The way we live: Abuse claims may be all in the mind

A new report on diagnosing childhood sexual abuse has split the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The study, which says false memories can be planted in patients' mind, has caused a furious row.

Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, investigates.

The question of whether forgotten memories of childhood sexual abuse can be brought back with the aid of therapy has been bitterly contested ever since the first cases emerged in the United States over the past decade.

Now a new committee set up by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that many recovered memories of sexual abuse "have no basis in reality". It has provoked such intense anger amongst college members that it will not be published under the college's name.

The college is split between those who are sceptical that recovered memories have their basis in fact and those with a conviction that the memories of disturbed patients must be both believed and followed up.

One member of the working party which wrote the report has refused to put his name to it. Another source said the original report was so "inflammatory" that it read like "the British False Memory Society's newsletter"

Many accused parents claim their family lives have been destroyed by fantasies planted by unscrupulous therapists in their children's minds. In one case, Gary Ramona, a Californian business executive, won pounds 335,000 compensation after his daughter who was undergoing regression therapy accused him of rape.

But those who say they have been abused, such as the American comedienne Roseanne Barr, argue that if it is possible for war victims to block out horrific events, why should this not be true of sexual abuse?

The report, which will be published under the names of the working party instead of the college is blunt - false memories can be planted in patients' minds by psychiatrists. "It's possible to have entirely false memories not based on events in reality," said the chairman of the working party, Professor Sydney Brandon, yesterday. "This has not been stated unequivocally in the past."

But the forensic, developmental and psychotherapy committees in particular refused to accept its findings. They also raised questions over two members' links to the British False Memory Society, which represents parents who say they have been wrongly accused.

As a result, only a set of nine guidelines have been agreed by the college. The recommendations say that the college recognises the "severity and significance " of child sexual abuse and say that the welfare of the patient should be the first concern.

It warns psychiatrists off using "memory recovery techniques" such as hypnosis, regression, guided imagery and literal dream interpretation saying there is "no evidence" such techniques can reveal or elaborate factual information about abuse. "Forceful" or "persuasive" interviewing techniques are also not acceptable.

Outside the consulting room, psychiatrists should not encourage or discourage legal action but if the case is reported psychiatrists should be prepared to state clearly if the grounds of the action are inadequate or unreasonable.

The president of the college, Dr Robert Kendell, said that it was " not surprising" that the college had not been able to produce a report which they all agreed on. "The college decided it would be silly to publish a report under the name of the college which some members of college wished to disassociate themselves from," he said.

A spokeswoman for the British False Memory Society said the recommendations were a "first step towards protecting future patients and their families from the utter devastation that a false allegation of childhood sexual abuse can bring."

But Marjorie Orr, of Accuracy About Abuse, said that the recommendations "would do damage... because it reinforces the culture of disbelief for abuse survivors whether they have never forgotten their abuse as well as those who have forgotten," she said, "There is a huge problem with psychiatrists because they do not listen to the abuse survivors."

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