As the Vatican is confronted by the UN, we must remember that the best evidence in child abuse cases will come from victims themselves

We now know a great deal more about children’s memory

Related Topics

The Vatican were asked by the UN in July to provide details about all child sexual abuse cases committed by the Catholic Church since 1995.

They needed this information by November, ahead of a public hearing scheduled for today.

However, they received no response until December, when the Vatican issued a statement in which they refused to provide the full details that had been requested

Many will have been disappointed by this, and will no doubt be wondering what the point of today’s hearing now is.

But it is worth bearing in mind that, no matter whether the Catholic Church disclose the full information or not, the best data about what has been going on behind closed doors will come from the victims.

From research, we now know a great deal more about children’s memory than we did many decades ago.

We also know much more about what their strengths and weaknesses as eyewitnesses are.

So due to scientific advances in our understanding of memory, and the development of sound interviewing techniques, we are in the strongest position to get to the truth that we ever have been.

In the past, there was a belief that children weren’t good witnesses. That they were suggestible and that the evidence they provided was unreliable.

But we now know this isn’t necessarily true and, over the past few decades, have developed tried and tested techniques that enable us to find out what, if anything, really happened.

Memory plays an important role in any investigation, but particularly in cases of child abuse where it is often the only evidence that exists.

The problem it poses, however, is that it is highly susceptible to outside influences, so careful training is required for child investigators.

The way in which a person is asked about the past, dramatically affects their memory of what happened.

If they are asked leading or suggestive questions, the defence will be able to argue that the memory has been tampered with and someone who is guilty could get off on a technicality.

So it is a huge responsibility to be the person interviewing the witness.

Tampering with the evidence is rare at a crime scene these days, because everyone knows they need to be careful. But the same can’t always be said about the interview process.

What we need to do is ensure that the evidence you can’t touch – like the witness’s memories – is approached with the same caution as that used by police at a physical crime scene.

And the best way to do this is to make up-to-date research based protocols available to train interviewers – for examplethe ‘gold standard’ developed by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) a decade ago.

Based on almost 20 years of scientific research, the NICHD Protocol recommends that the interviewing of child witnesses should follow a structured approach.

This involves laying out the ‘ground rules’ at the beginning of the interview, conducting a practice interview to build rapport, and asking open-ended questions.

These enable the witness to access what we call their ‘free-recall memory’, which is where the most accurate and reliable information about events that really happened to them comes from.

Open-ended questions also reduce the number of misleading or suggestive questions that are asked, which makes the evidence much more robust when presented in court.

Giving children the opportunity to express their own version of events in this manner is important, but in order to be able to do that, the interviewer needs to have an understanding of children’s developmental characteristics, capacities, and limitations.

Although there are major improvements in memory across childhood, we know that memory is imperfect and reconstructive (we don’t store memories like video-recordings that we can play back when we need to revisit them) among children and adults alike, even when stressful, traumatic, or “highly memorable” events are involved.

Legal and psychological professionals therefore need to appreciate the complexities of human memory and avoid having unreasonable expectations regarding the amount, specificity, or type of information that children can be expected to recall.

This will enable them to play to the children’s strengths when it comes to memory, and avoid compromising their evidence by asking them questions which require cognitive, linguistic, or social skills that have not yet been developed.

These were things that we didn’t fully understand when researchers first began studying children’s memory capabilities in eyewitness contexts, and there is still plenty of research we need to do to continue to make advances.

However, we do know that if scientific evidence-based tools and procedures are followed in the same way as those adhered to at a physical crime scene, we can get justice for the victims.

Dr David La Rooy is a memory expert and Chartered Psychologist based at Abertay University


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'