End Ritual Abuse The Website of Ellen P. Lacter, Ph.D.

For Those Who Condemn Themselves for Acts Coerced Under Torture



One of the most disturbing horrors described by survivors of extreme child abuse is having been subjected to torture to coerce them, while being tortured, to harm or kill other victims. Many survivors describe clear memories of first being subjected to this form of abuse as young children. The subsequent moral injury is devastating.

For the purposes of this article, the term “torture” will refer to extreme physical and sexual assault and extreme psychological torment and terrorization, such as threats to kill loved ones.

The term, “moral injury” was introduced in 1994 by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., in his book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. Paraphrasing, it connotes the psychological damage to one’s character and/or faith in humanity that follows ethical violations by oneself or by those in power (See: Shay, J. (2014). Moral Injury, Psychoanalytic Psychology 31(2), pp 182-191 https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/4602-moralinjuryshayexcerpt.pdf). It prototypically involves unjust killing of others. It is usually applied to military contexts and combat veterans. However, as it increasingly enters the psychology mainstream, it is being applied to other interpersonal trauma, including child abuse.

This article seeks:

1) to educate therapists and survivors about the existence of torture-coerced perpetration;
2) to describe the long-term devastating moral injury resulting from having been coerced to harm others;
3) to describe the kinds of torture that predictably work to coerce victims to harm and kill others;
4) to describe various psychological responses of victims while they are being coerced to harm others;
5) to place full responsibility for all coerced harm with the abusers; the torture victims are innocent.
6) to help victims and survivors to overcome their moral injury, and to help therapists help them.

The descriptions of these phenomena and my opinions on these matters are based on my having provided psychotherapy to more than 40 people who have been subjected to extreme abuse since 1994, interviews within a research study with six intern-level therapists who are also survivors of such abuse, long-term collaboration with many colleagues who are survivor-therapists and survivor-activists, and my provision of consultation to more than 30 psychotherapists working with victims of this form of abuse.

The sections of this article are:

I. The Motives of the Abusers
II. The Psychological Devastation and Moral Injury of Having Been Coerced to Harm Others
III. A Brief Look at Torture
IV. Methods of Torture To Coerce Victims to Harm Other Victims
V. The Psychological Mechanisms Underlying Submission to the Will of Torturers
VI. A Realistic Evaluation of the Issue of Responsibility for Harm to Others Exacted under Torture
VII. The Law and Coerced Perpetration
VIII. A Survivor Declaration: A Means for Survivors of Such Torture to Support Each Other
IX. A Therapist Declaration: A Means for Psychotherapists to Stand Up for Victims and Survivors

Note: This article exposes horrific cruelty. The reader is advised to use self-care in deciding whether or not to read it. It may be advisable to show it to a psychotherapist or support person first and to have support in place to deal with any adverse reactions that may occur. The reader will be given the option to click a link to jump ahead at one particularly difficult point.

I. The Motives of the Abusers

Why do abuse perpetrators coerce their victims to harm others?

In my work with clients, interviews with survivors, consultation with other therapists, etc., the most frequently-reported abuser goal of coercing victims to harm others is to make victims, beginning in childhood, believe themselves to be evil in order to entrap and silence them. Survivors usually report that the end-point of such torture is a declaration by the abusers that takes some form of the following:

You are evil.
You are a murderer.
You are a criminal accomplice (the episode may be filmed for “evidence”).
You are now one of us.
You are now a willing member of the abuser group.
No one but us will want anything to do with you ever again.
The people who cared for you before can never care for you now.
No psychotherapist will ever want to help you.
All clergy will condemn you.
You are irredeemable in the eyes of God.
You now belong to: _____ (a god/goddess who demands blood sacrifice).

Abusers skilled in the psychological manipulation of the dissociative capacities of their victims seek to cause only specific dissociated identities to believe themselves evil and to maintain a front personality with no conscious memory of this torture and tyrannization.

Many survivors describe abusers with much more simple motives– sadism, sexual sadism, power lust, and blood lust, that is, pleasure in tyrannizing, exacting suffering from, and killing other human beings, all too often– children. Such abusers often film their coerced abuse and murder as personal mementos or to market these films on the dark web to other sadists for financial profit.

II. The Psychological Devastation and Moral Injury of Having Been Coerced to Harm Others

Torture in itself yields devastating psychological trauma. When it includes coercion to harm others, or worse, coercion to kill others, and pronouncements that the victim is now irredeemably evil, the ensuing moral injury devastates at the deepest levels of the psyche and soul.

Survivors of coercion to harm others, by abuser design, are confined in a prison of self-condemnation that is nearly impenetrable. They loop endlessly in internal self-punishment. Their depression is dark and dangerous. They often believe that their own suicide is the only commensurate response.

