Madeline Greenhalghis director of the BFMS.
Ralph Underwager, an American paedophile invented False Memory Syndrome.
The Newsletter of the British False Memory Society
Vol. 17, No. 1 – July 2009
Despite concerns about the recession members
were resilient and attended another
interesting AGM which included a talk by Dr
Peter Naish on the fallibility of memory and
cleverly tested our ability (or lack of it) to spot
a gorilla in the room. A powerful account of
what it is like to be an accuser’s sibling was
delivered and we are fortunate to have
permission to present the content of that talk
on page 7. Finally, we were introduced to a new
book about how memory betrays us. A review
on page 14 gives an interesting insight.
The Government’s desire for regulation of
talking therapies still exhibits signs of an
uphill struggle, as the lack of consensus among
many disparate practitioners manifests as a
campaign against State intervention. We
accept there are pros and cons in this debate.
Introducing academic criteria for licensing
psychotherapists and counsellors will not
regulate personal integrity, the inner ethical
standards that reflect that integrity, or an
ability to be empathetic – personal qualities
cannot be taught. On the other hand, leaving
regulation in the voluntary care of the therapy
umbrella bodies has so far failed to ensure that
poor practice and in some instances dangerous
techniques, are challenged, admitted and dealt
with to ensure their effects can never be
repeated. There is a potentially huge benefit to
our members if, as planned, the Health
Professions Council charged with the task of
overseeing the regulation, can fulfil its
commitment to allow third party complaints.
Until now, many parents have been frustrated
by the inability of the voluntary system to
allow their concerns to be heard because of
conflicts with boundaries imposed by rules of
confidentiality. A major concern remains,
however, that regulation will somehow confer a
badge of credibility upon regulated individuals,
giving the public a false sense of security.
The Newsletter of the British False Memory Society
Vol. 17, No. 1 – July 2009
Regulation is not a guarantee of evidencebased
practice purged of personal beliefs. A
therapist writes (see page 11) giving her
assessment of the current situation.
Science is in the forefront of news. Judges are
to receive increased powers to test experts’
credibility, following failures in the system
which have allowed unsubstantiated and
unproven testimony to slip under the radar
posing as expert evidence. (See page 19.) Also,
care must be taken in the public domain as we
learn of a clash between scientists and English
libel laws. Scientists fear that a recent legal
ruling will silence critical discussion of medical
practice and scientific evidence. Sense about
Science is the charity co-ordinating the campaign
against the use of libel laws in this way.
The campaign now has over 10,000 signatories
from all around the world, including many
eminent scientists. It is vital that we retain the
ability to speak out when medical claims are
unsubstantiated by empirical findings including
challenging therapeutic practice that encourages
Forecasters point to a good summer; let us
hope the evidence is sound.
Statement from Jersey
Jersey police began searching the former
children’s home at Haut de la Garenne in
February 2008 following allegations of historic
systematic abuse. The investigation
was said, at that time, to involve more than
160 victims over a 40-year period. This
month the Attorney General for Jersey has
published a statement on the investigation.
