No, This Woman Was Not Performing Satanic Rituals and Sexually Abusing Preschoolers

The Satanic ritual abuse panic was as fake as this cycling fan’s costume.

Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The Austin American-Statesman just published a story on the case of Fran Keller, a Texas woman who, in 1992, was convicted along with her husband of sexually abusing several children. Keller was freed on Tuesday; her husband will probably be freed sometime next week. Both have served 21 years after being convicted of crimes that almost certainly never happened. The charges against them, which centered on the allegation that they were performing Satanic rituals, were so outlandish that they ought to have been questioned from the start.

Though it seems ridiculous today, in the 1980s and early 1990s, many Americans were convinced that Satanic rituals presented an immediate threat to the nation’s children. Religious zealots and dubiously qualified psychotherapists insisted that Satanists had hatched a worldwide conspiracy targeting innocent children, often in preschools and day care centers, and a credulous nation listened. A 1987 Geraldo special on the topic drew a record audience, with Geraldo Rivera asserting that American Satanists had built “a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town.” (Rivera later apologized for his role in feeding the frenzy.)

The Satanic panic led to several criminal cases. By subjecting suggestible children to leading questions, investigators were often able to elicit answers that appeared to validate the Satanic ritual abuse charges. Several of these cases came to trial. The Kellers’ was one of them. Today, the allegations against the Kellers seem like the products of active young imaginations, nothing more. Here’s the American-Statesman:

The children also accused the Kellers of forcing them to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs and a crying baby. Bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes dug to hide freshly killed animals and, once, an adult passer-by who was shot and dismembered with a chain saw. The children recalled several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day care.

The only physical evidence of abuse in the case has been discredited; the doctor who originally testified that he found tears in one 3-year-old girl’s hymen that were “consistent with sexual abuse” now believes that hers was a normal pediatric hymen. “Sometimes it takes time to figure out what you don’t know,” the doctor testified this August during an appeal hearing.

That is undoubtedly true. But it shouldn’t take 21 years to figure out that outlandish claims of ritual Satanic abuse are not rooted in reality. And it shouldn’t take 21 years to successfully challenge a case that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place. “A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt and render justice accordingly,” the Kellers’ attorney wrote in his appeal. It’s to our shame that the witch hunt ever happened in the first place.

Note: Tuesday, Nov. 26 marked the one-year anniversary of Slate’s crime blog, and, thus, the one-year anniversary of my tenure as Slate’s crime blogger. (Gifts and well-wishes can be sent care of Slate’s New York offices.) I began the year with a piece about erotic cannibalism, and I close it with this piece about ritual Satanic abuse. The rest of the year was sorely lacking in stories of lurid horror-crime, but I think it was a good year all the same. Thanks for sticking with me thus far!