Although there is no definition "of ritual abuse and its variants which professionals currently agree upon," ritual abuse was first described, in 1980, as ritualized abuse: "repeated physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual assaults combined with a systematic use of symbols, ceremonies, and machinations designed and orchestrated to attain malevolent effects" . It is primarily used in the context of child abuse, typically in a child care setting. Frightening children is part of the scenario. 
Reports include at least three classes:
- true cult-based ritualistic abuse, which requires the existence of "an elaborated belief system and the attempt to create a particular spiritual or social system"
- pseudo-ritualistic abuse has the conscious intent of abuse, perhaps using spiritual or social symbols but with no underlying belief system
- psychopathological ritualism, in which an individual or group is operating on obsessive or delusional motivations, with neither an underlying belief structure nor a specific objective of intimidating children.
In other words, in the first class, the abusers are seeking to advance the goals of their belief system at the conscious expense of children. In the second, the perpetrators have goals of personal satisfaction that require the suffering of the victims; they use frightening symbols without belief in them. In the third, the abuser might be under the delusion he is a supernatural force and is simply acting in the manner consistent with such a being.
To use the specific example of Satanism, an abuser of the first class would have to believe that Satan requires these practices. One of the second class would use iconic descriptions, such as altars and sacrifice, which are likely to be associated with horror in the victims' minds. According to Hill and Goodwin, "historians of witchcraft have more experience than do therapists in analyzing the issues of skepticism and credibility that are inherent in studying satanism." They cite a taxonomy by Russell, which ranks assessment in the belief system ranging from regarding any practice as delusional (levels 1-3) to full theological belief (levels 7-8). They present many conventional therapists as assessing reports of Satanic ritual abuse as delusional, while counselors at levels 7-8 would accept and regard exorcism as the appropriate treatment. The intermediate levels, which Hill and Godwin presented as worthy of therapeutic considerations, involve the idea that some people follow perceived historical practices in an attempt to achieve personal goals.
- Van Benschoten, S.C. (1990). "Multiple Personality Disorder and Satanic Ritual Abuse: the Issue Of Credibility". Dissociation 3 (1): 22–30.
- Pazder cited in Kahaner, 1988, p. 201, cited in Van Benschoten
- Finkelhor, Williams, Burns, and Kalinowski (1988), p. 52, cited in Van Benschoten
- Sally Hill & Jean Goodwin (March 1989), "Satanism: Similarities between patient accounts and pre-inquisition historical sources", Dissociation 2 (I)
- Russell, J.B. (1972). Witchcraft in the middle ages. Cornell University Press., cited by Hill & Goodwin