who Bishop De Roo had appointed to accompany the pair. By this time, De Roo himself had joined the group after traveling to Rome for unrelated reasons. All four are received by Cardinal Pignedoli, Pro-President of the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions, who at the time was being heralded in the media as a possible pope-in-waiting. Although Cardinal Pignedoli at first refuses to believe Michelle’s story, his attitude eventually softens and he decides the matter is serious enough to require attention. In the days following, De Roo is contacted by Archbishop Domenico Enrici, from the Vatican Secretariat of State, who asks him to “undertake a study of Michelle Smith’s testimony” (xix). At least this is how the story is told, and given De Roo’s contribution to the 1980 book, one may assume that it is accurate.
I have read Michelle Remembers in its entirety, and it is ugly and manipulative throughout. The events described are beyond anything a normal person would imagine, and include ritualistic sexual and physical abuse of a young child, wanton murder, mutilation and desecration of adult corpses, and a variety of acts performed with the corpses of unborn children. All of it is recounted by Michelle in her sessions with Pazder, who barely disguises his ghoulish excitement and his romantic infatuation with her (and indeed they both divorced their spouses and married later on).
The Catholic dimension of Pazder and Smith’s story grows in scope over the course of the book, and is reflected in both the frame story of Michelle’s therapy and the narrative drawn from her childhood memories. As her therapy progresses, Michelle becomes convinced that needs to speak with a priest—though she is not Catholic—and so Pazder takes her to see Father Leo Robert (a real person who once provided pastoral care at the University of Victoria). After watching a Mass led by Fr. Robert, she experiences a feeling of peace. Later, when Fr. Robert goes away, Pazder brings her to see both Bishop De Roo and Fr. Guy Merveille, the latter of whom becomes Smith and Pazder’s spiritual advisor of sorts. Eventually Michelle is baptized and confirmed by Fr. Merveille, thus bringing her firmly into the world of Pazder’s Catholicism. At this point, Michelle’s stories about her childhood take on a specifically Catholic character. She begins talking about how during her sufferings at the hands of the cult she was visited by both Jesus and the Virgin Mary, who she refers to as “Ma mère.” In the remainder of the sessions, as Michelle is describing the worst of her abuse and her eventual confrontation with Satan himself (during what Pazder identifies, with the help of others including Fr. Merveille, as an 81-day Black Mass), Ma mère plays a key role. Ma mère explains to the young Michelle that she is suffering for a reason; she has to live through the trauma of her abuse and confrontation with Satan so that she can tell the world about it later: “Once you have told what you have seen and heard, they won’t forget. And you will tell more ears that hear” (289).
Smith and Pazder thus harnessed not only Catholicism, the Vatican, a bishop, and two priests but also Jesus and Mary in an attempt to give their claims a semblance of credibility, and it worked. Many people—including many Christians—devoured the contents of the book and Michelle’s story entered popular culture. Within a short time, the United States was plagued with so many cases of suspected cult activity, alleged pedophile rings, and repressed-memory revelations that the study of Satanic Ritual Abuse (often abbreviated as SRA) became, for a time, a recognized field within the social sciences. Serious papers and books were published, SRA conferences became commonplace, Oprah and Geraldo sensationalized it all on daytime TV, and people went to prison for abuse that never occurred.
From its beginnings in 1970s exorcism-mania to its fade-out in the early 90s, the Satanic Panic caused damage for which few have been held accountable. Malachi Martin later seemed to acknowledge, in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Hostage to the Devil, that there was a connection between his book and the Satanic Panic. He shows no regret, however, presenting his study of exorcism as prophetic while reiterating completely unfounded and unsourced claims typical of the Satanic Panic era:
Now, in America of the 1990s, there is little question of demonic Possession as an entertainment. Among families everywhere and at every level of society, there is instead a justifiable fear. Most of all, this fear is for children. And in point of fact, there are few families not already affected in some way by Satanism. Even by ritualistic Satanism—formal ceremonies and rites organized and performed by individuals and groups in professed worship of Satan.
He claims that there are 8000 “Satanist covens” within the United States, and that these covens contain members from all walks of life. Further, he claims that “in at least three major cities, members of the clergy have at their disposal at least one pedophiliac coven peopled and maintained exclusively by and for the clergy. Women religious can find a lesbian coven maintained in a similar way.” Some covens allegedly practice human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of child victims who have been bred and groomed specifically for that purpose. And for all this he provides zero evidence, without noting that by this time (1992) most of the Satanic Panic cases had fallen apart, leaving only a trail of social devastation.
