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False memory ends sex assault case

A sex assault prosecution was dropped yesterday after experts advised that the alleged victim could be suffering from False Memory Syndrome, partly triggered by storylines in the television series Brookside and Cracker.

The accused man, who had been ordered to live apart from his wife and two children, was formally acquitted at Manchester Crown Court after the prosecution offered no evidence following two psychological assessments of the alleged victim, a 22-year-old woman.

Evidence of the controversial syndrome led to the clearing earlier this year of a woman who falsely confessed to killing her baby, a cot-death victim, after developing excessive guilt over the child's death. But yesterday's case is believed to be the first to be linked to fictional sex abuse on television.

The woman told counsellors that the memories of the assaults were partly sparked by the sexual abuse storyline in Channel 4's Brookside and a rape scene in an episode of ITV's Cracker.

But the fact that she had no recollection of her own attack before she began therapy was never spelt out in her police statement.

The "memories" of the indecent assault by the accused man, a 44-year- old engineer, only emerged many years after the alleged event when she began counselling for problems she was having at university.

The man said: "It's been dreadful. My family have been on hold for 14 months."

His barrister, Stephen Meadowcroft, said that in addition to receiving counselling, thewoman had been readingCourage to Heal, which argues that people may have been abused even if they have no recollection of it.

The woman claimed that the Cracker episode, depicting a rape victim pushed up against a wall, reminded her of how she had been assaulted.

Dr Bryan Tully, one of the two psychologists who examined her, said: "There were features in her accounts which indicated that her story could not be said to be wholly from stable, authentic, long-term memory of events."

Richard Marks, for the prosecution, told the court that the Crown had always been concerned about the case because of the lack of supporting evidence. The two psychologists had seen counselling notes and a number of the woman's diaries before concluding she might be suffering from False Memory Syndrome, he said.

A body of cases is now building up in which the syndrome has been used as a defence. Last year a 48-year-old father was cleared of raping his 22-year-old-daughter after the judge heard she developed the condition during counselling.

Some people have suggested that the syndrome has been exploited by abusers. But Roger Scotford, who runs the British False Memory Society helpline and himself a target of abuse allegations after his daughter "recovered" memories, insisted that the repression of shocking events for years was an "outdated and now discredited Freudian myth. People who were abused cannot forget it."