Henry Roediger, professor of psychology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, told the conference that hundreds of innocent people - many in their seventies and eighties - were being accused of sexual and physical abuse by their adult children.
Some US states and some Canadian provinces are changing their statute of limitations to allow prosecution 30 years or more after the abuse is alleged to have taken place because of pressure from adult survivors, Professor Roediger said.
So-called 'false memory syndrome' is also responsible for a growing number of cases in Britain, in which people who have undergone therapy claim that it has uncovered suppressed memories of abuse in childhood.
Professor Roediger said there was strong evidence that memory can be induced by the 'repeated questions and guided imagery' of therapists. 'Some of these memories at least are being created during therapy.'
A Californian man has recently been convicted of the murder of a young girl which took place many years ago. Although he had been a suspect at the time, there had been no evidence to convict him. The only new evidence against him was the testimony of his daughter who, during therapy, 'remembered' her father killing her friend.
Professor Roediger, an expert on memory and how it forms, said that people confidently remembered events that never happened to them, and that false memory may arise during 'encoding' - when an event happens and is committed to memory - or created during 'retrieval' of a memory. 'It happens when people are under pressure to respond . . . the confabulation produced during retrieval may be later recalled as authentic memories of the original event.'
He described a recent case in Houston in which a woman undergoing therapy recalled in great detail being present at the rape and murder 30 years earlier of two young girls. She even told where they were buried on a city playground. But when the playground was dug up, the police found only two dead squirrels.Reuse content