The Persistent Danger of Satanic Panic Era Pseudoscience

The Persistent Danger of Satanic Panic Era Pseudoscience March 9, 2018

Two news stories came across my desk this week that highlight the persistence of dangerous and wrongheaded ideas with roots in the Satanic Panic era of the 80’s and 90’s and centuries old witch-hunt mentality of theistic religions. These practices and techniques have little to do with genuine scientific rigor but maintain an outsized cultural influence within certain circles to the detriment of many who would benefit from genuine forms of treatment. These practices have a very real potential to launch a new wave of Satanic Panic type hysteria if taken seriously.

Man Charged and Jailed on Debunked Practices

Miami parent Jose Cordero was imprisoned for over a month and was barred from seeing his family based on testimony from Cordero’s autistic son’s teacher. The source of that testimony was a debunked and thoroughly discredited practice called ‘facilitated communication’. The facilitating part comes from the fact that Cordero’s son is nonverbal and unable to communicate. So the teacher, Saul Fumero, used a technique called “hand over hand,” facilitation in which he would ‘guide’ the boy’s hands with his own.

After the father’s arrest Fumero continued to employ the method with the boy and continued to make more and more outlandish claims. Eventually, after it became clear that Fumero was doing far more than just facilitating and the accounts failed to concur with DNA evidence, Cordero was released and the Attorney General admitted there was no case.

In this instance, ‘facilitated communication’ lead to months in prison for an innocent man and the severe disruption of a family that will, now, hopefully get back to normal. Other instances of this absurd practice haven’t ended so well as The Satanic Temple’s Grey Faction points out in the case of Jude Mirra. In Jude’s case his mother Gigi Jordan, used a different form of ‘facilitated communication’ to justify her delusional belief that Jude was being secretly abused as part of a ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse cult’. Jordan eventually became so obsessed with this belief that she murdered Jude by giving him an overdose of pharmaceuticals. In her mind, she was did this to put an end to his suffering at the hands of a cult. The problem, of course, is that the cult never existed.

Of course, the therapists responsible for enabling Gigi Jordan’s delusional belief in a ritual abuse conspiracy, and the validity of ‘facilitated communication’ through which she bolstered her beliefs have suffered no consequences.

Exorcism is Making a Comeback Too

St. Catherine of Siena Exorcising a Possessed Woman’, by Girolamo di Benvenuto, Public Domain via Wikimedia

While we’re on the subject of delusional beliefs let’s switch from psychological quackery to Catholicism. Since the installation of Pope Frankie little attention has been paid to the underlying unfounded tenets of Catholic dogma for a lot of reasons. Pope Frank is far and away more likable and media friendly than the last guy, he’s got a chemistry degree which lends some impression to the idea that he’s a science minded kind of guy, and though he hasn’t made any sweeping changes to church policy he talks a good talk about being compassionate and welcoming.

None of that, however, changes the fact that Catholic teaching still asserts that things like literal transubstantiation and demonic possession are real. It would be easy enough to write-off the concept as a fringe idea within the church’s lower ranks if there were no institutional support for the practice of exorcism. But that’s just not the case. Vatican Radio has priests come on-air to discuss the half a million reported cases of demonic possession a year in Italy and the Vatican press has reported a tripling of exorcists in recent years and announced formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists in 2014. The perceived threat is so real to the church that they’ve set up a new training program. As the Guardian’s Deborah Hyde editorializes:

“… the class of specialists produced by exorcism courses and professional bodies. These specialists derive status from the practice of their “skills”, in the manner of Maslow’s hammer: when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. An investment in the intellectual models of demonic possession and exorcism can bring catastrophic momentum.”

The Dangers are Real

I don’t think I need to tell you, dear reader, that demons aren’t real and the concept of demonic possession is an antiquated throwback to a time when a pre-scientific method world was trying to make sense of mental conditions like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and autism. We know better now and shouldn’t continue to encourage unscientific diagnoses like ‘your problems are because you’ve been possessed and you need to let a clergyman sprinkle special water on you to fix them’. It’s insulting.

I also shouldn’t need to tell you that there is no evidence whatsoever of a global Satanic conspiracy that secretly orchestrates kidnapping and abuse. Satanic organizations can’t even stop arguing in public about who is and isn’t a Satanist long enough to agree on whether or not it’s Satanic to engage in politics at all, much less manipulate the strings of power in any coordinated way. That doesn’t stop the conspiracy theorist though. Much like other debunked beliefs like ‘vaccines cause autism’ and ‘the earth is flat’, many will cling to any idea that supports their pre-conceived bias no matter how ridiculous. Unfortunately some, including many people in well-established institutional organizations, are so fervent in these claims that real people get hurt. We’d do well to be mindful of that reality before these unfounded beliefs spark yet another witch-hunt.

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  • Kevin K

    The Catholic Church (and several Protestant sects) would burn witches in an instant were it not for the fact that such behavior is frowned upon by the secular authorities.