They cannot accept the acts they were forced to do. They desperately hold on to the idea that there must have been something that they could have done differently. Fantasies of undoing the harm, of saving and rescuing their victims, play endlessly, even if only in particular identities.

Any effort by therapists, loved ones, clergy, etc., to argue that complete responsibility for the harm or death of the third parties lies with the torturers who coerced the harm is often met with stoic resistance, as if to say: “This was a person’s life; I owe them my suffering, my life. To do otherwise is to render their torment and life meaningless.” The victims of coerced perpetration may think such therapists, etc., as well-meaning, but naive, superficial, as failing to acknowledge the depth of anguish of the victims who were hurt or killed. They often fear that their victims fear and blame them, even despise them.

They are in deep and endless mourning. There is usually no memorial service for victims killed within extreme abuse. They feel that they must carry the burden of honoring their lives alone.

Some survivors believe that they spiritually carry their victims’ souls within them to try to help them.

They feel unworthy of accepting love, compassion, or friendship from other people. They often isolate themselves believing that they carry a burden of shame that is beyond redemption. In many cases, they also fear that their abusers will force them to harm or kill anyone with whom they become close.

Having been coerced to harm others is perhaps the greatest causative factor in victims of extreme abuse dissociating the memories of their abuse long-term. As long as such memories are unavailable or sequestered in only specific personality states, they will never have anyone help them to piece together that, under torture, they had no control, no option, but to submit. They live with chronic anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and stress-based medical disorders, with no ability to recall, disclose, process, or resolve their trauma.

Coerced harm and its aftereffects are also a formula for ongoing victimization. These victims may feel condemned to remain with the perpetrator group as a life-long victim. By abuser design, it can also lay the groundwork for victims to become co-perpetrators within their abuser networks.

Psychotherapists need to talk more about this, to publish papers and internet articles about it so survivors can find this information. We need to present about this at conferences so that other therapists can learn about it, so that we can all help each other to help these victims. This issue needs much greater exposure.

III. A Brief Look at Torture

How much torture, that is, extreme physical and sexual assault, psychological torment, terrorization, and threats of harm to loved ones, can a person take before submitting to the will of one’s tormenters to harm others? What severity of torture, for what duration, and at what degree of captivity, does it take to get a person to comply immediately with persecutor directives?

A natural and automatic response to hearing that someone was coerced through torture to severely harm or kill another person is to imagine oneself in that person’s position and to think, “I could not be made to harm another person; I would withstand any level of torture; I would sooner die than torture or kill another person.” We think this way to protect our own psyche, to preserve our moral integrity.

But I believe that we have a moral obligation to work to overcome these reflexive self-protective thoughts and to try to more fully understand the nature and experience of torture.

The first critical point is that torturers rarely allow death as an option. Torturers generally have other goals than death. Otherwise, they would simply kill their victims. They induce states of pain, terror, injury, even mutilation, while keeping victims conscious and alive. Many survivors report that their abuser network included medical personnel who had the means to keep victims in a state of near death, pain, even substantial injury, indefinitely. If victims began to faint, that was over-ridden by administering a stimulant to keep the victim conscious. Reliably, victims say that they would gladly have chosen death over what they were being subjected to, but they were never given that choice.

Now, I will describe methods of torture that survivors describe to allow the reader to begin to imagine what it is like to endure torture. Every fiber of our being naturally resists this difficult mental trip. But, developing a deep understanding of how excruciating torture is can make a difference to survivors.

The reader may click here to skip this section.

First, imagine the worst electric shock you have ever gotten. It probably lasted a split second and hurt terribly. You felt a frightening vibration. Your sympathetic nervous system was instantly activated and anxiety rushed through your brain and body. Now imagine that shock lasted two full seconds. This would be excruciating and terrifying. You would be in full panic, your skin would burn, your muscles would cramp. At five seconds, you would be sure you would die. You cannot even imagine 15 seconds.

Now imagine that the shock is being delivered by a terrifying abuser who holds a remote control device to deliver shock to a unit attached to your body and that this abuser has already demonstrated a level of sadism without limits. How much electric shock torture could you endure before you would do anything to get it to stop for even a moment?

Electric shock is perhaps the most common form of torture that survivors report. It can be delivered with a simple hand-held device, is easily increased to punish and decreased to reward, it can be applied while victims are being subjected to another form of torture, and it can be done without leaving marks.

