Ritualistic Abuse

What is ritualistic abuse?

Ritual abuse refers to sexual, physical and psychological abuse that occurs repeatedly over a prolonged period of time. Ritual abuse is often carried out systematically and in a group setting, and may be conducted in the confines of a cult, religious group, family setting, or other group, such as a paedophile ring or child pornography network. Ritually abusive groups may be local or far-reaching, with some organisations and cults spanning over multiple cities, states, and even continents. One definition of a cult is:


“…a group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community. “ (Langone, 1993, p. 5)


Ritual abuse often involves extreme levels of abuse ranging from brain-washing, torture, threats of/enforced extreme violence and animal/human sacrifice, to drugging and coercion.

Survivors of ritual abuse are often lied to after each abusive event and led to believe that the abuse never occurred, was performed as punishment or for their own good, or that the acts performed were consensual. Due to these lies, it often takes survivors years to realise what has been done to them, and many more to believe that it actually occurred. Even when survivors do begin to realise what has happened to them, it can often take years to realise or remember who was involved or responsible for the abuse, and the location(s) in which the abuse took place.

Many abusive rituals are performed on certain dates or times during the year, these dates may vary between different sects, however the more common dates are often centred around traditional religious or astronomical cycles, for example Winter/Summer Soltice, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or the birthdate of the survivor or the leader of the sect.

Ritual abuse aims to control the individuals under its regime from childhood right through to adulthood; the parents of children involved may or may not be aware of what is occurring for their child. In some situations, the parents are actively involved in their children’s exposure to the abuse, in others children are controlled by their abusers by being told that the people who have raised them in their home are not their real parents. This allows the abusers to bring in the child’s “real parents” who may try to ‘save’ the child from the abuse, however these stand-in parents are actually more likely to be responsible for comforting the child after abuse has occurred, telling the child that it was all a bad dream, or that nothing at all had in fact happened and that the child is making it up, thus providing the child with a confused sense of safety and protection, and setting the child up for future programming and control by the ritual abusers.


Impact of ritualistic abuse

The level of trauma experienced by survivors of ritual abuse can be extreme and prolonged. It is therefore understandable that there may be long-term physical and psychological reactions experienced by survivors of such abuse. Many survivors of ritual abuse experience some level of dissociation and PTSD, symptoms of which may include, but are not limited to:


          Panic attacks

          Uncontrollable crying

          Uncontrollable rage

          Eating disorders

          Suicidal thoughts



          Somatic symptoms

          Intrusive thoughts



          Addictions – alcohol, drugs, sex etc..

          Over-reaction to minor stress

          Sleep disorders

          Sense of defilement or stigma


          Fight or flight responses

          Extreme mood swings

          High risk behaviours

          Shame, guilt, blame


(Ritual Abuse and Torture in Australia, ASCA, 2006)


The experience of abuse and recovery is different for each individual survivor. Survivors may experience many of the trauma responses mentioned above, or they may experience none. The impact of the abuse may be evident immediately after the survivor has escaped from their abuser(s), or it may take days, weeks, months or even years before the full impact of the abuse becomes evident.

Many ritual abuse survivors also report dissociation as a result of the trauma they have experienced. Dissociation is one of the most common defence mechanisms used by ritual abuse survivors. It provides a barrier between the past and the present reality, and enables survivors to ‘split off’ their brain when traumatic situations are occurring that are too complex or painful for the brain to process (Ritual Abuse and Torture in Australia, ASCA, 2006).  For some, dissociation may be seen as a burden beyond their control that makes it difficult to take in information when reading, watching a movie or performance, or even having a conversation. For others, the ability to dissociate is one of many skills developed during their abuse, consciously or not, which ultimately helped them to survive and endure the extreme level of fear and abuse to which they were subjected, and to cope with life after the abuse had ended.

Many survivors of ritual abuse also report suffering from ‘phantom’ or psychosomatic pain, which may vary in intensity from a persistent muscle tic to excruciating pain, to the point of incapacity. In extreme cases, psychosomatic pain and illness may be so intense as to mimic severe illnesses, lower blood pressure, and cause the survivor to enter into a state of shock. For many survivors, these pains often occur during flashbacks, when memories of pain and punishment previously inflicted upon the survivor feel as if they are occurring again, i.e. a muscle tic may occur for a survivor who was electrocuted as a means of control during their abuse. (Ritual Abuse & Torture in Australia, ASCA, 2006).

