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Interview with Dr. Michael Salter about his book, Organised Sexual Abuse

The Global Intelligence Files

For a year now we have been following developments in old and new cases of organised sexual abuse (OSA) however, as always in such complex topics, noise coming from ignorant or malicious sources tends to pollute both news and debates, making OSA even more complex to grasp.

This is damaging to victims who suffer an unspeakable ordeal ; also to justice as some perpetrators, among the most powerful individuals in society, go unpunished ; and to all societies around the world as this is a civilizational threat occuring everywhere - whether it is freely discussed or taboo. We thought interviewing Dr. Michael Salter, a unique specialist of the subject as you will see, will bring a scientific yet humanistic light to discussions and analyses, and allow everyone to better understand this issue in order to help fight it.

Many thanks to Dr. Michael Salter for his time and kindness, and to our friend artist Basicregisters for the many illustrations below.

   

Interview by Mehdi
First published on 08-02-2016

- Michael, could you please introduce yourself?

I'm a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney. I divide my time between research and teaching undergraduate and PhD students. I'm a member of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology, and I'm an associate editor of the journal Child Abuse Review, which is published by the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

- How did you end-up specializing in the field of organised sexual abuse?

I started my career working in social policy and public health, with a particular focus on how government services respond to community needs. I've known a victim of organised abuse since my late teens and I was amazed at how hard it was for her to find a basic level of care and support. There was a fundamental disconnection between what she needed from mental health services and the police, and what those agencies were able or willing to provide to her. I decided to study organised abuse more closely and that dramatically changed the path of my career.

Michael Salter's book Organised Sexual Abuse- Why did you choose the terminology 'organised' in your book 'Organised Sexual Abuse' and how does it differ from institutional, ritual... etc?

The study of complex cases of child sexual abuse has been stymied by a lack of neutral, agreed-upon terminology. For example, a term like "paedophile rings" or "organised paedophilia" assumes that offenders have come together because they share a sexual compulsion towards children. There is a small group of men who experience intrusive, uncontrollable sexual feelings towards children, and I think these men can be accurately described as paedophiles. However, when you investigate cases of so-called "paedophile rings", the offenders may be abusing children, teenagers and also harming adult women. Sexual activity may not be the full extent of the abuse, which can include degrading and sadistic ordeals, and practices of power and control. Calling these men "paedophiles" is clearly inaccurate and obscures the motives of the perpetrators and the full extent of the abuse.

I chose "organised sexual abuse" as a broad category of abuse that distinguishes multi-victim, multi-perpetrator abuse from the more common scenario involving one victim and one perpetrator. I define "organised sexual abuse" as any case of sexual abuse committed by two or more adults who conspire to sexually abuse two or more children. Organised sexual abuse can take place in families, institutions, or in the community, such as when strangers entrap and exploit a child. It can include ritual abuse, sadistic abuse, the manufacture of child abuse images, the sexual exploitation of children for money, and other forms of abusive behaviour. Often, victims' experiences of organised abuse are not limited to one type or context of abuse. For example, a child’s father may be abusing her and allowing his friends to do so, but he may also make the child available to a ritually abusive group for money.

The survivor's story can become quite complicated at this point, since it involves different patterns of abuse in different settings. By starting with a term like "organised sexual abuse", I feel that I'm better able to tease out the complexities and nuances of these experiences without imposing unnecessary assumptions or boundaries around them.

- Indeed sexuality/paedophilia alone couldn't explain the horrific acts perpetrated on OSA victims; what are the other motives, both at an individual and group level?

Most cases of organised abuse are relatively small-scale involving a few like-minded offenders. These are usually men looking to accumulate non-consensual sexual experiences where they are in control and able to dominate their victims. They may conscript others into the abuse in a range of ways, such as by cultivating relationships with vulnerable women to facilitate access to their children. They may exert charismatic authority in an institutional context, encouraging others to turn a blind eye to their behaviour. The reasons why those particular men sexually abuse may be related to their own life histories and social factors such as male entitlement. In these cases, we can explain organised abuse in terms of motivated offenders who find or create opportunities for abuse.

Cash, by artist BasicregistersOrganised abuse becomes more complicated in situations where there are more offenders and more children, and the abuse has persisted over a longer period of time. These cases are less common but the harms that these groups inflict on child victims are considerable. In these larger cases, the abuse becomes part of a group culture. The relationships between the adults in the group become mediated by abuse. Being able to facilitate access to children, or provide new child abuse images, becomes a form of status in these groups, and it may be rewarded through recognition in the group or through financial incentives. I've spoken to a number of adult survivors who recall that their father gained considerable professional opportunities as a result of providing them, as children, for abuse to a group of men.