I will list just a few other kinds of torture that survivors regularly report:

Rape: vaginal, rectal rape, gang rape, with sharp objects, weapons, etc.
Filming of their torture
Verbal cruelty, mockery, ridicule, laughter and elation in response to victim’s pain and terror Hanging, including upside-down, in stress positions, while being spun, etc.
Submersion in tanks of water filled with ice
Being buried alive with insects, snakes, rats, etc., with an oxygen source controlled by the abusers
Suspension over fire or extreme heat
Extreme thirst and starvation
Leaving victims in their urine, excrement and vomit
Forced ingestion of noxious substances
Control of the environs– painfully hot or cold, dark or intensely bright, sound bombardment, etc. Mutilation, e.g., removal of nails or digits
Removal of body organs and dismemberment of victims held in complete captivity

These are only a few examples of the forms of torture reported by victims of extreme abuse (for example, see the complete findings of the Extreme Abuse Survey Series, by Wanda Karriker, Ph.D., Thorsten Becker, Carol Rutz, and Bettina Overcamp, Ph.D., on this website: https://endritualabuse.org/findings-from-the-2007-extreme-abuse-survey-eas-series/). Based on these reports, I am convinced that these abusers verse themselves in methods of torture used throughout history to the present. A simple computer search of the word “torture” will yield hundreds, if not thousands, of gruesome images of excruciating methods of torture, old and new. Perpetrators incorporate these into their repertoires, manufacture torture devices, and may even gain access to antiquated devices.

IV. Methods of Torture To Coerce Victims to Harm Other Victims

I have listened to hundreds of accounts of victims being subjected to unbearable torture to coerce them to harm or kill other victims. I believe that I now understand the basic structure that allows torture to work predictably to coerce harm. Simply, the abusers punish any sign of resistance or defiance, any lack of compliance, with prolonged, intensified, or compounded torture inflicted either, 1) directly on them, or, 2) on one or more other victims.

For example, they subject victims to prolonged starvation, freezing cold, and suffocation. They tighten a vice on a limb. They often add a second form of torture to the first. Commonly, they add electric shock to other torture. Victims are often pre-wired with electrodes for this purpose.

Victims learn quickly that their abusers continue their torture until they comply. They cannot wait it out. The abusers have time on their side. There is no end other than submission. There is no physical escape. No help is coming.

There is no hope for mercy. There is no end to the abusers’ cruelty. They are compulsive in their sadism. Their addiction to evil is terrifying. The resultant revulsion and terror overlay the physical torture.

The abusers inflict unbearable torture until the victim submits or enters a desperate frenzied “kill or be killed” state. This is an animalistic survival response. The victim will do anything for even a moment’s relief. We can all be brought to this state much more quickly than we would ever want to know.

Many survivors of extreme abuse report that while they were subjected to torture to coerce harm, their perpetrators also administered drugs to agitate them physiologically to activate “kill-or-be-killed” states and to make them believe that they performed these acts willingly. In his memoir, “A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” (2008), Ishmael Beah describes the use of drugs for this purpose. The commanders kept the child soldiers high on “brown browns,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder that, “gave us a lot of energy and made us fierce.”

The second means to coerce victims to harm others is to demonstrate that failure to comply will result in harm or death to one or more other victims. This is usually done in the context of direct torture as described above. Specifically, while victims are being subjected to torture to coerce them to harm or kill someone else, the abusers present the victim with an alleged choice, one that is actually a false choice, between two reprehensible options. They demonstrate, or credibly threaten, that if the victim does not inflict harm on the intended victim, the abusers will do one of the following:

1) inflict worse or more prolonged torture or murder on that intended victim, , e.g., if a child does not stab a younger child to death, the abusers will slowly kill the younger child over a flame in front of the older child,
2) inflict worse or more prolonged torture or murder on somebody else, 3) harm or kill more than one person or animal, or,
4) harm or kill a person or a pet whom the victim loves.

An age-old way to control adults, standard practice in organized crime and a staple in every psychopath’s arsenal, is for perpetrators to tell people that if they do not comply with their demands, if they do not remain silent, etc., their children or other loved ones will be killed. This works equally well with children. Abusers tell children that if they do not cooperate with their directives, their parents will be killed, their siblings will be killed, their best friends, their beloved pets, etc. Of course, perpetrators top this off with: “And this will be your fault, you made the choice to kill them, their blood will be on your hands.” In extreme abuse, such threats are, of course, delivered in the context of being tortured, states of pain, terror, and complete helplessness, and the abusers having already demonstrated that they are fully capable of killing other people.

In a related form of abuse, abusers torture or kill other victims to punish children. Survivors report that their abusers retaliate with harm to others if they disclose their abuse, otherwise threaten the security of the abuser group, fail to complete a mission (such as abduct another child), fail to perform well enough sexually, fail to do something quickly enough, etc. The abusers directly blame children for the harm that the abusers themselves inflict on other children. Of course, there is no logic in blaming oneself for harm perpetrated by others, but the set-up reliably entraps children in horrible self-condemnation.

All of the above-described methods are Machiavellian, calculated, chess-like, and very painful to think about. These tactics are unthinkable if you are an empathic human being, but they are simple if you have the mind of a sadist or psychopath.

