Jacquie Balodis is talking softly about her bad childhood.
How bad was it? It was unbelievably bad.
"I was born into Satanism," the 49-year-old Garden Grove woman said. As she describes it, her early years in Pueblo, Colo., included devil worship, human sacrifice and cannibalism.
She said that as a teen-ager she was twice impregnated by her stepfather (now deceased). Both fetuses were aborted and used in rituals, she said. "Part of me believed it was my privilege to give my child to Satan."
The memories were suppressed for years, she insists, then recovered in psychotherapy.
Balodis admits it sounds weird. Weirder yet, such tales are becoming common. Across America, people say that they have regained memories of abuse by parents who belonged to a worldwide network of devil-worshipers.
In fact, authorities say, America is witnessing an epidemic of concern over Satan and his minions, especially among adherents of fundamentalist Christianity. So-called ritual abuse is only part of it.
But are these stories of incest and human sacrifice true? Many mental-health experts think not. And at least two law enforcement officers, with the FBI and the San Francisco police, say they have looked into some of the claims and found nothing.
Some real events probably lend credence to the idea that Satan-worshipers are everywhere:
There is a self-styled Church of Satan, founded in 1966 by a former lion tamer and revival- show organist. Preaching the pursuit of pleasure, it employs satanic symbols such as pentagrams and black robes in its rituals. But it has not been linked with criminal activity.
In a just-concluded Orange County case, two self-proclaimed victims took their elderly mother to court and accused her of having been part of a child-murdering cult. A jury found in their favor April 12, although it did not award them money damages.
Some jurors said the verdict did not mean that they believed the Satanism story, only that the women had been abused. But one of the women's supporters said after the decision, "It's a grand day for victims. Somebody believed them. It's now going to encourage more victims to talk."
A lot of people already are talking.
"The Satanism scare has at various times approached panic levels," said David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. Bromley co-wrote a forthcoming book on the subject, "The Satanism Scare."
Jeffrey Victor, a sociologist at Jamestown Community College in New York, has tracked 33 "rumor panics" in 24 states in the late 1980s. One occurred in 1988 in Breathitt County, Ky., where parents kept their children home from school amid rumors that Satanists were plotting to kidnap blond, blue-eyed children. Another caused scores of Jamestown, N.Y., citizens to arm themselves with clubs and scour the forests for a chimerical band of Satanists.
A 1989 telephone survey of 1,000 Texans by the Public Policy Resources Laboratory at Texas A&M University found that nearly 80 percent of the respondents thought Satanism had increased over the previous five years and said that they were concerned about it.
The Los Angeles County Commission for Women has produced, at
taxpayers' expense, a handbook called "Ritual Abuse." It says Satanists "frequently function together in groups in the operation of preschools, day-care services and baby-sitting services." The handbook was a product of the commission's Ritual Abuse Task Force, whose job is to warn the public, therapists and the police of the signs of satanic abuse, said Myra B. Riddell, the task force chairwoman. Last year 7,500 copies were distributed in the United States and Canada. Ten thousand more were printed in March.
There is a private agency in the Southern California city of Rialto called the Ritualistic Crime Task Force, an information clearinghouse. In October it held a news conference in Los Angeles to warn parents that devil-worshipers were plotting to kidnap and sacrifice trick-or-treaters on Halloween. (None did.)
Organizations give law enforcement seminars on ritualistic crime. Speakers discuss everything from the game Dungeons and Dragons to human sacrifice. The privately funded Cult Crime Impact Network in Boise, Idaho, is a clearinghouse on supposed Satanic crimes. It publishes a newsletter with 2,000 subscribers--mostly, it says, police officers.
Two researchers at Texas A&M University sampled the attitudes of 153 police officers who had attended a seminar on cult crime or subscribed to the Cult Crime newsletter. The consensus among the officers was that Satanism is responsible for one in 10 homicides and one in three teen suicides.
No one has comprehensive statistics on the self-proclaimed survivors of ritual-abuse. But believers and scoffers agree that there are thousands. Blodis said that a support group she started hears from at least 40 new "survivors" a month. She said that she knows of at least 500 in Los Angeles.
Sandi Bargioni, a San Francisco police officer who specializes in ritualistic crime, said that she has received scores of calls from women claiming to have been satanically abused as children. Not one of the stories could be proved, she said, and she is among the skeptics.
So is Kenneth Lanning, who works in the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. Considered an expert in cult crime, he has advised police departments on more than 300 cases, many involving survivor tales.
"In the early '80s, the first few times my phone rang, I was inclined to believe it," he said.
Then the cases began piling up. There were lots of reports of cults, but no bodies. Lanning said that airplanes with heat- seeking equipment sought out mass graves on the theory that decomposing bodies would give off heat. No bodies were found. Lanning stopped believing.
"What are the probabilities of this?" he said. "Two or three people in Southern California may be able to do this a couple of times and get away with it." But when all the claims of satanic sacrifice were added up, it amounted to thousands of people murdering thousands more. "It was the totality of it that caused me concern."
Believers say that no evidence is uncovered because the Satanists are so clever. The "Ritual Abuse" handbook puts it this way: "Explanations for the absence of found remains include cannibalism, cult access to mortuaries and crematoria, frozen storage of body parts, and the retention by cult members of bones and body parts for further magical practices."
Lanning says that disposing of bodies is not as easy as some people think, and some remains should have been found if cults were systematically sacrificing people.
The only known criminal conviction stems from a bizarre case in which Paul Ingram, a sheriff's deputy and the former head of the Republican Party in Thurston County, Wash., pleaded guilty to six rape charges in 1989. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Two relatives had accused him of attacking them for 17 years during rituals that included killing two dozen babies. Ingram has tried to withdraw the guilty plea, saying he was coerced into it.
Wayne Fricke, his lawyer, said that the police interrogation of Ingram included a jailhouse exorcism. Ingram was so malleable, according to Richard Ofshe, a University of California, Berkeley sociologist who interviewed him as part of the case, that he was able to get the defendant to confess to a crime that Ofshe made up.
Despite the expert opinion against them, the "survivors" draw support from several sources.
Foremost are fundamentalist Christians. The major publishers and producers of books and videos dealing with Satanism have strong fundamentalist ties.
Hal Lindsay, author of the best-selling "Late Great Planet Earth," has been a major supporter of survivors and has linked the rise in Satanism to the Last Days prophesied in the Book of Revelation. "This story is absolutely incredible and true," Lindsay said of "Satan's Underground."
Many of the conferences for so-called cult cops are organized by church-affiliated groups, such as North American Conferences, which in turn is affiliated with the Calvary Chapel of West Covina.
J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, dismisses the stories as mostly distorted memories of childhood sexual abuse.
If the stories are true, he said, "this means a generation ago there were at least 400 or 500 Satanist groups in the country, functioning, doing things and able to keep their existence not just hidden, but even hidden from the rumor mill. That, to me, is pretty farfetched."