Fear is a major factor driving the participation of perpetrators as well as victims in organised abuse. Many survivors recall perpetrators being at times terrified of one another, and unable to leave the group even if they wanted to. One survivor I spoke to described her family moving a number of times as her father tried to escape from the abusive group that he had joined, but they would eventually be found and punished. Very quickly, the child becomes just an 'object' within a complicated scenario as perpetrators try to gain as much benefit from organised abuse while avoiding reprisals from others. It seems that mutual terror and blackmail prevail within these groups to keep men in line. This combination of inducement and fear destroys any empathy for the child, particularly as a competitive dynamic can emerge in some groups, as perpetrators encourage each other to go to greater extremes of abuse. It's a very dangerous situation for the child victims.

"It seems that mutual terror and blackmail prevail within these groups to keep men in line."

Families can be integrated into these networks, and they become effectively taken over by organised abuse. The family becomes a training ground for men to source, control and abuse children. There are less terroristic forms of familial organised abuse, and these emerge in families where there are in effect no boundaries and all family members participate in sexual activity with each other. These families typically allow others from outside the family to abuse their children as well. These families rationalise the abuse as acts of love and ways of sexually educating children. Families can persist like this for quite a long time, and sometimes over a number of generations. If they aren't overtly dysfunctional then there's often no trigger for them to come to the attention of child protection services or police

Handshadows, by artist Basicregisters- How does the so-called 'satanic' abuse fit into this picture?

Sadistic violence gives rise to feelings of power and control that some perpetrators have described as transcendent and quasi-religious. The ceremonial structure of some organised abuse incidents gives expression to these feelings. The basic premise of child sexual abuse is that it enables adults to control and dominate a sexual encounter because their victim is relatively powerless. Ritual is a way of amplifying this power differential to the greatest extent possible. Ritual enables perpetrators to step outside themselves and put aside any feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

Sexually abusive rituals develop in a range of contexts. It's not uncommon for all-male misogynist organisations and institutions to develop traditions of sexualised 'hazing' and initiations of various kinds. In ritual abuse, we see perpetrators drawing on symbols of fear and power available in the dominant culture and incorporating these into ceremonial forms of sexual abuse. This can include overt references to Satan and Satanism, but not necessarily. For example, many victims of clergy abuse describe how abusive priests referred to Jesus or God as part of their justification for abuse, and integrated aspects of Christian ritual into sexual abuse.

A disproportionate number of survivors of ritual abuse that I’ve spoken to were raised in closed Christian communities or sects, where the existence of Satan is accepted by all community members and understood to be the active force behind sexual urges. It makes a kind of perverse sense, then, that sexual abusers of children within those communities would claim that Satan is making them do it. One women I interviewed had grown up in a strict Christian sect that believed that Satan was a real force in the world, and that demons made people commit sexual acts. She was severely abused by men within that community, and they justified their abuse by telling her she was possessed by demons, Satan’s bride and so on. Is this "Satanic abuse"? Her abusers were in fact espousing the dominant beliefs of her community, which taught that sexuality is evil and girls and women, in particular, are vulnerable to temptation. However they were using these beliefs to their own ends, justifying their abuse of children not only to themselves but also to their victims.

- In your book “Organised Sexual Abuse” you defend the idea that OSA is very much a gender-related phenomenon and that this has been mostly ignored in previous studies of the subject; could you expand on this?

There Spiderweb, by artist Basicregisters are distinct gendered patterns to child sexual abuse. Speaking in very general terms, girls are more likely to beabused than boys, and boys and girls are vulnerable to abuse in different contexts. Girls are more likely to be abused by family members and relatives, whereas boys are more vulnerable to abuse outside the home. We see many of these patterns recurring in organised sexual abuse. Most (but certainly not all!) victims of organised sexual abuse are female, and girl victims are more likely to be subject to organised abuse in the family, whereas boy victims are more likely to be targeted in extra-familial organised abuse.
The organised abuse of younger children (prior to adolescence) is often not exclusive to either gender. Perpetrators of organised abuse against younger children may be indiscriminate. However male victims tend to ‘age out’ of organised abuse in their early to mid teens, at which point abusive groups appear to lose interest in them. In some cases, abusers may encourage the male victim to 'join' them as a perpetrator, but they don't generally continue to stalk and terrorise him. In contrast, many female victims of organised abuse continue to be physically and sexually assaulted into adulthood, and in some cases their children become part of the cycle of abuse.