It is important for survivors to know and understand that whether they experience many of the aforementioned impacts, or none of them, or a whole different set of impacts and experiences, there is no “normal” way to react to trauma. Whatever the survivor is feeling is real to them, and it is okay to feel anything that they may be feeling – there is no right or wrong way to feel about one’s own experience of trauma and abuse.


Ritual abuse and gender

The gender roles within organised ritualistic abuse vary greatly. In most circumstances, boys are raised as the abusers and institutionalised to perform unspeakable acts on each other, on females within the ritual group, and even on animals. Girls are more often raised to be submissive – to accept the punishment put upon them by their male counterparts and the elders within the group, most of whom are also men.

To this end, it is much more likely that women will try to escape from a ritualistic abuse situation than for men, as it is the women within these groups who are most brutally and most often tortured and abused.

Men who do make the decision and are able to escape from ritual abuse situations often struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for the abusive acts they were forced to perform upon other children, women and animals. Being raised in a ritually abusive group meant that these people were given no other option than to act this way – it is an ‘abuse or be abused’ situation, and the survivor did what they needed and were expected to do in order to survive.

The gender roles present in ritually abusive situations are a reflection of a powerful patriarchal societal structure, evident in most cultures throughout the world.


Will I be believed?

Due to the extreme nature of the abuse experienced by survivors of ritual abuse, it is often difficult for those not involved to comprehend that such extreme acts of violence and manipulation could be perpetrated against a child. This is particularly true in cases where human/animal sacrifice has been used as part of the ritual abuse. People often refuse to believe that such atrocities occur, or that if this does happen, it would be dealt with by police and exposed by the media. It is the nature of such abusive groups to be extremely secretive in their actions, and members will go to extreme lengths to prevent detection, and ensure their practices may continue.


“Ritual abuse is a difficult topic for many people to confront. The children are tortured and brainwashed in order to assure their loyalty to the group. The memories of ritual abuse survivors are often so graphic and perverse that some people question whether any of these stories could be true…Ritual abuse is a real, systematic practice happening in our country today.” (Ritual Abuse: What it is, why it happens, how to help, M. Smith, 1993)


Society often finds it difficult to comprehend and believe that such levels of abuse occur worldwide, however “When the extent of child sexual abuse by families was revealed in the 1970’s and 1980s, people didn’t want to believe that either. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t happening.” (Surviving Rape: A handbook about sexual violence for survivors, family, friends and workers, NSW Rape Crisis Centre, 2002). Although survivors may come across some people who find their claims unbelievable, sexual assault counsellors can and will believe your story, and assist you through your healing journey.


Healing from ritualistic abuse

It takes a huge amount of courage, bravery, fear and strength to escape from a ritual abuse situation. Due to the indoctrination of survivors over a long period of time, many survivors feel confused about their decision to leave the abuse, obligated to return, and fear for their future either within or without the abuse being actively involved in their life. These feelings may be a result of the institutionalisation that occurs when individuals are involved with a certain group or situation for a long period of time, but may also be a result of the programming inflicted upon the survivor by their abuser(s). Ritual abuse survivors are often programmed to believe that harm or even death will befall them or their loved ones if they ever attempt to leave, and may also be programmed to return to the group on certain dates (i.e. Halloween, Christmas, birthdays, etc).

Recovering from such terror and indoctrination can be a long and difficult process. Some survivors believe that the healing process is too difficult and that counselling brings up feelings and memories that are simply too painful to face. These survivors may choose to attempt to live as though the abuse never occurred – for some this is possible, however for others this may lead to self-medicating behaviours and allow the survivors to be easily manipulated by others in society (i.e. future abusive relationships).

The healing process differs for each individual survivor however the process is never easy or linear. It may take many months or years for the survivor to feel that they are in control of their own mind and able to make their own decisions, and ultimately feel that they are, or will one day be, living a “normal” life.


For further information or support regarding ritualistic sexual abuse, please feel free to contact Laurel House North on (03) 6334 2740 or email counsellors@laurelhouse.org.au, or contact Laurel House North West on (03) 6431 9711 or email counsellors@laurelhousenw.org.au