The Furor over Recalling Repressed Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The Furor over Recalling Repressed Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

The Furor over Recalling Repressed Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse
The Furor over Recalling Repressed Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

A therapist who is also a sociologist writes a memoir in which she claims that she can now remember how her father abused her when she was a little girl. She believes she has finally figured out why she suffered pain and bleeding between her thighs when she was five and endured depression, anorexia, despair, and suicidal tendencies while growing up. But her 91- year-old father, a prominent religious leader and retired professor of ancient scripture, denies the

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charges, and her seven siblings also dispute her recollections. (Wyatt, 2005)

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology, originally believed that many women diagnosed as suffering from “hysteria” were desperately trying to repress memories of childhood sexual abuse. But after several years of psychoanalyzing patients with this diagnosis, he arrived at the conclusion that these women’s sus- picions about being molested when they were very young actually were just fantasies about inces- tuous desires, which were strictly taboo. Grown- ups who claimed they were molested as infants, toddlers, or very young children generally were not believed by adherents of this psychoanalytical approach.

However, during the 1980s, the problem was rediscovered, and allegations made by individuals who suspected they had been sexually abused long ago were no longer quickly dismissed. A memory recovery movement emerged to support these adult “survivors” (as they prefer to be called) of childhood incest and molestations. The move- ment was composed of a coalition of patients, sup- port groups, authors of self-help handbooks, and therapists who practiced memory retrieval techni- ques. This movement proclaimed that new treat- ment methods made it possible for many sufferers of certain common emotional problems and behavioral symptoms to discover that the actual root cause could be traced back to molestation or incest. These patients’ efforts to repress memo- ries of traumatic events that were imposed on them years earlier were burdening them with mental disorders. The recovery movement’s claims were echoed in confessions issued by well-known figures during interviews in tabloid newspapers and talk show conversations, in the plots of made-for-television movies and magazine cover stories, and in pop psychology best sellers. But these disturbing and emotionally charged alle- gations also appeared in family therapy journals, on self-help websites, in revelations in incest support groups, and in the testimony of expert witnesses during civil lawsuits.

A maximalist perspective emerged. It con- tended that the thousands of people recalling child- hood sexual abuse (including celebrities and other public figures) represented just the tip of the ice- berg. Unfortunately, maximalists predicted, many sexual abuse victims will never become aware of the true source of their misery and anguish and will go through life blaming themselves for their emotional distress (Maltz and Holman, 1986; Bass and Davis, 1992; and Herman, 1992).

Maximalists believe that when adults suspect that unspeakable acts were foisted on them as chil- dren, their unsettling hunches are usually well founded. They have been expending great mental energy to unconsciously block, blot out, or deny any recollection of their “terrible secrets.” But with the help of new therapeutic techniques involving hypnosis, psychoactive drugs that serve as truth serums, age regression, guided fantasy, and automatic writing, a flood of these submerged memories can be released. Successful patients prog- ress through several stages, proceeding from initial denial to suspicions to realization (after considerable self-examination, probing, dredging up, and dig- ging). Survivors come to recognize that many others have shared their fate. When they speak openly about their past tribulations and join self- help support groups, they further the healing pro- cess (Bass and Davis, 1992; and Terr, 1994).

Incest always is difficult to prosecute because the allegation is based on a child’s contentions against an adult’s denials, and the case usually lacks eyewitnesses or tangible evidence. When children grow older, it is usually too late to bring criminal charges. In most states, the statute of limitations for felonies runs out five to seven years after the crime is committed. Therefore, adults who think they can recall memories of incest seek to punish their tor- mentors in a different arena—civil court—via law- suits for monetary damages for pain and suffering. Many state legislatures have recognized the possibil- ity of delayed discovery and the legitimacy of the demands by incest survivors for some avenue of redress. In these jurisdictions, lawmakers have lengthened the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits (which previously expired a few years after

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the youth reached the age of majority, generally at 18) to several years after the adult recalls the alleged abuse (which could be as long as 20 or 30 years or more). This reform can be considered pro-plaintiff (pro-victim, but anti-defendant) because the pur- pose of a statute of limitation is to protect accused persons from having to fight allegations from the distant past. Defendants might not remember where they were and what they did—and witnesses in their defense may have moved away or died (Mithers, 1990). Thousands of lawsuits have been filed, encouraged by a national center for prosecut- ing cases of child sexual abuse in civil court.