The life-long psychological devastation of these kinds of cruelty is beautifully portrayed in the book and film, Sophie’s Choice. Sophie begs a Nazi soldier not to send her and her children to the death camps. The soldier tells Sophie to give him one of her children or he will send both to the death camps. Sophie begs and resists. The soldier begins to grab them both and Sophie lets him take her daughter. The central theme of the book and film is Sophie’s struggle, her inability to find a moment of peace, as if she bore responsibility for the horrific act when she only avoided the worse inevitable consequence.

Therapists need to gain a deep understanding of how torture-coerced harm works and that its victims have no option other than to comply. This is unthinkable, unspeakable, evil, even to the victims who lived through it. So, we need to be prepared to talk about it for them and with them to help them make sense of it, to realize what they were up against, and to replace self-condemnation with self-compassion. Unless therapists serve this function, abusers will have accomplished their goal of locking victims into never-ending self-loathing and silence, failing to recover from their trauma, and often, continuing to be victimized into adulthood.

V. The Psychological Mechanisms Underlying Submission to the Will of Torturers

How much torture can a victim realistically be expected to endure before submitting to the commands of his or her persecutors to harm or kill another person? Can men hold out longer than women? What about a child?

Victims of extreme abuse regularly report that they were coerced to harm and kill other victims while they were children. Yet, they usually condemn themselves as if they were adults. But if they were adults, how much longer would they have been able to resist compliance? How much pain and terror can anyone take?

What about a soldier? How much longer could a trained soldier resist? Soldiers at high risk for capture are trained to resist submission to the will of their torturers for the short-term with the expectation that their comrades will implement rescue operations. In military contexts, the hope of rescue is realistic and helps them hang on. Twenty-four hours is a common standard for which honor is accorded. After that….

At excruciating levels of pain and terror with no chance of rescue or escape, would anyone, even a trained soldier, submit to the will of his torturer(s)?

At this point in my understanding, I believe that there are three levels of submission, of “breaking”:

Level 1: The victim retains the wish not to submit to harming another person, but complies because the degree of pain and/or terror has reached the point of being unbearable or based in fear of harm to loved ones or greater harm to other victims.

Level 2: The victim has been tortured to the point of destruction of all personal volition. There is no experience of emotion. The victim submits automatically to persecutor directives to harm others, much like a robot or a hammer in the hands of the perpetrators.

Level 3: The physical and psychological torment has been so long-term and severe that the victim finally “breaks” and embraces sadistic violence as one’s own choice. The victim believes the self to be a willing member of the abuser network.

What causes such a soul-deadening break? It appears to be a response to horror that is so extreme, so relentless, that the victim can no longer tolerate being a victim. The only way to preserve any sense of self-agency, even a rudimentary sense of self, is to embrace sadistic violence as one’s own will. In so doing, the victim no longer need feel repeatedly defeated, helpless, and terrorized, and paradoxically, finds a way to escape the self-loathing of having harmed and killed others. This response also provides a way to discharge pent-up rage rooted in one’s own victimization. Readers with knowledge of psychoanalytic thought will correctly understand this as a form of defensive identification with the aggressor. And yes, this can be a step on one path to becoming a perpetrator or sadist who independently abuses others.

In some cases, perpetrators of extreme abuse psychologically manipulate victims to fill them with rage to deliberately elicit a Level 3 response. They may manipulate them into believing themselves to be soldiers fighting for their abusers’ cause. They are encouraged to discharge their rage in the interest of this cause. The tactics used to accomplish this are very similar to those used to develop child soldiers as described in some depth in Beah’s memoir, “A Long Way Gone.”

Within each level, the victim usually breaks in a second way as well. The mind dissociates into separate identities to distribute the burden of this unbearable horror.

At Level 1, identities form who unwillingly comply with the forced harm while the parts of the psyche normally functioning in life outside of the abuse are amnestic to this nightmare.

At Level 2, identities form who robotically obey the commands of the persecutors while other identities remain amnestic for this abuse.

At Level 3, only specific identities embrace the abusers’ motives as their own. The rest of the psyche is spared.

VI. A Realistic Evaluation of the Issue of Responsibility for Harm to Others Exacted under Torture

I have sat with victims as they reveal these horrors to me. Simply listening is almost too much to take. But I write down every word. I will not let these horrors be forgotten or dismissed. I try to put myself in their position. And when I do, I am clear that I could not hold out any longer than they did, that I would break, and that I too would harm and kill another person to make the torture stop. I tell them:

I know that they would have been able to make me do that too, even though I am 65 years old, not a child. There is no way that anybody could not comply under those conditions. Anyone who says they would have not done these things is living in a happy bubble, has been lucky enough to have never had to find out how these horrors work.

When victims describe these horrors being perpetrated against them as children, I sometimes feel that I am losing my mind. My heart breaks as I watch them carry the torment of this devastating moral injury.