  • Raging Bee

    So instead they’re quietly supporting similar efforts where it IS legal, or at least not effectively stopped.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    “let’s switch from psychological quackery to Catholicism” umm, was I supposed to notice a difference?

  • Cozmo the Magician

    On the serious side. Skeptical Enq. has some articles about the FC farce. Scroll down past the ads for the links to the actual articles

  • Jim Jones

    > In this instance, ‘facilitated communication’ lead to months in prison for an innocent man and the severe disruption of a family that will, now, hopefully get back to normal.

    Once the lawsuits are settled. FC was court tested years ago and found to be 100% fake.

    > In 2007, a Michigan father spent 80 days in jail after a teacher’s aide claimed his 14-year-old daughter had typed out allegations of rape. The case was later dropped. Two years ago, the family was awarded nearly $6 million in lawsuits for false arrest.

  • Tawreos

    With half a million cases of demon possession per year it sounds like Italy needs a good dose of atheism to knock all of that nonsense off. If only there was a way to put atheism into pill form.

  • Jack Baynes

    Was the teacher charged with anything for framing the father? Perjury?

  • “A Miami-Dade Schools spokeswoman did not say whether the district would review Fumero’s actions”, dude hasn’t even been fired and refuses to talk to the press citing ‘pending litigation’

  • Linda Rosa

    The notion of “repressed memories” (and “body memories”) is also present in what is probably the worst quackery ever, i.e. “Attachment Therapy” (aka Holding Therapy, Rage Reduction, Compression Therapy, Rebirthing, Nancy Thomas parenting, etc.).

    In this practice, adopted and foster children are deliberately re-traumatized — i.e. subjected to hours of emotional and physical pain so that memories of “infantile rage” can surface and be drained off by catharsis (another discredited notion). This is actually believed to create a loving bond between child and caregiver, but it’s torture for children. Attachment Therapy’s parenting methods can be even worse.

    This practice is a prime example of what happens when people don’t follow science; unvalidated ideas tend to spin out of control, and in this case, even be used to justify the abuse of very vulnerable children.

    See videos at:

  • Tuna
  • hopeful idiot

    Better yet, an aerosol. It can be hard to force a pill down someone’s throat, but an aerosol? People gotta breathe.

  • Carla Gifford

    The statement that there is no demon possession will not be helped by people like Dr. Phil, who on one of his shows, has said that is does happen, happens mostly to women, and has sent a person for exorcism in one of his shows.!!! He has become the “shock jock” of television. This is not healthy psychology.

  • Aibrean

    The British newspaper the Guardian published an article about the rising number of exorcisms in the UK on 5 July 2017.

    It was based on a report by a Christian organisation called Theos, which noted that ‘[e]xorcisms are a booming industry in the UK, partly driven by immigrant communities and Pentecostal churches’.

    The statement suggests a bit of denominational rivalry to me, but other parts of the article are hard to argue with:
    ‘One danger was “Christian over-spiritualising” – a “tendency to ascribe anything and everything to spiritual causes when other medical ones may exist”. Another was a possible overlap between “demonic possession” and mental health issues.

    One chaplain who described themselves as a “Bible-believing evangelical” told Ben Ryan, the report’s author, that “in all their experience with a mental health trust they had ‘never seen anything I would say that looked like demonic possession, but I’ve seen plenty of people who have been told that’s what they’re experiencing by other Christians’.”’

    And half a million reported cases of demonic possession yearly in Italy? That’s almost 1% of the population, so you’d think *someone* would have noticed one in every hundred people running around foaming at the mouth or doing whatever else demonstrates such possession. I mean the possessed can’t all be in rural villages in Sicily and Puglia, some of them have to be in Rome or Milan, and that would definitely make the news.

  • lady_black

    I was happy to see “facilitated communication” debunked. I thought it was cruel. The least of it’s issues was giving parents false hope, and the worst of it was being used as a “witch test” to persecute innocent parents.
    It seems there is no limit to the ability of humans to be delusional.

  • lady_black

    And “Dr.” Phil is not a doctor of psychology.

  • lady_black

    In a just world, he would never teach again, at the least.

  • lady_black

    LOL. I saw footage of the actual court testing of “facilitated communication.” If the whole situation weren’t so terribly sad, it would have been hilarious. It seems that the 14 year old child could only reliably “communicate” what the “facilitator” had seen. And when she was exposed as a fake, she resorted to typing out “I am afrid.”
    Imagine the sorrow of the parents to realize that in this “breakthrough” they had, in reality, only been talking to themselves, and they still have a non-verbal child. That’s not even bringing in the horror show caused by that awful excuse for a teacher’s aide.

  • Nick G

    Just a note that the pseudo-scientific “facilitated communication” should not be confused with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which uses a variety of techniques and technologies to help people with various disabilities to communicate. Almost all AAC practitioners recognise “facilitated comunication” for the fraud it is, but proponents of the latter persistently try to infiltrate AAC organizations and conferences.