The importance of the
The Attorney General for Jersey highlights
the importance of applying the evidential
test in the decision that no charges will be
brought in respect of either of the two
outstanding files in the Jersey Historic
In his statement dated 3 June 2009 he
“A decision not to prosecute is capable of
being perceived as denying the
complainant the right to be heard. Indeed,
this can lead to a pressure to allow the
complainant to have his or her day in
Court. However to succumb to such
pressure would mean that the prosecution
was not applying the evidential test which
is its function to apply. The Courts are
entitled to know that they are not faced
with prosecutions which even the
prosecutor thinks will not succeed. The
criminal justice system as a whole requires
each part of that system – police,
prosecutors and Courts – to fulfil its
functions professionally and properly. To
compromise the test to allow evidentially
weak cases to proceed is not an exercise of
the objective approach which is demanded
of prosecutors by the Code on the Decision
to Prosecute. It is not fair to anyone – the
complainants, the accused, the witnesses
or the public – to do otherwise than apply
the evidential test professionally and
Corroboration by volume not found,
nor similar fact substantiated
In discussing Case 5 the Attorney General
“Nine complainants have made complaints
against Mr. A, now a middle aged man who
spent approximately five to six years as a
junior trainee and then employee at Haut
de la Garenne in the 1970s and 1980s. The
complaints relate to incidents which are
alleged to have taken place between 20 and
30 years ago. Four of them contained
allegations of different types of sexual
offending, some of it of the most serious
nature; all but two were alleged to have
taken place at Haut de la Garenne. The
police have conducted a very thorough and
detailed investigation tracing and
interviewing all known witnesses before
submitting the papers to the independent
lawyers instructed by the Attorney
General. In none of the cases is the
complaint corroborated by any independent
evidence, and none of the complaints is
sufficiently similar in nature to suggest
that they might supply mutual
In two cases, the employment records show
that the complainants were not at Haut de
la Garenne at the same time as Mr. A. In
two of the cases, the makers of the
statements were not those against whom
the alleged crimes were committed, the
alleged victims no longer being alive.”
The papers were carefully evaluated by
lawyers, a senior lawyer in the Law
Officers’ Department and by the Attorney
General. None of the lawyers who looked at
the matter considered the evidential test
The report goes on to discuss the reinvestigation
of Case 6 which was first considered
and formally abandoned by the Crown in
1998. The considerations for restarting a
prosecution are covered in the Attorney
General’s statement which can be found at
BFMS Newsletter – Vol. 17, No. 1 3
encourage the use of the courts to silence
Dr Singh has announced that he is to
appeal the decision.
To find out more go to www.senseaboutscience.org.uk
rejected in Sweden
The National Board of Health and Welfare
in Sweden has decided that psychodynamic
therapies must disappear from all tax-aid
clinics and hospitals whether they belong
to municipalities, administrative provinces,
or the State.
It is implied that the same should be true
of private clinics and hospitals. But for
private institutions there will be legal complications.
It is not yet known how speedy
the implementation will be.
This news has been received from Max Scharnberg,
Associate Professor, Uppsala University.
Memory expert, Professor Martin Conway,
recently gave evidence for the defence in
an appeal case involving two former soldiers
jailed for historic sexual abuse
Professor Conway explained to the court
that memories going back to the age of
seven were a “fuzzy boundary” in the area
of impaired memory. He told the court that
one of the alleged victim’s graphic accounts
of abuse involved an “exaggeration of the
specificity of events”. He went on to say
that memories and experiences typically
contained fragmented details rather than
“cohesive, fluid, total sequences”.
This and other legal issues lead to the soldiers’
convictions being quashed.
Source: BBC News Northern Ireland, 3, April 2009
The Attorney General admitted that the
decision not to prosecute in these cases was
a hard one but that taking into account the
legal principles it was the right one
Congratulations to the Panorama team and to all those involved in helping to highlight the issue of false allegations of child sexual abuse and the travesty of justice. Many find it hard to believe that anyone would want to claim that abuse has occurred if it has not. The Panorama programme reported on the powerful lure of compensation, it did not however touch on the difficult fact that depressed and vulnerable individuals can come to believe that they have abusive pasts when this is untrue. Decades delayed, retrospective allegations of childhood sexual abuse made by an adult, for the first time often with no prior knowledge of the abuse, have been causing devastation to accused families since the early 1990s. This phenomenon led to the formation of the charity, The British False Memory Society which has contact with fathers and mothers and other relatives who are falsely accused of the most heinous crime of childhood sexual abuse. The BFMS website is at www.bfms.org.uk and we can be contacted from there.