In reaction to the emergence of the repressed memory movement and its maximalist outlook, a skeptical perspective has emerged that takes a mini- malist position. It concedes that the sexual abuse of children, particularly by parents, largely went underreported and unprosecuted until the 1980s. But this perspective questions whether a genuine medical breakthrough has taken place and whether a sound new method of psychological diagnosis really has been developed. The suspicion is that cer- tain intervention techniques do not unearth buried memories but actually invent pseudomemories that are delusions arising from the therapist’s repeti- tion of persuasive suggestions. As a result, certain practitioners who are so intent on unlocking repressed memories are misguiding some of their highly vulnerable and confused patients.

This minimalist perspective also charges that the maximalist definition of the kinds of behaviors that constitute childhood sexual abuse is much too inclusive (for example, it might condemn unwanted kisses and hugs, or a lack of respect for personal privacy). Similarly, too many vague symp- toms on lengthy checklists in self-help manuals are interpreted as likely signs of childhood sexual abuse—everything from ordinary physical ailments (headaches, stomach pains, and dizziness) and com- mon emotional problems (general malaise, alien- ation, low self-esteem, and phobias) to widespread attitudes and behaviors (like feeling powerless or having difficulties in maintaining long-term rela- tionships). As a result of these overly broad defini- tions as well as unwarranted assumptions about the

origins of certain symptoms, many therapy patients end up deceiving themselves. They come to believe that they remember awful events that never really happened (Goldstein, 1993; Ofshe and Watters, 1993; Loftus and Ketcham, 1994; Pendergrast, 1994; Yapko, 1994; MacDonald and Michaud, 1995; Beckett, 1996; and Freyd, 2011).

The debate over claims of therapeutic break- throughs on the one hand versus charges of planted suggestions and intense coaxing on the other became unusually acrimonious during the early 1990s (see Flathman, 1999). Alarmists denounced skeptics who questioned the authenticity of certain claims as “enemies” of incest survivors. Minimalists downplayed the many testimonies about long- forgotten episodes of childhood sexual abuse as part of a modern-day “witch hunt” reflecting a jump-on-the-bandwagon phenomenon and a pass- ing fad. Some psychologists and psychiatrists voiced concerns that the furor over symptom-producing traumatic memories was undermining the reputa- tion of the entire profession of clinical therapy and causing patients who had genuinely suffered to be scoffed at as misguided souls (see Geis and Loftus, 2009). Lengthy bibliographies of books and articles in professional journals about false alle- gations and recanted charges about abuse were assembled, buttressing the skeptical point of view (see King and Drost, 2005; and Wells, 2011).

Feminists were divided over which side to sup- port in this acrimonious controversy. Some sup- ported the memory recovery movement as a sociopolitical force that could help put an end to the sexual exploitation of children, especially girls, and the subordination of women. They interpreted the resistance as a backlash, just another tactic in the long-standing tradition of silencing, denying, dis- missing, belittling, and deriding what women say about their oppression within the family. But other feminists argued that the tendency of the incest survivor movement to blame so many pro- blems that crop up in women’s lives on some clearly identifiable villain who might have commit- ted sexual offenses long ago has the counterproduc- tive political consequence of shifting the focus of activism from seeking sweeping social changes to

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pursuing individual recovery and personal retribu- tion (see Darnton, 1991; Chira, 1993; Horn, 1993; Tavris, 1993; Ofshe and Watters, 1993; and Sivers, Schooler, and Freyd, 2002).

