MALF

My Hometown’s (Supposed) Experience with Satanism

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Dylan Robertson (3L)

My hometown is a small city in Saskatchewan called Martensville. Calling it a city is something of a misnomer in my eyes, because aside from that title there isn’t anything separating it from the hundred other sleepy Prairie towns that dot the province. This includes the fact that, like any small town, Martensville has a secret that residents do not like to discuss. Unfortunately for residents, however, our secret is well known, as demonstrated by the repeated response I received during Articling Week last June when I told people where I am from: “Oh, I’ve heard of Martensville, but not for a reason you probably want to discuss.”

I am always interested in talking about that reason because it is one of the most abnormal, ridiculous, and ultimately tragic scandals to ever occur in Canada. Between 1988 and 1992, nearly 30 children came forth with accusations that they had been sexually assaulted while being cared for at a daycare run out of the home of Ron and Linda Sterling, two local residents with close ties to the municipal police force. Each child was between the ages of two and 12 when the improper conduct was said to have occurred. The initial complaints focused on the couple’s adult son, Travis, but quickly expanded their focus to include accusations of improper conduct from not only Ron and Linda, but other members of the household as well as members of the police. In total, more than a dozen people were charged with crimes related to the supposed events, yet in the end, only one person—Travis—was ultimately found guilty (R v Sterling, 1995 CanLII 4037 (SKCA)). One other person had their conviction overturned at appeal (R v TS, 1995 CanLII 3957 (SKCA)), while everyone else were either found not guilty or had their charges stayed.

What is notable about this case is not the crimes that were committed (and which are genuinely tragic), but the accusations of conduct that were found to be false. For a brief period, the sexual abuse was believed to be the actions of a Satanic cult—known as the Brotherhood of the Ram—which had infiltrated the community and that had used the daycare as a front to access children for ritualistic abuse. This cult supposedly included the Sterlings as well as members of three different police forces. Several children spoke of being tied up, thrown in the back of a police cruiser, and taken outside of town to a place known as the “Devil Church,” which several children identified as a blue shed. Here, they were subjected to horrific abuse, including being locked in cages, being stripped naked and placed in freezers, being sexually penetrated with an axe handle, and having their blood taken for use in Satanic rituals. Although these allegations seem unbelievable today, they gained significant credibility after a local pilot identified a shed six kilometres outside of town that investigators felt corroborated with the children’s stories. The allegations of Satanic cults became so great that the entire town was put on notice. Police who had been cleared of ties to the cult were told to be on the lookout for the high priestess, who was identifiable by a scarab beetle tattoo on her wrist. On April 24, 1992, police were told to bring their own guns and prepare for a Satanic invasion of the town and a potential human sacrifice, which obviously never occurred. Ultimately, in fact, no evidence of a Satanic cult or ritual abuse was ever found, and the hysteria died out as quickly as it had arrived.

So what exactly led to the escalation of the allegations? One key factor was that Martensville was far from the only community to be home to allegations of Satanic ritual abuse. In the decade prior, fears of clandestine cults abusing children were a common conspiracy throughout the Western world; Martensville—at the time a highly religious community—simply proved susceptible to such rumours. Another factor—and the one which allowed the allegations of Satanism to enter the conversation in the first place—was that the children were interviewed in a manner which encouraged them to generate stories that affirmed the suspicions of the investigators handling the case. The cops that handled the case completely botched the interviews with the children, as they were found to have consistently asked them leading questions and provided rewards for “correct” answers that aligned with their narrative. There is no better example of this than the stories surrounding the Devil’s Church. At trial, it was discovered that the reason so many children had corroborated the story of the blue shed as the site of ritual abuse was because they had been shown photos of it. It was this improper interviewing of the children—the only evidence that backed up many of the allegations—which led to the Crown dropping its case against most of the accused.

Following the scandal, many of the wrongly confused justifiably sought compensation from the police and government. In 2002, John Popowich, a former constable with the Saskatoon Police Service who had been charged with sexually assaulting a child a gunpoint, received a settlement of $1.3 million dollars from the Justice Department. The next year, Ron and Linda Sterling received the same amount in an out-of-court settlement. A decade of subsequent litigation, doubled with the humiliation the town feels for being the epicentre of such a scandal, continues to ensure that it is a story that no one in the town likes to openly talk about; I myself thought it was a schoolyard rumour until I was in high school. But it was a real case, and the community rightfully should feel embarrassed for allowing a botched investigation to inspire moral panic and ruin the lives of so many innocent people.