Father sues therapist over sex-abuse allegations: Psychiatric techniques under fire in 'false memory' case, writes Phil Reeves in Los Angeles

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The Independent Online
FOUR YEARS after his life was first ruined by his daughter's allegations that he sexually abused her, a Californian businessman is suing her therapists for millions of dollars in damages, alleging they caused her to remember events that never occurred.

The hearing is being seen as critical in the United States as it centres on the fraught question of the validity of 'recovered memory', and therapists' techniques to prompt victims to recall childhood sex abuse years after it allegedly occurred.

The case may also break new legal ground because if the father wins - and the judgment is upheld on appeal - law experts say it would be the first time in the US that a therapist is held accountable for malpractice against anyone other than a patient.

Gary Ramona, 50, is seeking more than dollars 8m ( pounds 5.4m) in damages and compensation after his daughter, Holly, accused him of repeatedly raping her between the ages of five and eight. The ensuing scandal destroyed his career as the dollars 400,000-a-year vice-president of California's Robert Mondavi Winery, caused his wife to divorce him, and estranged him from the rest of his family.

The trial in Napa Valley, California, has heard that Ms Ramona's accusations did not surface until she was at the University of California, Irvine, where she received therapy for bulimia and depression. Her 'recollections' were vague and fragmented, but increased significantly after several months of therapy when she took, at her own request, a barbiturate called sodium amytal.

After a session under the drug, her therapist called the young woman's mother and announced: 'It's rape.' The following day, Ms Ramona confronted her father, prompting the immediate break-up of the family. He was not charged with any crime, although his daughter - now 23 - is preparing to sue him.

Mr Ramona, who says he is trying to win back his daughter's love, has responded by suing both her therapist, and the psychiatrist who administered the barbiturate - a drug which some experts say is an unreliable way to revive memory. He also claims the therapist planted the sex abuse memories by using suggestive methods - for example, by telling his daughter at an early stage of therapy that 80 per cent of bulimia patients had been sexually abused.

During the hearing, now in its third week, Mr Ramona has produced videos showing a cheerful- looking Ms Romona on family holidays in the Bahamas, and at high school ceremonies. Defence lawyers say the lawsuit is an attempt by Mr Ramona to continue to manipulate his daughter. They contradict his claim that family life was happy, alleging that it was overshadowed by marital problems and internal jealousies over Ms Romona's status as his 'favourite child'.

The case is being watched with interest by those who question claims by psychologists that victims of child sex abuse often repress traumatic events, but can be induced under therapy to recall them in detail. These include the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an American support group for accused molesters which claims 12,000 families have sought its services since it was set up two years ago.

It also opens a legal can of worms, raising the spectre that doctors may face multi-million dollar litigation from third parties, such as falsely accused child molesters.