A study of over 600 civil cases and 100 criminal cases during the 1990s centering on repressed mem- ories determined that about 90 percent of the per- sons alleging childhood sexual victimization were females, most were between the ages of 25 and 45, and almost all insisted the abuse went on for at least two years; half said it started before age 6. The most frequent charge was that the claimant’s father sexually abused her beginning at an early age and continuing through much of her childhood, but she could not recall this pattern of repeated traumatic victimization until decades after it ended, and therapy began. Only a handful of these kinds of court cases were filed each year dur- ing the 1980s. But during the first half of the 1990s, the total number of civil lawsuits plus some criminal cases surged to over 50 per year, and peaked in 1993 with over 125. After 1996, the number of new filings tapered off dramatically. As for the out- comes, the plaintiffs prevailed in only a handful of the civil suits during the early and mid-1990s. Most were either dropped by the plaintiff or dismissed by the judge because of a lack of credible evidence, or settled out of court. In the 65 criminal cases that were resolved, the defendants were either con- victed after a trial or pled guilty rather than go to trial in a total of 24 cases. However, by the end of the 1990s, a different type of lawsuit was being filed: over 150 malpractice claims had been lodged by parents against mental health care providers. In most of these civil suits, the plaintiffs argued that the therapist had mistakenly led their grown child to believe, through suggestive interviewing techni- ques, that she had been sexually abused at a young age, and that these false allegations based on implanted pseudomemories led to needless suf- fering, strained relationships, and defamation of the parents’ reputations. The researcher concluded that the data showed that a major shift had taken place: the courts which took lawsuits and prosecutions seriously in the first part of the 1990s had become increasingly skeptical of repressed memory claims in

the late 1990s because of significant evidentiary problems inherent in these accusations about events that allegedly happened years ago (Lipton, 1999). These findings supported a minimalist view about repressed memories: that many were not backed up by credible evidence, and that the problem of incest and other forms of severe childhood sexual abuse was not as widespread as maximalists believed.

Parents and others caretakers targeted by lawsuits organized a foundation to defend them- selves against what they branded a “false memory syndrome” or a “parent alienation syndrome.” Some former patients who recanted their exhumed memories have brought malpractice suits against the therapists who persuaded them to view themselves as incest victims. In criminal courts, some convic- tions based on recalled memories have been over- turned (see Horn, 1993; Sugarman and McCoy, 1997; Achimovic, 2003; and Freyd, 2011).

Sexual Abuse of Children by Religious Figures, Teachers, and Others in Positions of Trust Starting in the 1970s, reports began to circulate about reli- gious figures who took advantage of their positions of authority and trust to sexually exploit members of their flock. The worst offenders appeared to be “gurus” who told the followers of their cults that religious teachings required that they—and some- times their teenage daughters—should submit to the leader’s sexual demands.

During the 1980s, a number of adults identified themselves as survivors of sexual abuse carried out by pedophile priests within the Roman Catholic Church. By the early 1990s, a sufficient number of people had come forward to form self-help groups, which then linked up to become a nation- wide support network. Most members were grown men who said they had been molested when they were altar boys during their preteen and teenage years. A small number were women who recounted tales of exploitation during their adolescence.

In the absence of reliable data about the true scope of the problem, a maximalist–minimalist debate erupted. Spokespersons for the two major victims’ self-help organizations tended to adopt a maximalist stance. They predicted that the actual

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number of molested youngsters was far greater than just the hundreds who received monetary settle- ments from civil lawsuits and the several thousand members who had joined the two major self-help groups. They pointed out that many victims were reluctant to go public because of shame and self- blame. In fact, the degree of denial could be so great that some adults continued to insist that abu- sive conduct never took place even after a molester confessed in court to sexually exploiting them. They argued that a single pedophile could cause a great deal of suffering if he was not removed from a position of trust and expelled. One defrocked priest seems to have molested between 80 and 130 youngsters during a period of about 30 years. Another sexually abused as many as 200 boys while he worked at a church-run school for the deaf from 1950 to 1974. Despite a steady stream of complaints beginning in the mid-1950s (when the threat of molestation was rarely mentioned), the Vatican declined to defrock him (Goodstein and Callender, 2010).

These maximalists contended that ever since the late 1960s, church officials had covered up the true proportion of the scandal by transferring priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes as a way of hiding the wrongdoing, and by financially reward- ing victims with hush money to remain silent. Reformers urged state legislatures to adopt stringent mandatory reporting requirements that specifically added clergy to the list of occupations (usually including teachers, daycare workers, and doctors), who must bring cases of suspected child abuse to the attention of state protection agencies. Victim advocates also urged lawmakers to extend the stat- ute of limitations for prosecuting sexual offenses, as many survivors don’t come forward until they are well into adulthood due to intense guilt as well as impulses to suppress distressing memories of child- hood molestations.

