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Religious Tolerance logo

Comments on the Inquiry into the
Practice of Recovered Memory Therapy

A draft report by the Government of Victoria, Australia

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Sponsored link.

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We will use the terms:

bullet"RMT" to refer to recovered memory therapy.
bullet"CSA" to refer to child sexual abuse.
bullet"Recovered memories"  to refer to images of abuse that have been gradually constructed during either during therapy, or self-help, mutual support groups, or via self-hypnosis, and which coalesce into what appear to be real memories. They may be false (i.e. not related to real events) or true (accurate descriptions of real events) or distorted (inaccurate descriptions of real events). "Recovered images" would probably be a better term to use; however, all sides in the controversy generally use "recovered memories" even though some of them are not real memories. By the late 1990s, most therapists who had used RMT had abandoned the technique. This happened largely in response to warnings by professional mental health associations of the unreliably of recovered memory techniques and the refusal of malpractice insurance companies to cover legal expenses.
bullet"Triggered memories" to refer to once simply forgotten memories that have come rushing back into consciousness almost instantaneously as a result of some prompt. Examples of the latter are: reading about a perpetrator in a newspaper article, visiting the scene of abuse, seeing a photograph of an abuser, etc.

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Our beliefs:

One member of the OCRT -- the group responsible for this web site -- experienced the triggered memory phenomenon. Memories of CSA came flooding back after reading a newspaper article about the perpetrator. He was being sued by his daughter for CAS. Approximately 12 other women, all of whom had continuously present memories of the CSA, emerged to join the lawsuit. The triggered memories about the perpetrator's MO and the details of the location where the molestation happened agreed with the continuously present memories of the other women. The perpetrator pleaded guilty and received multiple two year sentences, served concurrently.

From the studies that we have made of the available literature -- an in particular of the statements of professional mental health organizations -- we have tentatively concluded that RMT is extremely unreliable, and that that most recovered memories of CSA are of events that never happened. We also suspect that triggered memories may well be generally as reliable as continuously present memories of CSA.

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About the Inquiry:

The Health Services Commissioner to the Minister for Health of the government of Victoria, a state in Australia, published a 161 page draft report titled "Inquiry into the Practice of Recovered Memory Therapy" (RMT) in 2005. The government agreed to investigate RMT after being heavily pressured by parents who believe that they had been falsely accused by family members of CSA as a result of RMT.

The professional qualifications of the three individuals who assembled the report are not mentioned.

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Concerns with definitions used:

The Commissioner shows a degree if either bias or lack of knowledge in the definitions of the term "false memory advocates." Curiously, they include three populations under this term:

  1. "Individuals or associations who do not believe traumatic events can be forgotten for a period of time and subsequently remembered. Rather they believe recovered memories are false memories." There is one professional association in Britain which has claimed that all recovered memories are false. However, no other association has expressed that belief. A consensus among individuals and associations who are skeptical of RMT believe that many, perhaps most, but not all recovered memories are not of real events.
  2. Persons who believe that RMT is "currently taught and practiced in Australia [and] which has the potential to implant false memories..." This includes almost all mental health professionals worldwide, including all or essentially all mental health professional organizations. The term "advocate" seems inappropriate here; it seems to discount the professional and scientific qualifications of the "avocates."
  3. Adults who believe that they have been falsely accused of childhood sexual abuse as a result of memories recovered during RMT.

A very serious concern is that, in our opinion, two very different phenomena are combined in the report. The inquiry does not clearly differentiate between:

bulletRecovered memories gradually constructed out of fragments of images recovered over a long period of therapy involving suggestive techniques, like hypnosis, guided imagery, interpretation of dreams, interpretation of body memories, etc.
bulletTriggered memories which appear almost instantaneously as a result of a prompt of some type -- often seeing a picture of the perpetrator, visiting the scene of abuse, etc.

The report uses the terms "survivors of childhood abuse" or "survivors" to refer to individuals who believe that they have experienced childhood abuse. This wording includes those who actually were abused, and those who were not abused but who have recovered false memories of abuse. To call a person a survivor who was never abused seems inappropriate.

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The inquiry received submissions:

bullet24 from individuals who believe they have recovered memories of CSA
bullet1 from a child abuse agency
bullet39 from individuals who believe that they were falsely accused of CSA by an accuser who underwent RMT
bullet6 from false memory support groups
bullet26 from mental health professionals
bullet16 from professional mental health associations

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Their findings:

Some of the inquiry's findings are troubling:

bulletConcerning RMT:
bulletThey concluded that there "is profound disagreement amongst experts regarding whether recovered memories are true or false." However, they do not mention that the only way to be reasonably certain that a memory is of a real event is to find corroborative evidence that the abuse in fact occurred. Also, they do not mention that present-day therapists generally consider most memories developed during RMT to be false.
bulletThey report that patients often recover memories before entering therapy. That is probably true for triggered memories.  However, recovered memories -- which appear to be the main cause of invalid accusations against parents -- generally occur as a result of a lengthy involvement with RMT.
bulletThey report that the most common triggers for memory recovery happen outside therapy. This is certainly true for triggered memories. But, again, the problems with false memory, including the memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse generally happen within therapy. By lumping recovered with triggered memories, the inquiry has confused the issues.
bulletCourt activity:
bulletThey report that in national and international courts, "profound controversy still exists about the dangers posed by evidence that is therapeutically recovered." This was certainly the case in the past. However, during the 21st century courts generally rule recovered memories to be unreliable and inadmissible.
bulletCurrent level of RMT
bulletIt appears that:
bulletThose therapists who do not practice suggestive techniques to search for repressed memories naturally responded to the inquiry's questionnaire by saying that they do not practice RMT.
bulletThose therapists who do practice suggestive techniques generally do not recognize the term "RMT" and would also respond that they do not practice RMT.
bulletIt is a pity that the inquiry did not design their questionnaire by asking directly whether the therapist engaged in hypnosis, guided imagery and other suggestive techniques in a systematic search for repressed memories. If they had done so, they would have been able to get a indication of the current level of RMT in the area.
bulletInput from various groups:
bulletPersons who believe they have recovered memories: They inquiry correctly notes that an emphasis on false memory invalidates their experiences. However, if their memories are false, then the path to mental health may well be for them to realize that their memories are of events that never happened.
bulletTherapists: The inquiry correctly noted that there is no consensus on memory repression and recovery, the accuracy of recovered memories, whether events before age of 24 months can be remembered. Unfortunately, the inquiry only indicated that agreement was not universal; they did not give an indication of majority beliefs. On some matters, agreement approaches a consensus. The inquiry also did not mention that memory researchers are agreed that long-term memory before 24 months is non-existent.

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Reference used:

  1. "Inquiry into the practice of recovered memory therapy: Draft report," Health Services Commissioner to the Minister for Health, Victoria Australia. (2005). Online at: http://www.peterellis.org.nz/ and at: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/. The latter is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 

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Home >"Hot" religious topics and conflicts > RMT > here

or: Home >Religious conflict and hatred > RMT > here

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Being a report of the Victoria, Australia government, we have assumed that its contents are not copyrighted.
Originally posted: 2005-OCT-14
Latest update: 2006-MAR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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