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In a landmark decision, a criminal case against a father accused of sexually abusing his daughter collapsed today when the prosecution unreservedly withdrew the case at a trial in Manchester Crown Court and the defendant was formally acquitted.

The breakdown follows the disclosure of therapy records which revealed that the allegations were based on 'recovered memories' elicited through various forms of counseling.

A psychologist for the defence analysed the records and concluded that the techniques used in therapy were those likely to give rise to 'false memories' of abuse. An expert psychologist for the Crown agreed that her evidence could, as a result of the counseling, give rise to false recollections.

The complainant, a student aged 23, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had claimed abuse by the father between the ages of six and 13.

Last year, she reported the matter to the police and the father was charged and ordered by social services to leave the home of his second wife and step-children. The case had been due to be heard in Manchester Crown Court earlier this year, but was delayed after the discovery that the woman had been undergoing counseling at university.

An application for the disclosure of the counseling records, supported by the prosecution, led to the discovery that the 'memories' of the abuse had emerged following sessions of 'guided imagination' and her reading the self-help 'survivor' book, The Courage to Heal.

In addition, the notes revealed that she had been influenced by the television programmes Brookside, Cracker, the Oprah Winfrey Show and the book, Toxic Parents by Susan Forward.

Roger Scotford, director of the British False Memory Society, says,

"It should never have got this far. The case raises serious questions about the thoroughness of the police and crown prosecution investigation.

This is a clear cut case of veiled 'recovered memories'. The fact that the complainant had no prior recollection of the evidence before therapy was not spelt out in her statement to the police.

Adult claims of childhood sexual abuse should be thoroughly investigated. Access to the therapy notes is as vital to the prosecution as it is to the defence.

Neither the police nor the prosecution made it their business to find out whether the complainant had undergone therapy. It was only through a chance discovery and inquiries by the defence that an application for disclosure of the notes could be made.

Without the vital information that counseling had taken place at university, an application by the defence to view the medical records would most likely have been rejected by the court as constituting a 'fishing expedition'.

Had the existence of therapy not been discovered, and the notes withheld, the defence would have been blindfolded. 'Recovered memory' evidence is often emotive and compelling - and has a powerful and misleading impact on juries. In that event, the defence would not have been able to argue that the 'memories' had only emerged in therapy, but only that they were lies. The jury may have been deceived into convicting the accused, because it couldn't understand why the complainant would lie so convincingly without apparent motive.

There needs to be an inquiry into the police methods of investigating delayed sexual abuse complaints.

In the interests of justice, the police, the CPS and the court should have a duty imposed upon them to fully investigate delayed adult claims of sexual abuse in childhood, including actively seeking evidence of any therapy. Had this been done initially, it is clear that this case would not have been brought.

All parties have suffered and the enormous costs of the investigation have been borne by the public."

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bullet 'Recovered memory' therapy rests on the belief that many adult problems are caused by 'repressed' or 'hidden' memories of childhood sexual abuse. Distortion of childhood memory and a belief that sexual abuse probably did occur may, through the use of suggestive techniques, result in clients 'visualising' abusive events which may be, in fact, fantasy. Through the therapists' own misplaced confidence in the likelihood of these visions representing 'memories', they may influence or reinforce the belief of the client.
bullet The client and therapist may influence each other through mistaken beliefs creating a folie deux.
bullet Many counselors and therapists holding beliefs in the veracity of 'recovered memories' may be poorly trained but even mainstream mental health professionals are not immune to such beliefs. A recent survey of clinical psychologists conducted by the British Psychological Society, revealed that nine out of ten of their respondents thought that 'recovered memories' (both of sexual abuse and satanic ritual abuse) were essentially accurate despite the fact that scientific evidence shows that there are no grounds for believing in the reliability of 'recovered memories'.
bullet Over the past three years, over 700 families have contacted the BFMS having been accused by their adult children of childhood sexual abuse. In nearly all these cases, the accusation arose following therapy.
bullet There are numerous self-help and counseling manuals promoting forms of 'recovered memory therapy' and the belief in the 'time bomb' effect of forgotten childhood abuse. The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published in 1990 in the UK, includes the advice:
bullet "If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."
bullet "If you don't remember your abuse you are not alone. Many women don't have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn't mean they weren't abused."
bullet "If you maintained the fantasy that your childhood was 'happy,' then you have to grieve for the childhood you thought you had...."
bullet Uncorroborated claims of sexual abuse by adults may lead to criminal charges. The defendant may be in the impossible position of being judged guilty until proven innocent. Where 'recovered memories' are at issue, it is only through detailed examination of the circumstances surrounding the making of the allegations and the emergence of the 'memories', that the reliability of the evidence can be ascertained.
bullet Prior therapy and the status of evidence as 'recovered memories' may not be apparent either to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or the defence unless steps are taken to uncover any therapeutic or counselling input.
bullet It is not just defendants who are adversely affected by false allegations, but whole families. False allegations tear families apart, and can lead to forced separation - due to the well-meaning intervention of social services - between husbands, wives and children, grandparents and grandchildren.

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  1. The British False Memory Society, Belcombe Croft, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire BA15 1NA, England. Tel. 01225 868682; Fax. 01225 863262; Email.

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