Among the skeptics in law enforcement are those who believe that ritualistic sexual abuse of children occurs both locally and nationally and may be associated with satanism.

- Deputy Dennis Howard of the Utah County Sheriff's Department is one of them. He took 42 reports alleging ritualistic animal or child abuse in 1989."Victims will tell you stories that are so bizarre it's difficult to believe them," says Howard. "But I have no trouble believing it. It's happening in Utah County and in every other county of the state.

"I've talked to a lot of therapists who don't believe the hocus-pocus, but to say the abuse isn't going on is wrong," Howard says.

Howard, who wryly calls himself Utah County's exorcist, transferred back to the patrol division after years of working as a detective. Since his transfer, investigations into cult activities have dwindled.

"When we get a report of child abuse, we investigate that," Howard says. "But we are not actively investigating satanism or the occult."

He says he is uncomfortable with child abuse laws, because people can be put in prison even if there is no physical evidence of the crime. He also says he can name people who are guilty of ritualistic crimes, but "I can't touch them. They are too good at what they do and learn from court testimony" in other cases about how to get away with their crimes.

The majority of Utah County's alleged cult crimes are committed by self-styled dabblers, Howard says. He believes transgenerational satanist groups are operating in Utah but says they are well-organized.

"These people are very mobile and have the ability to pack up and set up anywhere," he says. "I don't care which deity they claim to worship. They are into this (ritualistic crime) to satisfy their own psychological needs."

- While some law enforcement personnel point to a lack of physical evidence for such crimes, the Los Angeles County Commission for Women issued a report on the subject of ritual satanic activities and concluded that "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."

- Detective Glenn Parker of the Davis County sheriff's office says ritualistic abuse not only is occurring, it is far more prevalent than reports to law enforcement would indicate.

"It's like rape," he says. "For every one you hear about, there are probably 20 more."

In the fall, hunters uncover most of the ritual sites the Davis County sheriff's office hears about, Parker says. As with Utah County, most of the reports involve self-styled dabblers who build altars or rings or burn spots in the foothills.

During the winter, the groups move indoors, use a shed or a barn for their rituals a few times and then burn them down. If their rituals have included criminal activity, "they burn the evidence," Parker says. "It's extremely difficult to prosecute."

True satanists who commit crimes are even more difficult to prosecute, he says. The crime allegations against such people usually involve child abuse, "and the guy will be your respectable, three-piece-suit, high mucky-muck in government or religion," Parker says.

Investigating the allegations is difficult, because no one wants to believe the victims. Officers who look into the allegations become suspect as well. "All of a sudden, you're as much of a fruitcake as them," Parker says.

Worse, there is significant danger associated with the investigations. People involved with satanism, particularly psychotics or self-styled believers, practice their rituals to gain power. And as Parker puts it, "it doesn't matter what you believe. If they believe Satan's with them, they'll do you."

"Working a ritualistic homicide or ritualistic abuse is probably the hardest thing anyone will do," he says. "And it will destroy a person, personally or professionally, if it goes any way but (a conviction)."

- Lt. Randy Johnson of the West Jordan Department of Public Safety, a self-described expert on satanism and the occult, lectures law enforcement groups and consults with therapists who are treating people who say they have been abused by satanists. He professes fundamentalist Christian beliefs in the devil and a force of evil but is careful to emphasize that non-dominant, alternative religions are valid expressions of spirituality and should not be persecuted for their differences.

"The vast majority of witches are law-abiding, professional, mature, ecologically minded people" who don't acknowledge the existence of Satan, he says.

- Assistant Attorney General Rob Parrish doesn't like to limit discussion of ritualistic abuse to satanism. "A lot of what may be perceived as organized satanic ritual is actually organized ritual child abuse," Parrish says.

As one of three people assigned to investigate and prosecute child sex abuse cases for the state of Utah, Parrish says since 1986, his office has received 12 complaints of ritualistic abuse.

Sgt. Willie Draughon, an investigator for the attorney general's office, says there are many more that never get reported, and some of the reports they have investigated have turned out to be baseless.

Both men say many of the pedophiles they investigate use satanist trappings as a motivator to rationalize their perversion. "Of course, there are satanist groups," says Draughon. "But worshiping Satan or any other entity is not a violation of the law."

For a variety of reasons, allegations of ritualistic abuse are often enough to scare a prosecutor away from a case. One reason is people still harbor prejudice against those who are receiving mental health therapy. But Parrish says that the fact they are in therapy to begin with means something has gone wrong in the course of their lives.

Another reason is plain revulsion. Allegations of ritualistic sex abuse are so distasteful that people don't even want to hear about them.