Of course, one of the great ironies of this story is that when Martin and Smith and Pazder were writing, crimes against children were being committed not in daycares but within the Catholic Church itself. As the Satanic Panic raged, well-researched stories on clerical abuse began to appear in publications like the National Catholic Reporter. Eventually the Satanic Panic faded out, to be replaced by the real horror of the Catholic abuse crisis, and the Catholic Church became perhaps the institution most closely associated with pedophilia and child abuse in the North American popular imagination.
Failure to grapple with the legacy of moral panic and hold its instigators accountable means that it keeps coming back. Four years ago, Pizzagate brought the nonexistent threat of “pedosatanists” back into popular consciousness through far-right social media personalities like Jack Posobiec, which led to the start of a new panic, and it has since been cropping up in Catholic discourse. The 2019 “Open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church” accusing Pope Francis of heresy, which was signed by Fr. Aidan Nichols, among others, claimed that the pope wielded a “stang,” “an object used in satanic rituals,” at the 2018 Youth Synod. McCarrick victim James Grein, under the prompting of Taylor Marshall and Timothy Gordon, suggested that McCarrick was connected to others in the hierarchy who practiced Luciferian rites (see 32:30 to 35:10). Also last year, the popular far-right Catholic Church Militant dredged up a wild Satanic Panic-era allegation against Cardinal Bernardin that had been fictionalized by Malachi Martin in his 1998 book Windswept House:
A glance at some of Church Militant’s headlines from recent years shows that it is a recurring theme:
One 2019 commentary on the Church Militant site, “The Satanic Panic Revisted,” even suggests that the claims from the Satanic Panic era have been unjustly dismissed.
LifeSiteNews, one of Archbishop Viganò’s favourite outlets, also likes to play up the alleged threat of organized Satanism:
Just recently, Patrick Coffin, the former host of Catholic Answers, hosted a show on “The Occultic Roots of #BLM,” giving credence to the idea that BLM leaders are guided by demonic forces:
Of course it is Archbishop Viganò who has shown himself to be a true master of manipulation in instrumentalizing moral panic—a Pan-figure on par with Malachi Martin himself. He started in 2018 by exploiting the justified rage that Catholics felt regarding the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse and the McCarrick scandal, using it to position himself as the leader of a rebellion within the Church against a homosexual-pedophile conspiracy. With his 2020 letter to Trump he entered into the realm of QAnon-style discourse, which has culminated in his comment on Trump’s battle against “pedosatanism.”
Beyond those obvious examples, the general mood on the Catholic Right has been one of moral panic in recent years. Many have been competing for the Malachi Martin mantle, hoping to use fear to pull Catholics back into that pre-Christian frame of mind in which prayer becomes more like magical incantation and the Rosary becomes a talisman—mere tools to ward off evil spirits. They tell their audiences that enemies of the faith are everywhere, including homosexual predators, pedophiles, Satanists, communists, Freemasons, baby-killing liberals, Pachamama, roving Antifa terrorists, and demon-summoning BLM leaders. The “bubble” effect of social media, created when people get their news and commentary from a small number of ideologically similar sources, has allowed such figures to gain influence over the minds and souls of significant numbers of ordinary Catholics.
At this juncture in history, as many times before, going back to the murder of William of Norwich, Catholics have a choice. They can ride the wave of panic until they end up cowering in fear, separated from a culture they see as depraved, or they can choose the opposite path: one of dialogue, encounter, and fraternity, such as that laid out by Pope Francis in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. To choose the former rather than the latter is superficially exciting, but leads to an unhealthy isolationism. Even when moral panic is based upon a real moral threat, it often ends up mirroring and mimicking the very evil it seeks to expunge. When founded on misrepresentations and lies it is nothing more than an externalization of inner anxieties and perverse fantasies. It turns a person’s world into a funhouse or hall of mirrors, fostering anxiety, paranoia, and narcissism. One path ultimately leads to Pan, and the other to Christ.
None of this is to say that Satan does not exist, or that demonic forces do not exist. But they must be fought by living the faith in the open and learning to negotiate the uncertainties of modern life. Moral panic diverts us from our calling as Christians to spread the joy of the Gospel. As Pope Francis has said, Satan is smarter than us. He loves chaos, fear, division and paranoia. He knows how to make us compromise our values and misplace our priorities. He appeals to our deeply-held moral convictions in order to provoke us into fear and outrage, and lure us into hopelessness. Satan is very real, but he takes many forms, including that of the goat-headed, mischievous Pan.
Print Works Cited:
Cuneo, Michael. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Martin, Malachi. “Preface to the New Edition: Possession and Exorcism in America in the 1990s.” Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. First published 1976.
Rose, E.M. The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.
Smith, Michelle and Lawrence Pazder. Michelle Remembers. Nelson Canada, 1980.