I type up my often inadequate efforts to find the right words to help them overcome their unjust and heart-wrenching pain. I try to understand how bad the torture was and to put it into words. I tell them that they were stripped of all control, that they had no choice to do anything different. I try to help them to realize that they would never have committed any of these acts of their own will, that they would have rescued their victims if there was any way. And when they would have sooner died than do what they were coerced to do, I tell them that I understand and that I know that they were not given that choice.

I try to breathe as they tell me of the compassion that they have for the children who were forced to hurt them as children, understanding the intense forces that were acting on them, and how they immediately forgave them, even during the torture, even while being almost killed.

I sit in near-disbelief as they tell me that some of the victims they were forced to kill, the ones with whom they had been long-term co-victims, looked at them during this horror with understanding, love, compassion, and sorrow, holding them blameless, knowing they had no choice in any of this.

I always remember the 5-year-old child who told me that she forgave the teenage boy who sexually abused her because she knew he was abused too. Then she paused, and said: “The people who abused him probably got hurt when they were little too.”

How many adults are willing to know what this 5-year-old girl had no choice but to know? How we hunger for newspaper stories that paint killers as sub-human. How we love to believe we could never be anything like them.

We as therapists need to let our clients know, through our words and demeanor, that we know that torture of this magnitude is perpetrated, that the pain, terror, and helplessness are unendurable, that victims lose all self-agency, and that under these condition, there is no option but compliance. We need to sit in knowledge and compassion rather than denial or condemnation.

We need to understand well enough to explain how this works, as many times as it takes, to help victims begin to forgive themselves for what they hold no realistic responsibility and could not escape.

Although the moral injury runs deep, although it may take years for victim-survivors to overcome their self-condemnation, our understanding and words of insight mean the world to them.

Note: Psychologist Harvey Schwartz has authored what I believe to be the most scholarly treatise on coerced perpetration, internalized perpetration, and psychological processes that heal and transform in his book, The Alchemy of Wolves and Sheep: A Relational Approach to Internalized Perpetration in Complex Trauma Survivors (2013, Routledge). When I sent this article to him, he sent back these inspiring words:

We have a need as healers/witnesses/documenters to transform compassionate witnessing into action and to convert the vicarious and secondary post traumatic stress (related to holding unrecognized meaningless human torment and atrocity in our hearts and minds) into meaningfulness, meaningful relatedness and action aimed at societal transformation. The healing of coerced perpetration trauma is indeed the deep end of the trauma pool. And, while there are no simple recipes for that task, it is in my opinion, a combination of excellent dynamic trauma work coupled with deep contextualization, normalization, universalization, plus the deep humanity and non-hierarchical process of the therapy, that taken together over time (with love, comedy, and art and spirit if possible in the mix) can lead survivors out of the matrix of self-hatred and confused identification over time, time, time.

VII. The Law and Coerced Perpetration

Foundational legal principles, beginning in English Common Law, the historical roots of American law, all the way back to the English House of Commons in 1680, attribute guilt to persons who use other persons to commit a crime and excuse from guilt persons who were coerced to participate..

The Historia Placitorum Coronae, The History of the Pleas of the Crown, is a legal treatise on the English common law by Sir Matthew Hale, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1671 to 1676 under King Charles II (See http://www.mindserpent.com/American_History/books/Hale/hist_pleas_crown/History_PC_001.pdf). Hale was a member of parliament under Oliver Cromwell before he became Chief Justice, the highest judge in England, comparable to Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was highly respected as fair and honest by people on both sides of the English Civil War– cavaliers and roundheads.

Chief Justice Hale was unable to finish preparing his treatise for publication before his death in 1676, so the English House of Commons ordered a committee of legal scholars to complete his authoritative and foundational work, funded by Parliament, and published in 1680.

Hale said in his two paragraphs on burglary (p. 555), paraphrasing from 17th Century English legal language:

If a grown man (who we are going to call “Mr. A” in this example) teaches a child of age seven or eight (or younger– but this is only implied) to go into people’s houses and steal from them, and then give the things he has stolen to Mr. A, it is Mr. A who has committed the crime, even though the child did all the actions.

Likewise, if the wife of Mr. A is threatened or coerced by her husband to steal from the house of Mr. B, it is Mr. A and not his wife who has committed the crime, even though his wife did all the actions. Mrs. A is excused from any criminal guilt because her husband coerced her actions.

These two paragraphs are stated as legal fact with no references to cases. The idea that coercion is an excuse to guilt is so well fixed in England’s ideas of crime and justice that it is unnecessary to cite legal precedent.

