Recovered memories of sex abuse `usually true'

Report angers families who say they were victims of injustice amid conc ern over therapists who use leading questions and hypnosis
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"recovered memories" of previously forgotten childhood trauma, including sex abuse, are largely reliable but memories of such events can be false and implanted by poor therapeutic technique, a study has found.

The report by the British Psychological Society (BPS) which carried the study will do little to defuse the fierce debate on recovered memory related to child sex abuse. The report also concludes there is little evidence that false memories can be createdfrom scratch unless they have been "extensively rehearsed" in the imagination.

More than 500 families in Britain are claiming false accusations of sex abuse following an adult son or daughter's therapy in which they "recovered" memories of childhood trauma, including satanic and ritual abuse.

The British False Memory Society, (BFMS) which represents the families, reacted angrily to the report, claiming it endorsed "pseudo-scientific" theories. Roger Scotford, a spokesman, said it gave credence to unreliable techniques such as hypnotic regression and "question-begging" associated with recovered memory therapy.

But Professor John Morton, chairman of the BPS working party, said ". . . we clearly say that false memory can be implanted and we clearly say there are certain techniques we disapprove of. It is not clear what else we could say . . . In individual caseseither parents or the [son or daughter] may be lying or both . . . we cannot make any individual judgements. It is up to the police and the judiciary. . . "

Professor Phil Mollon, of the Lister Hospital, Stevenage, also a member of the working party, said false memories could result from a child growing up in an atmosphere of "overt sexuality" which fell short of sex abuse but would lead to confusion and uncertainty.

Nine out of ten senior psychologists who took part in the survey said that "recovered memories" of traumatic experiences are sometimes or usually "essentially accurate". However, two-thirds also believe that false memories of such events are also possible. One in five psychologists believed their clients had experienced false memories.

Dr Bernice Andrews of the Royal Holloway College, London University, said that the survey of 810 psychologists (27 per cent of those sent the questionnaire) was representative of those practising in Britain.

She said that recovered memory of trauma was not uncommon; 50 per cent of respondents said they had clients who had experienced this during therapy. But the survey also found that almost one-third of respondents had clients who had started to recover memory before they had entered therapy, and often it was the reason for seeking help. Of the psychologists surveyed, only 10 per cent said they used hypnotic regression.

Dr Andrews said she accepted that confidence in BPS members did not preclude "unscrupulous therapists" using leading questions, ambiguous interpretation and bad techniques.

The report recommends that the BPS ensures its members carry out therapy in accordance with its new guidelines. It also asks research organisations to give higher priority to the properties of memory, and asks the Department of Health to consider the report in its review of NHS psychotherapy services.

Professor Larry Weiskrantz, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Oxford University, speaking for the BFMS, described the report as "badly flawed".

9Recovered Memories: Working Party of the British Psychological Society; 48 Princess Roads East, Leicester LE1 7DR; £10.

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