"The Search for Satan”: Fourteen Years Later By Lynn Crook, M.Ed.
AUTHOR NOTE: In my initial review of PBS Frontline’s “The Search for Satan” for Treating Abuse Today I reported some of the problems I had discovered in this documentary: (1) In several clips, producer Bikel flashed a quick shot of a document and narrowed the camera focus to one statement. Using the pause button, I was able to read the rest of the document. There I learned that Mary Shanley was not, as the producers claimed, “having a normal life and doing normal things” before her hospitalization in Houston. (2) The film contained a surprising number of recreated scenes which were not labeled as such. (3) A supposedly direct quote from FBI agent Ken Lanning had been edited. (4) A call to the State of Illinois revealed that Shanley had not been “listed with the State of Illinois as a child abuser,” nor had her teaching certificate been listed as “restrictive.” (5) I did some research and found the producers failed to mention that Shanley had been hospitalized at four different hospitals and received a diagnosis of “mixed personalities.”
I titled my review “Smoke and Mirrors,” and it appeared in the Jan/Feb 1996 issue of Treating Abuse Today.
Two years later, the women featured in the film, Shanley and Pat Burgus, had both settled their lawsuits against their therapists. Shanley’s case settled with a gag order in place. Malpractice carrier AIG and two others had settled Burgus’s case for $10.6 million .The medical license of Burgus’s psychiatrist was suspended for two years. Five of Shanley’s mental health care providers were indicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges.
I flew down to Houston in September of 1998 to cover the trial in federal court, and was in the courtroom when Shanley was on the witness stand. During cross-examination, defense attorney Rusty Hardin discredited virtually all of the claims Shanley had made in “Search.” Shanley acknowledged she recalled memories of cult abuse long before she met the defendants, and could not name any false memories that Peterson had supposedly implanted. The government rested its case after five months. All charges against the five defendants were then dismissed.
My follow-up review “The Search for Satan: Three Years Later” was published in the September/October 1998 issue of Treating Abuse Today.
In 2001, I reviewed the lengthy deposition of Pat Burgus, the second woman featured in “The Search for Satan.” I found that on January 17, 1997, Burgus had acknowledged that her psychiatrist had not implanted any false memories. Instead, he had only passed on to her what other patients at the hospital had reported about her (Deposition, pp. 912-913). Based upon Burgus’s deposition, her mental health had improved significantly during her hospitalization.
The following article has been slightly revised from the version that appeared in Treating Abuse Today in 1998.
“The Search for Satan”: Three Years Later
“Two troubled women. Both sought help from some of the top doctors in the country. The diagnosis? Satanic ritual abuse!..After millions of dollars in treatment, the women now say, ‘The doctors were wrong!’”
So begins Frontline’s 1995 film, “The Search for Satan.” The media hailed the film as an “indictment against therapists” and the film was re-broadcast by public television stations around the world.
The “two troubled women” were Mary Shanley and Pat Burgus. “Some of the top doctors” were Bennett Braun, Roberta Sachs in Chicago and Judith Peterson in Houston. “The diagnosis” was not “satanic ritual abuse,” but multiple personality disorder.
“The Search for Satan” on Frontline
“The Search for Satan” was produced and written by Ofra Bikel and Rachel Dreitzen for PBS Frontline. “Search” aired on October 24, 1995. At its website, Frontline describes its commitment to viewers.
From its inception, FRONTLINE has never shied away from tough, controversial issues or stories others avoided because they seemed too gray and complex for the black and white spectrum of conventional broadcast journalism. For there is an aesthetic goal as well: the fusion of credible, thoughtful reportage with compelling narrative, the story well told. In the end, that is the core of Frontline’s commitment to its viewers.
The following excerpts compare the Frontline producers’ “credible, thoughtful reportage” in 1995 to what their interviewees said under oath during US v. Peterson et al. in 1998.
MEREDITH SHRINER - MARY SHANLEY’S BEST FRIEND
Search - Shriner said the Shanleys were the typical loving family. Mary was a model wife and mother, her husband’s lover and best friend, a woman filled with patience, the perfect feminine presence in a typical, loving family. She had a wonderful relationship with her son, Ryan. Mary was a great mom, she had tons of patience.
Testimony: Shriner testified that Mary experienced panic attacks. Mary was increasingly disturbed by her angry outbursts against Ryan and Joe, and the Shanleys were experiencing marital problems.
MARY SHANLEY – FORMER HOSPITAL PATIENT AND GOVERNMENT’S STAR WITNESS
Search - “I was in very poor health [when I left SSG].”
Trial: Shanley, a slender woman, testified during direct examination that she had gained 25 pounds since her Spring Shadows Glen (SSG) release. During cross, Shanley appeared confused when shown hospital records indicating that she weighed 108 pounds when she entered SSG, her weight dropped to 105 pounds during her stay, and she weighed 108 when she left SSG. Shanley testified during direct that she was prevented from seeing a dentist despite her complaints of pain from an abscessed tooth. However, hospital records showed that she refused dental care for 2 months prior to November 3rd because she felt that dental care prior to that date would be “triggering.” She was prescribed antibiotics to contain the dental infection. She complained of back pain due to abreactive sessions and was prescribed additional voluntary restraints to support her back.
Search - NARRATOR: In 1988, Mary fell into a deep depression… MARY: Because I was suffering from seizures and blackouts, the counselor thought I might be suffering from a dissociative disorder. So I went for an evaluation at the best hospital in Chicago [Rush Presbyterian-St. Lukes’ Medical Center].