The key point of this foundational legal principle is that coercion is an “excuse from guilt,” not a “defense” for a criminal act. When people claim a defense, they are claiming: “Yes, I did the crime, but I should not be punished for it because of this defense,” e.g., “Yes, I took the things, but I only did so because I was tricked, so it would not be right to punish me.” When the law says that a person is excused from guilt, it is saying that the person never committed any crime in the first place. In the case of coerced perpetration, it is saying: The person carries no guilt because someone else used the person’s actions to commit his or her crime.

Fast forward 240 years to March 12, 1920, in Wales. Justice Peterson of the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice of England defined coercion in the case of Hodges v. Webb when he wrote:

“‘Coercion’ involves something in the nature of the negation of choice.”

Justice Peterson’s definition is a critical point in the history and philosophy of the law. Because it was written in a Chancery Court, it carries great weight as a defining legal principle that still applies today. Chancery courts or divisions of courts are designed and specifically charged to apply concepts of what the law calls “equity” rather than the letter of accepted law and doctrine. Chancery courts are concerned with what is called “Conscientious Law” or “Natural Law,” a philosophical approach to justice that forms much of the basis for today’s concepts of human rights, civil rights, and equality under law.

Natural Law, the term most-often used in the United States, asserts that people have certain inherent rights by virtue of human nature. Traditionally, it asserts that these rights can be understood through human reason and were endowed on all humans by God or some other transcendent source.

Natural Law has been very influential in English common law and forms the foundation of key historical documents like the United States Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

A wide array of religions and cultures have concepts of Natural Law, including the Roman Stoics, the Celts (known as Brehon law), Cicero, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Muslims, and the Jews (for example, see: http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/3244014/jewish/The-Judaic-Basis-for-Natural-Law.htm)

Note: Readers can learn more about Natural Law from this well-respected online source: Murphy, Mark, “The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/natural-law-ethics/

When Justice Peterson wrote his definition of coercion, he was speaking both for a court and legal system and as a legal philosopher. His lifetime of studying and putting into practice concepts of justice led him to the conclusion that when someone is coerced, their choices are negated.

To be convicted of a crime, a person has to have made a choice to do the act. This is the concept of mens rea, Latin for “a guilty mind,” that is, having criminal intent. In Latin, actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea: the act is not a crime unless the mind is guilty.

Justice Peterson’s definition of coercion is directly applicable to the coerced perpetration discussed in this article. In cases of coercion, individuals have been robbed of the capacity to make a choice. An individual who had no choice can commit no crime.

What does this mean in today’s world? Institutions charged with the protection of the citizenry would press criminal charges against the persons who applied torture to coerce victims to harm other victims and would be highly unlikely to even consider charging victims who were being tortured to coerce them to harm others.

Even if charges were considered against individuals coerced to do harm, there is also a long history in the law that allows for the defense of duress in criminal acts coerced through violence or threat of serious and inescapable bodily harm or death. Duress is recognized as a defense to some, if not all, otherwise criminal acts. When duress is not allowed as a defense, it may be used to reduce the degree of the crime or to mitigate the crime when the defendant is sentenced.

To assert the defense of duress, it must first be shown that the defendant was compelled to commit the crime by a threat of death or serious harm to himself, herself, or others. Second, the threat must be real and immediate. Third, the law generally requires that the harm done by committing the crime be less, or at least not disproportionately greater, than the harm done if the threat were carried out.

However, two important legal principles can mitigate the third requirement.

The first mitigating legal principle is the idea that the serious threat of harm or death removes the possibility that the defendant could have acted in any other way. In other words, the defendant had no choice in the matter. If the circumstances do not permit the individual to exercise a moral choice not to commit the crime, the criminal act is not viewed as voluntary, so the defendant is not deserving of blame or punishment. Luis E. Chiesa, in his article, “Duress, Demanding Heroism, and Proportionality,” explains:

According to this theory, duress exculpates actors whose choice-making capabilities are substantially reduced by the coercive situation that generates the defense. This reduction in the actor’s capacity to choose not to yield to the threat makes her choice to engage in the wrongful act tantamount to a decision that has been forced upon her. Thus, it has been stated that the actor’s choice to protect her interests at the expense of others is in reality “no choice at all” and that duress exculpates the actor because her capacity to choose to do otherwise is “absent” in light of the coercion. [citations omitted]

(Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 41:741, page 758, https://www.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/78/Chiesa-CR-author-edits-ARJ-final.pdf)

The second mitigating legal principle is that individuals are not expected to perform acts of heroism to avert harm to others. If there is no reasonable alternative to committing a crime, it may be considered justified, not illegal. Chiesa explains:

Accepting this thesis [that the harm that the actor is coerced to inflict must not be disproportionally greater than the harm averted to oneself] would lead to punishing the defendants in the coerced terrorist and nuclear bomb cases for failing to make a heroic sacrifice so that many people can live. This is contrary to the principle that the law has no right to demand that people engage in acts of heroism. This principle is so entrenched in U.S. criminal law that the drafters of the Model Penal Code expressly stated that the basis for the exculpation afforded by the duress defense is that it would be socially debilitating to “demand that heroism be the standard of legality.” After all, “the standard is that of the reasonable man, not the reasonable hero.” Moreover, for the law to demand heroic self- sacrifice would be hypocritical because most persons of reasonable moral firmness are incapable of abiding by such a high standard. [citations omitted]

(Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 41:741, page 757, https://www.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/78/Chiesa-CR-author-edits-ARJ-final.pdf)

When a child is coerced to commit crimes by means of threats of physical harm to himself, herself, family or others, it must be remembered that virtually all jurisdictions set an age floor below which a child has no criminal culpability at all. Above such an age floor, there may be a secondary age bracket in which a determination is made as to the child’s ability to make adult decisions as to the crime, or a child may automatically be treated according to adult law. For instance in the State of Washington, “Children under the age of eight years are legally incapable of committing crime.” Children age eight but under age twelve are presumed to be incapable of committing crimes, “but this presumption may be removed by proof that they have sufficient capacity to understand the act or neglect, and to know that it was wrong” RCW 9A.04.050. This reflects society’s concern and understanding that children of different ages have different abilities to understand the nature of their actions and may not have developed an understanding of right and wrong. Therefore, the youngest children are not blamed, older children may be blamed if it is shown that they have enough understanding, and still older children may be held to adult standards. If a child is held to adult standards, then the defense of duress could be asserted, as discussed above.

The law supports the idea that people do not carry guilt for acts committed under coercion, including threats of harm to loved ones, and especially when subjected to horrifically untenable states such as torture. Torture victims have been coerced, and per legal philosophy and history, robbed of choice. They act under the most extreme duress, their acts are considered involuntary by the law, and they cannot be expected to accomplish super-human heroics or sacrifice their own lives (if even given this option).

When the victims who are coerced to do harm are children, to even consider them blameworthy, legally or otherwise, is absurd.

VIII. A Survivor Declaration: a Means for Survivors of Such Torture to Support Each Other

What follows is a victim/survivor declaration of disavowal of all moral responsibility for having harmed or killed others while being subjected to torture.

I invite victims and survivors of such torture to anonymously “sign” this statement.

To maximize the anonymity and safety of victims/survivors and their loved ones and to increase the credibility of the results, the procedure to “sign” this declaration is included below the declaration.

Survivor Declaration

I stand in solidarity with other victims and survivors of extreme abuse to do everything in my power to overcome all self-condemnation and self-punishment for having been coerced through torture to harm other victims. We are innocent of all acts coerced under torture. The guilt, shame, and moral responsibility for these acts is borne entirely by the perpetrators who executed the torture.


I commit to making every conceivable effort in my mind and my heart to overcome all sense of moral responsibility and moral injury for harm coerced by my abusers.


There is nothing that I have done for which I must ask forgiveness, seek absolution, or make reparations. I did not conceive of these acts. I did not choose to do these acts. It is neither fair nor just to hate myself.


I am as worthy of love as anyone else. I have a right to compassion for having been tortured in this way.


My heart breaks for the people I was forced to hurt or kill. I feel great love and sorrow for them. I deeply hope that they have found peace. I appreciate that they may fear or hate me. For this, I have compassion.


I sign this declaration in the hope that by standing together, by standing up for each other, that we may all be strengthened and increase our capacity to love and heal ourselves.

How to Sign this Declaration

These procedures should make the identities of survivors very difficult to trace. Using only credentialed psychotherapists to submit anonymous signatures should increase the credibility of the endorsements and reduce the validity of any allegations that a small number of people signed the document multiple times.

1) The survivor has only one step: Inform a credentialed psychotherapist in person (not via telephone or any electronic form of communication) that you want to “sign” this declaration.

2) Therapist One: The therapist will create a pseudonym for the survivor of enough complexity that no one else is likely to use it. The therapist will not reveal the pseudonym to the survivor.

3) Therapist One: The therapist will provide this pseudonym and proof of his or her credentials to a second credentialed psychotherapist in person or by postal mail (not via telephone or any electronic form of communication) and then the first therapist will shred the record of this pseudonym.

4) Therapist Two: The second therapist will contact me by email (ellenlacter@earthlink.net) to schedule a phone call with me without specifying that it concerns this declaration. (It is common for therapists to contact me to ask a question or two or to schedule a consultation.)

5) Therapist Two: In this phone appointment with me, the second therapist will provide to me the pseudonym for the survivor and verification of his or her license. The second therapist will then shred the pseudonym and any record of the name of the first therapist.

6) I will add the pseudonym to the declaration and will shred any record of my communication with the second therapist, including my verification of their therapy license.