Madeline Greenhalgh, Director BFMS
Bradford on Avon
Hello I cannot sit back and allow what I personally believe is a grave situation in the justice system of this country. There is a strong possibility Mr.Shuttleworth is being targeted by people who will do just about anything for money. I personally was visited in my own home by police officers wishing to interview me about so called abuse at an approved school where I was from 1966 to 68, and was told that this or that named care worker was as put to me AT IT, if I was inclined to be dishonest the names were already available to me. It may be hard for some people to believe that any person would want money so bad but these boys now men are mostly not your average pillars of society, I said this to the police and I say it again I never saw or suspected any care worker of any sexual misconduct and I hope that anyone making allegations is doing it for the right reasons although in some cases I have my doubts. I wonder if money has a bigger bearing than they think.
Freud?s troubled children
Terry Philpot - 26 May 2007
First it was parents, then social workers and teachers. Now it is clergy who have had accusations of child sexual abuse made against them, based solely on ‘recovered' memories. But with psychologists still divided as to whether these recollections are genuine or not, how can a court investigating truth trust these shadows of the past?
Can the mind remember to forget? Behind this seeming paradox lies a debate that befuddles much discussion about child sexual abuse. Last month, Fr Stanislaus Hobbs, a 76-year-old priest at Ealing Abbey, London, became the latest person to be charged with sexual abuse when his accuser claimed to have remembered a forgotten incident. Fr Hobbs was acquitted after the claimant, a 30-year-old senior journalist, said that the monk had abused him when a teenager, the memory of which was said to have been triggered by a sexual experience many years later between the accuser and his girlfriend.
Such claims have been put down, at times, to the working of Freud's theory of repression, a defence mechanism that forces unpalatable experiences, which the mind cannot deal with, into the unconscious. The antithesis of this (and, indeed, of the whole idea that people can forget anything traumatic) has been stated bluntly by Professor Elizabeth Loftus, the American psychologist: "When people have been abused in their childhood, their problem is not that they can't remember, but that they can't forget."
Repression is now frequently dismissed by many clinicians, even those who disagree with Professor Loftus' general thesis. Dr Chris Brewin, Professor of Clinical Psychology at University College London, makes a distinction between "the observation that people forget" and the "theoretical mechanisms of dissociation and repression that are very difficult to prove". Suppressed memories are about events that are supposed to have occurred many years, even decades, in the past. Yet the accuracy even of memories that have always been conscious but refer back so far has led some to doubt their soundness. This is something occasionally raised when bringing alleged Nazi war criminals to trial.
How memory works is, after all, not straightforward. It can be unreliable and the most vivid and detailed memories can be based on inaccurate recall. When we do remember, it is not like a film re-running in our minds. Memory can work imperfectly, and can embellish and retell rather than bring forth an unvarnished version of the past. This is not to say that memory is not to be trusted; rather that its validity can be disputed when there is no corroboration through another's testimony or material evidence.
The British False Memory Society was established in 1992 in part to combat what it sees as the injustice of accusations (and sometimes wrongful convictions) suffered by those said, on the basis of recovered or repressed memories, to be guilty of sexual abuse.
The society claims that there are no corroborated cases. When it was put to Madeline Greenhalgh, director of the BFMS, that, in fact, hundreds of studies of corroboration have been published, she replied: "The alleged corroboration might be from a sibling but accepting this as evidence is flawed. I believe it is exceptionally difficult to measure the accuracy of any case which claims to be a ‘recovered memory' case because of the problem of semantics, genuine recall difficulties and the ease with which a vulnerable individual can come to believe in a history of abuse from a certain point in their lives and yet describe this as ‘an always known' history, because they say they ‘always knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was'."
There have, indeed, been "false memories" and injustices. Memories can be "recovered" as a result of implantation by therapists, as well as by malice. They can arise falsely (as well as genuinely) when supposedly triggered by events and by reading and seeing films or television programmes.
