There'll be the devil to pay: The future of America's 'recovered memory movement' is at stake in a dollars 35m lawsuit. Rosie Waterhouse reports on one family's battle

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Indy Lifestyle Online
UNTIL November 1985, the Schwiderski family lived moderately prosperous, God- fearing lives in Spring, an upper-middle-class suburb in Houston, Texas.

Dennis Schwiderski was earning dollars 100,000 ( pounds 67,000) a year as a manager for a Texan oil company that he had been with for almost 20 years.

At weekends he enjoyed outdoor pursuits - golf, fishing, hunting and bicycling. His wife, Kathryn, stayed at home to raise their three children, Kelly, Kari and Dirk, who were progressing well at school. The family regularly attended Lakewood United Methodist Church, Harris County, of which they were founder members.

Today, the Schwiderski family is destroyed, persuaded by therapists that they were victims and perpetrators of sexual and physical abuse as members of a murderous, cannibalistic, satanic cult.

After seven years in therapy, in and out of hospital until February 1992, Kathryn Schwiderski is divorced and has no contact with her husband, children, grandchildren, sister or parents. She was subjected to criminal investigation and interrogation and reported to the Child Protection Services, she says, without any evidence of abuse.

She became convinced she was a member and victim of a satanic cult since her childhood and that she sexually and physically abused her own children; now she believes the memories were false, implanted by therapists through hypnotism and drugs. She continues to experience extreme emotional problems.

Kelly, now 23, has disappeared. She apparently still believes she was a member and victim of the cult and is in hiding. While Kari, now 21, has rejected the notion that she and her family were caught up in a satanic conspiracy, her marriage in 1991 collapsed under the strain of her mental anguish and a divorce action is pending. She is still estranged from her parents. Dirk, now 15, was for two years unable to face the father whom he once believed had molested him. But now they are reunited. However, doctors fear that he, too, will probably continue to suffer extreme mental anguish for the rest of his life.

Dennis, 49, continues to suffer emotional distress. He was investigated by a grand jury for allegedly abusing his son, but the case was not pursued, he says, because there was no evidence against him. He is now trying to find Kelly and to rebuild relations with Kari. Ultimately, he hopes for a reconciliation between his children and their mother, but his marriage is over. He managed to hang on to his job but is dollars 328,000 poorer after paying for treatment that led to the break-up of his family.

Now, the family has alleged in a dollars 35m civil lawsuit filed this year that therapists created false memories as part of a scheme to collect millions of dollars in fees for the treatment of non-existent abuse at the hands of a satanic cult.

The case, which will go to trial next year, is set to rock the US psychotherapy and psychiatric community. The defendants include some of America's leading exponents of recovered memory techniques. They include Judith Peterson, a psychologist from Houston, who first treated the family; Roberta Sachs, a psychologist from Illinois; and Bennett Braun, an Illinois doctor who specialises in multiple personality disorder. The family members are also suing the hospitals where they were treated. In total, there are 25 defendants. Not all face every allegation, but all are defending the action.

At stake are the reputations of the therapists and the recovered memory movement, which spread across the US in the late Eighties and is now growing in Britain. Both could stand or fall by the Schwiderski case.

The story can be told only through documents filed in the District Court of Harris County, Texas, since the judge has banned all participants and lawyers from speaking to the media.

The beginning of the end of the Schwiderski family was in November 1985 when, feeling mildly depressed, Kathryn decided to seek help from a therapist, Judith Peterson. After spending the next few years in and out of hospital as her mental state deteriorated, Kathryn claims she went into a long-term, uninterrupted commitment at Gulf Pines Hospital, Houston, early in 1989. By this stage Ms Peterson and three other therapists had diagnosed her as having 'multiple personality disorder, repressed memory syndrome and ritual abuse'. They said she was a member of a satanic cult and participated in activitites that included rape, torture, electroshock, drugging, human sacrifice, cult programming, organised crime, physical, mental and sexual abuse, cannibalism, kidnapping, murder 'and other nefarious activities'.

While committed, Kathryn says, she was often placed in restraints and ordered to recall purported cult activities, and was punished or threatened with, for example, restrictions of her hospital privileges if she did not describe her alleged participation in 'cult' activities. Kathryn claims she was also told that the cult would harm her if she was released from care; that she had killed people in 'cult' rituals but had repressed those memories; that she sexually abused and tortured her children and others; and that she had been sexually abused since her childhood. She claims that, without producing any corroborating evidence, the therapists used techniques that encouraged her to guess, speculate and 'confabulate' memories.

As a result, she came to believe her diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, repressed memory syndrome and ritual abuse, and that she had engaged in the satanic cult, ritual abuse, and sexual abuse.

Kathryn is now claiming up to dollars 35m damages for the seven years she alleges she was subjected to continued confinement and therapy because of the therapists' erroneous diagnosis; their assurance that the therapy would help her; and because of the fear implanted by them that the cult was everywhere and she would not see her family again unless she co-operated with the therapy.

In March 1989, aged 18, Kelly was admitted to Houston North West medical centre after attending a 'family conference' at which Ms Peterson concluded that she, too, was involved in the cult and joined in satanic orgies involving the abuse of her younger brother. Little is known about what she endured, as she is still missing.

In August 1989, Kari, then 16, went into the same hospital where she, too, had been called for a family conference. She had been a normal teenager attending a Houston high school where she was an excellent student and a flautist in the school band. After attending the family conference, she claims, she was locked into the psychiatric ward, rarely leaving the room for 21 months. She was diagnosed as suffering from multiple personality disorder and, she says, was told by Ms Peterson that she had killed babies in cult rituals and that she was in danger of being kidnapped by the cult if she left the hospital.

According to Dennis Schwiderski, his daughters were kept apart and forced into one-to-one therapy where a person would be with them every minute, watching them take showers and go to the bathroom. They were allegedly strapped down for 'so-called therapy sessions'. He has alleged the methods of treatment were 'grossly negligent' and the administration of drugs 'improper'.

Dirk was a normal 11-year-old and a good pupil when, in September 1989, he was called for a family conference and then allegedly detained for two years at Gulf Pines Hospital. Ms Peterson diagnosed that he was the victim of mental, physical and sexual abuse attributable to the participation in a satanic cult by his mother and two older sisters.

Over the years, Dennis was sent bills totalling dollars 2m - health insurance covered most of it, but when that ran out he had to pay dollars 328,000 - for treatment which persuaded his family they were murderers and cannibals. Then he and his family decided to sue.

Dennis's claim alleges the therapists and hospitals 'callously and recklessly perpetrated fraud upon him. They selected his family for treatment of satanic cult ritual abuse, not because his family had been part of a cult, but rather based upon gross negligence in the diagnosis and treatment of his family, as well as because they knew that such treatment would be profitable to them.

'Braun and Sachs hold themselves out as experts in satanic cult abuse and have offered for sale and profit videotapes on this topic. All the defendants deserve to be made an example of by the imposition of a large, punitive damages award.'

Dennis explains: 'I put the children in the hospital because of Dr Peterson's recommendations and because she told me that they needed to be there for their own protection from the cult.'

All the defendants have filed a defence denying the allegations without detailing their arguments, as is common in US courts. They stand by the therapists' diagnosis that the Schwiderski family were members of a satanic cult and therefore their treatment was justified.

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