British authorities have reported that child abuse related to accusations of witchcraft and exorcism is on the rise. Project Violet, a specialized unit within the Metropolitan Police Service that specifically handles faith and belief-based child abuse, reports 60 crimes occurring this year alone. This is compared to 46 incidents in 2014—a number which had more than doubled from the year previously. As you might figure, research also shows that these types of crimes are underreported.
“You’ll get the actual physical abuse and injuries taking place, and, in the worst-case scenario, we’ve had some homicides as well,” Project Violet’s Detective Sergeant Terry Sharpe told BBC. Sharpe described two separate cases where a nine-year-old boy was thrown out of his home after they called him a “devil child” and another where a child was attacked by his mother because she believed he was a witch possessed by evil spirits.
In 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu was found dead on Christmas Day after spending the holidays with his siblings. His sister and her partner believed Bamu was a witch possessed by spirits, and the couple drowned the boy in a bath after torturing him for several days leading up to his death.
In another case, a girl named Kevani Kanda was six years old when her familyaccused her of being a witch because she had been sleepwalking and wet the bed. They believed she was possessed, but she was experiencing the effects of trauma from being molested by a relative. Kanda was tortured and beaten for the next five years. As an adult, she traveled to the Congo for a 2013 BBC documentary called Branded a Witch, which covered the story of a four-year-old boy whose mother brought him to church for playing too rough with his brother. The church pastor subsequently deduced he was possessed and also a witch.
Debbie Ariyo, founder of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, told BBC there are churches that make these accusations for financial gain. “The pastor says there’s a witch in this church today; looks around and points to a child,” says Ariyo. “That means public humiliation for the family. The next step is exorcism which is not done for free. It’s a money-making scam.”
Ariyo also said these types of allegations were often made when other families experience problems. In August of this year, five women were lynched in eastern India by locals who believed they were witches, blaming them for a recent outbreak of illness, poor crops and a death of a child in the village. Another woman from a northeastern part of India was beheaded for similar reasons, in the month prior. According to statistics from the Indian government, 2,000 murders related to witchcraft accusations occurred across the country between 2000 and 2012. Most of the deaths were women.
Then, on the other side, there are the actual witches who are victimized due to grotesque assumptions and misinformation of their craft. In July, Wiccans were outraged when a Florida sheriff’s department announced a triple homicide was a “ritualistic killing” linked to “witchcraft.”
Panic over witchcraft and possession occurs on global scale, even centuries after the Salem witch trials. “Globalization means that paranoia over black magic and spirit possession are no longer confined to developing nations,”said Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, in a New York Times op-ed from last year. He came up with possible actions, such as laws that could be enacted preventing children from being accused of witchcraft, education of church congregations about how alleged exorcisms can turn into abuse, and re-categorization of actual “witchcraft”-related violence as hate crimes in international courts.