There are abusive groups that solely target teenagers (usually vulnerable kids such as street kids and kids in care) and these groups have a specific gender preference, usually abusing boys or girls but not both. These groups can have a large number of victims, as we’ve seen in high-profile cases in the UK where groups of men have abused hundreds of teenaged girls over a period of years.

Readers should bear in mind that I'm talking about general patterns here. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of the sexual abuse of boys. There are many male survivors who have different experiences than the ones that I've described above. I'm observing the patterns that regularly arise in research in this field. This is important because it helps us to understand the relationship between organised abuse and other kinds of abuse and violence. Organised abuse crosses over with other forms of violence against women and children, including domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual exploitation. Making these links is helpful in terms of prevention, investigation as well as treatment.

"There is an increased willingness to consider and investigate complex cases of sexual abuse"

- Is there a trend in recent years regarding the exposure of OSA cases?

A common assumption used to be that a credible complaint of sexual abuse involved only one perpetrator and one offender, and that any complaint more complex than this was probably false. This is changing with the revelations of abuse in the Catholic Church and our expanding knowledge of internet-facilitated abuse. These different kinds of abuse clearly show that multiple offenders can coordinate their abuse with one another and at times this abuse is covered up or at least obscured by institutional authority. There is an increased willingness to consider and investigate complex cases of sexual abuse, including those with organised and sadistic components. There is now more attention being paid to organised abuse facilitated by parents. As more of these cases come to light, I think it will have a snowball effect.

- Based on documented experience of former victims, what would be the best course of action for current victims to escape OSA?Doll, by artist Basicregisters

When it comes to escaping organised abuse, there are some important distinctions between child and adult victims of sexual abuse. Under the age of 18, in most countries there are statutory agencies that are obligated to intervene in known cases of sexual abuse. This is not the case once the victim turns 18. Once the victim is an adult, and the abuse is ongoing, the onus falls on her to make a complaint and, often, to meet a very high burden of evidence before police or other authorities are prepared to investigate.

Unfortunately, child victims of organised abuse may not receive a good response if they complain. It is quite common for child victims of sexual abuse to continue to be abused even after they have disclosed abuse to other adults. They are frequently not listened to or believed. If the disclosure occurs during a family court process as the mother separates from the father, then the disclosure may be used against the child as "proof" that she has been coached by the mother. Many child victims of organised abuse run away from home to protect themselves, although this may expose them to further abuse on the streets. However, from my research, child victims that continue to disclose and complain of abuse (despite the obstacles) are much more likely to receive help and support than those that don't. Breaking the silence and refusing to keep the secrets is crucial. That’s a huge burden for a child to carry, particularly since many organised abuse victims are being threatened if they disclose, but that’s the situation at the moment.

Blackmail, by artist BasicregistersThis is also true of adult survivors. Survivors need to persevere in looking for help and support. Making contact with advocacy agencies such as rape crisis services, or with mental health practitioners, is crucial. If the survivor doesn't receive a good response the first time, it's imperative that they don't give up. They should keep looking elsewhere. Building up a support network of safe people (such as supportive friends and family), including at least one trained mental health professional, is vital to escaping ongoing abuse. Many survivors move interstate or internationally to keep themselves safe, and this can be effective (moving countries in particular). However without recovery and healing from trauma, survivors remain vulnerable to re-victimisation, so mental health support is very important.

I’m currently undertaking interview research with adult women who have experienced ongoing organised abuse in order to understand what’s happened to them and the best way for women to escape multi-perpetrator abuse. I’m also interviewing mental health practitioners who work with this group. I’m hoping that, out of this research, we can start developing safety protocols for survivors of organised abuse that will be helpful for survivors and their allies.

- What is the subject of your new book to be published this year?

My forthcoming book Crime, Justice and Social Media draws together the research I've been doing into online abuse and justice-seeking on social media. It examines the kinds of mob harassment and coordinated abuse that can take place on social media, as well as the use of phone and computer technologies in abusive intimate relationships. The final chapter discusses the on-going work undertaken by the online group Anonymous to disrupt organised abuse, and the role of social media in seeking justice for organised abuse victims.

Further reading:

- Dr. Michael Salter's Acamedia profile

- Dr. Michael Salter book Organised Sexual Abuse

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