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Do children tell the truth? Implanted memories.

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Are the children telling the truth?

Yes. In court, they almost always testify accurately of events as they remember them to be. The problem is that the events that they remember may not have happened to them.

Until the mid 1990s, many child psychiatrists, social workers and police who were involved in the many MVMO abuse cases appear to have believed that:

Children very rarely lie about abuse, but they are often reluctant to disclose what has happened to them. Their memories are accurate, because memory works something like a VCR. The child accesses the correct "tape", "fast forwards" to the event in question, and is able to review the full details of the abuse. Sometimes the image is a bit snowy; sometimes the fine details are blurred, but the recollection is generally quite accurate. However, because young people do not want to tell, they must be repeatedly questioned before the truth comes out. The interview will often involve direct, suggestive questioning, prompting and manipulation by the therapist, based upon her past experience and reading. The child may be rewarded for "correct" answers and ridiculed for "incorrect" ones. Implanting of false memories is either impossible or very unlikely. Audio or video recordings of interviews are not needed. The therapist or investigator need only write down a description of the child's final disclosure, not the questioning process that produced it.

Most professionals who interview children today, and contemporary memory researchers accept a new belief system:

Children very rarely lie when they spontaneously disclose abuse on their own. But if they are exposed to some investigation techniques, they often disclose stories of events that never happened. If the interviewer or parent asks the same question repeatedly, many children will conclude that they are not giving the "right" answer and will create a new story to satisfy the adult. Sometimes they can be induced to do so through a system of praise and rewards for correct answers and ridicule or penalty for wrong answers. Often, it is simply enough to ask direct questions. Once made, such disclosures can become implanted as memories in children's minds. Memory is quite inexact, and is easily overlaid with false recollections. The more the past is revisited, the more definite those overlaid memories become. The longer the investigation, the more suggestive and direct techniques used, and the younger the child is, the more likely it is that children will describe events that never happened and that "false" memories will be implanted. These memories feel quite real to the child, who accepts them as valid recollections of real events in their past. Audio and video recordings of the entire interview(s) are of great importance, in order to assess whether memory implantation may have happened.

Multi-victim, Multi-offender (MVMO) trials sometimes involved many adult defendants and dozens or hundreds of child witnesses. These were often war zones where expert witnesses representing both belief systems battled each other in front of the jury. Some of the child victims have now reached young adulthood and still believe that they were ritually and/or sexually abused. These memories will affect them adversely for the rest of their lives. We are not aware of any studies that are underway to examine how these young adults are coping; it would be a fascinating and important contribution to the field of child psychology. Fortunately, few new child victims are now being created by police and social workers.

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How easy is it to implant false memories in children?

Memory researchers who study children's memories have found that ideas and memories can be easily implanted. 1 The vast majority of social workers and police now accept these findings. They still believe that children rarely lie when they disclose abuse on their own or in response to general questions, like: "What happened during that class?" But they realize that children will commonly disclose false allegations of abuse when asked direct questions repeatedly -- questions like "Did he touch you," and later "Where did he touch you?" Many children simply give the investigators the answers that they want. Studies indicate that very young children are more liable to disclose false allegations of abuse than are older children. This probably accounts for the large number of MVMO cases that involved day care and baby-sitting facilities, and the relatively few involving regular school or Sunday school students.

Debra Poole, a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University said:

"It has nothing to do with lying and everything to do with the implanting of false memories. Studies have shown that children will vehemently defend the veracity of implanted memories. They recall reporting them, and those reports produce mental images of the events that these individuals cannot distinguish from their real experiences. But the kids are not responsible for that. The interviews are." 2

The implantation of false memories often starts with the child's parent(s), because it is to parents that many children will first disclose the alleged abuse. Parents often aggressively question their children, before professional investigators become involved.  Debra Poole warned that "parents are not accurate informants of what their kids said." Parents are understandably involved emotionally with the case. Parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. are urged to refrain from questioning the child. Instead, she or he should be taken to a professional forensic interviewer.

Stephen J. Ceci, is a professor of human development at Cornell University and author of "Jeopardy in the Courtroom," a leading work on children's testimony. He said:

"Our review of typical interviews from the 1980s shows many investigators blindly pursued a single hypothesis: Sexual abuse occurred. They would reinforce that hypothesis to the children, who would be led to believe in it."