IX. Declaration by Psychology Professionals: A Means for Psychotherapists and Researchers to Stand Up for Victims and Survivors

The following declaration allows psychotherapists and researchers to declare that they have conducted psychotherapy or research with one or more individuals who have made reports of having been forced through torture to harm or kill other victims and to state their belief that these individuals do not carry any moral responsibility for these acts. To add your name to this list, just email me at: ellenlacter@earthlink.net

Declaration by Psychology Professionals

(including psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, social psychologists, social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists, physicians, etc.)

I have conducted psychotherapy or research with one or more individuals who have provided what I judge to be credible reports of having been coerced through torture to harm or kill other victims.


I view these individuals as having been subjected to levels of pain and terrorization that are beyond all human endurance and as having had no choice but to submit to the coercion of their torturers.


I believe that the guilt, shame, and moral responsibility for these acts is borne entirely by the perpetrators who executed the torture, not by the victims who were being coerced.


These victims have done nothing for which they must seek forgiveness, absolution, or make reparations. They did not conceive of these acts. They did not choose to do these acts.


These victims are innocent. They are as worthy of love and compassion as anyone else.


I sign this declaration in the hope that by standing together with other psychology professionals and by standing up for victims and survivors of extreme abuse, the survivors may all be strengthened, be better- able to love themselves, and have an increased capacity to heal from their trauma.

Ellen P. Lacter. Ph.D., California
Julie L. Allen, MA, LCPC, Maine
Jean Maria Arrigo, Ph.D., California
Thomas Ball, Ed.D., D.Min., Michigan
Scott D. Brandt, Ph.D., California
Sara Brashear, LMFT, California
Deborah Brenner-Liss, Ph.D., California
Kathy Broady, MSW, Australia
Nada Marie Brzovich, LCSW, Illinois
Sandra Buck, M.D., Community Paediatrician and Counsellor (retired), United Kingdom
Suzie Burke, R.N., Ph.D., Colorado
Kymbra Clayton, Ph.D., Australia
Mandy Coghill, Counsellor, United Kingdom
Stefanie M. Consolla, Ph.D., Maryland
Rev. Kevin J. Coward, LPC, Virginia
Shamai Currim, Ph.D., Connecticut
Heather Davediuk Gingrich, Ph.D, Colrado
Deborah H. Dawes, Ph.D., Arkansas
Kathy Downing, LMFT, California
Walt Ferris, LCSW, California
Ellie Fields, LIMHP, LPC, Nebraska
Michael H. Foust, Ph.D., California
Tina Fossella, MA, LMFT, California
Barbara Gaetano, Ph.D., California
Jo Getzinger, MSW, Michigan
Hans Ulrich Gresch, Ph.D., Germany
Cindie Henrie, MFT, BCETS, California
Elizabeth F. Howell, Ph.D., New York
Jan Hunsinger, LMFT, California
Susan S. Hykes, Registered psychotherapist, Colorado
Rev. Lynn James, LMHC, Indiana
Wanda Karriker, Ph.D., North Carolina
Martin Katchen, Ph.D., California
Cheryl Knight MTh, MS, Michigan
Rainer Hermann Kurz, Ph.D., Chartered Psychologist, United Kingdom
Karl Lehman, M.D., Illinois
Diana Lett, LCSW, LISAC, Arizona
Sally E. McCollum, Ph.D., Idaho
Martha McDougald, LCSW, Maine
Pamela Noblitt, California
Randy Noblitt, Ph.D., California
Adelle R. Madison, LPCC-S, Ohio
Brian Moss, MA, LMFT, Washington
Laura Mullis, LCSW, Georgia
Liz Mullinar, AM, BTh, M. Couns, Australia
Mary O’Leary Wiley, PhD, ABPP, Pennsylvania
Sarita Overton, Ph.D., Michigan
Cecily A. Resnick, Ph.D., California
Sue Richardson, United Kingdom
Jean Riseman MSW, California
Monica Rubinow, IMFT, California
Harvey Schwartz, Ph.D., California
Robin Shapiro, Ph.D., Washington
Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D., Maryland
Valerie Sinason, Ph.D., Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, Member of the Institute of Psychoanalysis
Robin Spiro, LCSW, New Jersey
Staci Sprout, LICSW, CSAT, Washington
Kirsten Stach, Ireland
Helen M. Thompson, BsSc., Grad Dip Psy, MAPS, Australia
Tara Tulley, LDEM, LCSW, Utah
Joan Vanore, MA, MFT, Indiana, retired.
Sarah E.S. Watt, LMHC, CSAT, Florida
Marcia Weiner, Ph.D. , C.Psych., Canada
Sally Wood, Ph.D., California
Deborah Woolley, MSW, LICSW, Washington

End Ritual Abuse The Website of Ellen P. Lacter, Ph.D.

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