However, the BFMS is dismissive of all supposedly recovered memories, and approvingly refers to Professor Richard J. McNally of Harvard, whose book Remembering Trauma asserts that "the notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma, rendering them inaccessible to awareness is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support". The controversy came to prominence in the 1980s, when child sexual abuse itself had been widely recognised for only 10 to 15 years. Professor Loftus' work has given substance to a deep scepticism about the whole notion that traumatic memories can be forgotten. She has never worked as a clinician but she has been responsible for 200 experiments with 20,000 individuals. Powerful as is her evidence that it is possible for people to testify to events that never happened by having the "memory" implanted, however, it does not negate the arguments that there can be genuine recovered memories or disprove the claim that memories can be suppressed.
Dr Chris Brewin says: "The normal response is for people to remember but there appears to be a subset of people who tend to forget. With those who were abused in childhood, forgetting may be a response which helps the child to cope in the short term because it is not safe for them to remember."
Child sexual abuse is a highly sensitive area, where accusations of abuse disrupt family relationships and cause immense distress. Those who tend most to doubt accusations are the families (and their advocates) who are accused or connected with the accused: the partners, brothers and sisters. Chris Freeman, consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital, who routinely treats all kinds of trauma, suggests that there may be something different about memories of sexual abuse within families, which may be more likely to make them forgotten, repressed or avoided.
The atmosphere, then, is not conducive to calm and rational debate. Child abuse raises ambivalent responses; conviction rates are low and many people who are guilty either fail to be brought to trial or if accused are then found not guilty. In Orkney in 1991 and Shieldfield nursery, Newcastle, in 1993 false memory played a part in perpetrating gross injustices, in the one case to parents, in the other to two care workers.
The British Psychological Society, in a carefully worded report in 1994, drew attention to the problems of defining repression but found evidence of genuine recovered memory. However, in 1999 the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report that found no "empirical evidence" to support repression or dissociation, although there is "much clinical support for these concepts". It also referred to "abundant evidence" that false memories do occur. But the opposition among psychiatrists meant that the College never accepted the report and it remains no more than the views of its four - albeit distinguished - authors.
Another aspect is drawn attention to by Dr Freeman: "I think one of the areas that causes confusion is that different levels of proof are needed in different situations," said Dr Freeman. "In a criminal court, beyond reasonable doubt; in a civil court, on the balance of probabilities; and in a clinical situation balancing the hierarchy of clinical responsibility to your patient, their family and to other children who might be at risk. The degree of proof that is required in a legal setting is simply not appropriate or achievable in most clinical settings."
Dr Adrian Skinner, clinical psychologist and expert witness, recognises the problem that such memories do not easily lend themselves to the evidential demands of a court of law. But, he says, it is up to courts to test the validity of memories, making the obvious point that they play a vital role in all kinds of prosecutions. He personally does not believe that it is possible to invent something as "shattering" as child abuse.
Indeed, there is much evidence of suppressed memory in other areas, although even this is doubted by the BFMS. Madeline Greenhalgh told me: "There are numerous claims, alleged to have been recovered, of war atrocities, by individuals who have been shown not to have been involved in the war at all." But while, perhaps inevitably given the still-developing understanding of memory, there are some professionals who do not accept the idea of recovered memory, the great majority of those professionally involved tend to think otherwise. The real disagreement tends to be between them and advocacy groups like the BFMS and its several overseas equivalents.
The main issue is whether it is possible to forget something as traumatic as child sexual abuse. There are certainly false accusations and wrongful imprisonments. Certain vulnerable and suggestible people can attribute problems they experience in adulthood to childhood abuse, which did not in fact take place, if a therapist repeatedly suggests abuse as the cause of these problems. It is obvious, too, that those subjected to even true accusations will deny them. There are bizarre "memories" such as satanic abuse and alien abduction.
The fact is that memory can be unreliable and, at times, grossly inaccurate, while it can also reflect past reality. The weight of the evidence, professional opinion, common sense and everyday experience is that traumatic memories can be suppressed, but others can be false. This suggests the need for a balanced approach, which has been conspicuous by its absence.
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