Victims and their advocates wanted clerics whom they accused of being pedophiles to be prosecuted on charges of sexual assault, indecent exposure, and endangering the welfare of a child. Self-help groups also encouraged their members to pursue civil lawsuits, even though the testimony,

depositions, and formal inquiries dealt with matters that were intensely personal and painful to relive. Activists also demanded more effective counseling and psychotherapy services, to be paid for by the clerics’ employers. They called upon the church’s hierarchy to adopt measures fostering greater open- ness and accountability in its decision making, to cooperate fully with law enforcement investiga- tions, and to acknowledge publicly that the victims’ plight had been ignored or dismissed. They felt validated when two reports issued by committees of the United Nations condemned the way the Vatican was handling sexual abuse allegations (see Lobdell, 2002; Pfeiffer, 2002; Serbin, 2002; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002; Ostling, 2003; Stammer, 2003; Wakin, 2003; Jones and Goodnough, 2008; also see Povoledo, 2014; and Yardley, 2014).

Minimalists within the hierarchy of the church and among its most loyal parishioners wondered if some who claimed they were abused years ago sim- ply were seeking money by filing lawsuits in civil court about matters that could no longer be prose- cuted and either proven or disproven in criminal court. Minimalists also questioned whether the extent of exploitation and wrongdoing by employ- ees of this very large organization was of a greater proportion, statistically speaking, than for any other similar-sized group that dealt with children, such as teachers or therapists. They expressed concerns that the entire priesthood was being unfairly maligned (see Pfeiffer, 2002; Serbin, 2002; USCCB, 2002; and Wakin, 2003).

In 2003, in an extensive study authorized and paid for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, researchers concluded that nearly 4,400 of the roughly 110,000 deacons and priests (4 per- cent) who served during the period from 1950 to 2002 may have committed sexual offenses against minors. Approximately 10,670 individuals were known to have made allegations of child sexual abuse against priests. About 17 percent of these complainants contended that their siblings also were sexually abused. Nearly 60 percent of the complainants alleged that the abuse lasted for more than one year. Two-thirds of the accusations

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had been registered after 1993. Most (81 percent) of the complainants were males; the most frequent (40 percent) age range when the abuse took place was between 11 and 14. Almost 90 percent of the alle- gations concerned molestations that went further than unwanted touching over the youngster’s clothing (John Jay College Research Team, 2004; see also Perillo, Mercado, and Terry, 2008). As for trends, a study based on church files plus interviews contended that the frequency of abuse by clergy- men had reached its peak during the years of American society’s “sexual revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s, and had dropped off significantly by the mid-1980s. Organizations representing victims strongly criticized the study’s implications: that the problem had been successfully addressed and contained, and that the crisis was over (see Goodstein, 2011).

The Roman Catholic Church disclosed in 2007 that during the five years since its sexual abuse crisis erupted, it received about 13,000 credi- ble accusations against its clergymen, dating back to 1950. But what about ministers of other religions? Because Protestant denominations are less central- ized than the Catholic Church, an indirect way to measure the number of youngsters molested by its clergymen was to monitor the number of claims received by the three companies that insure nearly all Protestant congregations, religious schools, and camps. One insurance company logged about 100 reports of sexual abuse of minors per year over a 10-year period ending in 2007. Another processed an average of 100 reports per year for 20 years. A third handled almost 75 reports per year over a 15- year time span. However, not all the claims were credible, or were adjudicated in civil court, or led to financial settlements (Associated Press, 2007b). Members of an insular Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City feared they would become stigmatized as “troublemakers” and would end up as outcasts if they filed complaints about child sexual abuse (Vitello, 2008; see also Otterman and Rivera, 2012).

In recent years, accusations of child sexual abuse and cover-ups of the problem have arisen in many other organizations besides religious institutions.

For example, civil lawsuits and other inquiries uncov- ered evidence at state-run juvenile facilities (Blinder, 2013), scouting (Johnson, 2012), expensive and presti- giousprivate schools (Secret, 2012; andYee, 2013), and at a devoutly fundamentalist college that discouraged help-seeking efforts by its students who had been sex- ually abused as children (Perez-Pena, 2014a, 2014b).

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