"It is essential to keep in mind now that most children with such implanted memories will have believed in their allegations of abuse for far longer than they were alive before those allegations first surfaced. Those 'implanted' memories are no less visceral than real-life memories.
" 2

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Indications that false memories have been implanted:

One excellent indicator was reported by the San Diego Grand Jury:

"Of particular interest is the information the Jury received about the Little Rascals' pre-school case in North Carolina. Eighty-five percent of the children received therapy from three therapists in the town; all of these children eventually reported satanic abuse. Fifteen percent of the children were treated by different therapists in a neighboring city; none of the children reported abuse of any kind after the same period of time in therapy." 3
(emphasis added).

It would appear that in this case, the memories of Satanic abuse were implanted by sincere therapists who believed in the reality of Satanic abuse. The out-of-town therapists, who had no such belief, found no evidence of such abuse.

In other cases, children's memories can be shown to be probably false by studying their content. For example:
bullet Children in one case said that they were taken during the daytime into a back room of a grocery store and abused. The investigator found an open archway between the store and the back room; any staff and customers in the store would have seen the abuse in progress.
bullet Children reported being sodomized with a penis or knife, yet no indication of rectal damage was found.
bullet Children reported being taken in space ships into outer space and abused there.
bullet Children reported being taken on a boat and abused; some trained sharks danced around the boat.
bullet Children reported a staff member dressing up as a clown and robbing the town's jewelry store; no such crime ever happened.
bullet A Canadian child reported being abused with a vibrator which had a yellow body and blue ends. No such vibrator was ever found. But a search of suspected perpetrators' home had turned up a vibrator which had been shown on television. Due to the TV lighting, the uniformly flesh colored vibrator appeared to have a yellow body and blue ends.
bullet Children reported being taken through long underground tunnels 4 from the basement of the McMartin preschool 5 to a nearby building or underground room where they were abused. Police conducted ground conductivity measurements and proved that the tunnels never existed.

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Indications that large scale abuse does not occur:

bullet Widespread child abuse at a day care center, church Sunday School or baby-sitting service does seem improbable. In order to maintain such an abusive environment, the staff would have to somehow handle the following problems:
bullet Taking the kids on long car and plane rides, as reported by many children, in order to molest them in other cities would very difficult. Parents often come to the facility at random times during the day to pick up their children for doctor or dentist appointments. They often phone the center to speak to their children. If the children were in another state, they could not be produced, and all hell would break loose at the center.
bullet Recruitment of additional child molesters to maintain staffing levels would be very difficult. Most staff are women, and female child molesters are extremely rare.
bullet Somehow, the most extreme physical and sexual abuse would have to be conducted without leaving traces on the children's bodies that would be noticeable by parents.
bullet The most extreme psychological abuse would have to be engaged in frequently, and over a long period of time, without triggering parents' suspicion.
bullet A way would have had to be found to subject the children to horrendous abuse, clean them up, settle them down, and have them appear normal when they are picked up by their parents.
bullet Since the findings of researchers were published in the mid 1990s, no new  MVMO sexual and ritual abuse cases have surfaced in the U.S. This is perhaps the best indicator that this form of abuse does not happen -- or happens very rarely. Unfortunately, a case in Lewis Island off the coast of Scotland did surface in late 2003. Indications are that the investigator used direct, repeated questions of the children.

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References cited:

  1. Stephen J Ceci, "Cognitive and Social Factors in Children's Testimony, Master Lecture, American Psychological Assoc., Toronto, 1993-AUG-20.
  2. Tom Mashberg, "Memories questioned; studies show kids can be easily led," Boston Herald, 3002-JUL-8, Page 7.
  3. SJ Ceci & M. Bruck, Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony, American Psychological Association (1995)
  4. John Earl, "The Dark Truth About the 'Dark Tunnels of McMartin'", Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, Vol. 7, #2, 1995 Spring, P. Institute for Psychological Therapies, 13200 Cannon City Blvd., Northfield, MN 55057. An expose on the McMartin preschool underground tunnel myth. $15 USF; $20 USF (foreign).
  5. Paul & Shirley Eberle, "The Abuse of Innocence : The McMartin Preschool Trial", Prometheus Books (1993). ISBN: 0879758090. The authors attended the court sessions lasting over many years, and concluded that there was no case against the accused.

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Copyright 1997 and 1999 to 2004 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-JUL-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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