Trial - Two years prior to entering the dissociative disorders unit at Rush, Shanley was evaluated and hospitalized for memory blackouts and self-harming episodes at the following facilities: Alexian Brothers in May 1989, Forrest Hospital in January 1990, Old Orchard in March 1990 and Rush Memorial in 1990. She was hospitalized at SSG in Houston in May 1991, and discharged in June 1993. Under cross, it was shown that insurance claims reviewers determined that Shanley was “chronically suicidal,” hence, “untreatable,” and advised that she should be placed in a nursing home. Shanley refused this option, and SSG staff assisted her in finding housing and employment.
SALLY MCDONALD: UNIT NURSING SUPERVISOR AT SPRING SHADOWS GLEN
Search – ‘‘These kids [Pat Burgus two sons] came into the hospital as really stable, well-functioning kids.”
Trial: Contrary to hospital records indicating the boys were very troubled, McDonald testified that the boys were stable because, in her judgment, they appeared stable. She further testified that she decided that a patient whose hospital records stated that she had been sexually abused could not have been sexually abused if a gynecological report showed that the patient’s hymen was intact
“Search – “It became very clear to the nurses that if we objected that there would be a reprisal, and that reprisal would be a transfer off the unit, a demotion and in some cases an actual termination’
Trial: Under cross, McDonald could name no instances in which nurses were transferred, demoted or terminated. McDonald was eventually demoted for below-standard nursing practices.
Frontline’s “Guidelines on Journalistic Standards and Practices”
Frontline’s Guideline #7 states that “where it may be appropriate to re-enact or stage an event, it must be labeled clearly and unmistakably as such.”
Readers may recall a powerful scene from “The Search for Satan” which showed Shanley seated in a large, crowded church sanctuary as the pastor supposedly told his congregation: “In April of 1989, satanism came out of the closet for all of us to see it in all of its ugliness. The satan worshippers that pose the greatest threat to our society are the secret splinter groups, scores of clandestine groups are meeting right here in our neighborhood and the amount of activity is on the rapid increase…”
Under cross-examination, Shanley testified that she had never attended this church. The scene was not labeled as a re-enactment.
The Guidelines say that producers “will exercise extreme care in checking the accuracy and credibility of all information they receive, especially as it may relate to accusations of wrongdoing.”
During her final day on the witness stand, Shanley testified that she now views her hospital treatment as “worse than it was” and that, at some future time, and she might “testify differently” regarding her hospitalization experiences.
In response, the defense stood to object, “But Ms. Shanley, these defendants are facing prison terms.”
For reasons that remain unexplained, PBS pulled “The Search for Satan” from its mail order list.
The ISSD Responds to “The Search for Satan”
The International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD) issued a statement in December 1995 in response to the film’s characterization of the diagnosis and treatment of MPD (now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder [DID]).
“The majority of people who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder are not diagnosed impulsively or capriciously, as was implied by this Frontline segment . . . Research has documented that, on average, people with Dissociative Identity Disorder have spent seven years in the mental health system before the diagnosis is recognized and maximally effective treatment can be provided . . . Although some persons with Dissociative Identity Disorder allege that they experienced ritual abuse during childhood, most do not make allegations of this kind, as was implied by this segment of Frontline . . . The ISSD strongly discourages therapists and members of the media from sensationalizing the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder and from publicly appearing with, portraying, or otherwise exploiting individuals who suffer from this painful disorder. We urge the media to educate the public by presenting scientific information on this and all mental illnesses in a balanced and responsible manner.”
Co-producer Ofra Bikel Responds
Producer Bikel posted her response on the WITCHHNT listserve on January 3, 1996.
“I have made a point not to get involved in the arcane arguments among the various therapists, or schools of therapy, regarding my programs “Divided Memories” and “The Search for Satan.” But now that the ISSD official ‘response’ to my last program has appeared on the Internet, looking as if it sprang right out of Alice in Wonderland, I would like to say a few words about it . . . The program “In Search of Satan” [sic] was about two specific cases: two women, their children, and their therapists. The three therapists [Braun, Sachs, Peterson] were named repeatedly, as were their hospitals. . . . If I understand what I read correctly, it is supposedly a response to what the program ‘misleadingly implied’. But the program did not imply anything other than what it reported, and any answer to it must deal with the facts it exposed, before launching into their perceived implications . . . But a lofty declaration of principles and aspirations, cloaked as a damning response to myself and Frontline, while avoiding every single fact the program brought up, seems to me self-serving and cowardly.”
Dramatics accounts of satanic ritual abuse and years of “bad therapy” have caught the attention of the media. However, presenting uncorroborated claims as fact and failing to check an interviewee’s credibility cannot be excused on any grounds.
Crook, L. (1996). Smoke and mirrors. Treating Abuse Today, 5(6) & (6)1, 87-93.
Guidelines on journalistic standards and practices. (1996, February). Frontline. Boston: WGBH.
Smith, M. (1998, October 9). Former patient can’t attribute false memories to therapy. Houston Chronicle. Online at: http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1998_3088693
Former patient can't attribute false memories to therapy By Mark Smith Staff Houston Chronicle 10/09/98 Former psychiatric patient Mary Shanley testified Thursday that Spring Shadows Glen therapists had suggested general themes involving cult abuse but that she could not attribute any specific false memories to her therapy....Shanley testified that before arriving at Spring Shadows Glen she had come to believe she had been a satanic-cult priestess since childhood - the fifth successive generation in her family. She said she feared the cult might hurt her son.