Children and adolescents abused by trusted caregivers and authority figures cope by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. A common means of dealing with the horror of such abuse is to try and push it out of awareness -- especially when secrecy is demanded by the adult and the incident elicits fear and shame in the child.
Although most children remember their abuse all too well, in some severe cases a child may develop "dissociative amnesia," or memory loss for important aspects of the trauma. This allows the child to maintain relatively normal functioning while avoiding feelings too painful, overwhelming and confusing to be processed. For some, memories and feelings may emerge at a later date.
In 1989, Frank Fitzpatrick, 38, spontaneously recovered memories of abuse by his parish priest which took place when he was a 12-year-old altar boy. Fitzpatrick was able to find plenty of corroboration for his memories because the Massachusetts diocese had been aware of Father Porter's pedophilic activities and sent him for treatment. Moreover, when confronted, Porter admitted abusing Frank along with dozens of other children.
By 1993, 100 other victims had come forward and Porter pled guilty to 41 counts of child molestation. Almost 20% of Father Porter's victims reported experiencing total amnesia for the abuse until widespread publicity prompted the recall of explicit memories.
This delayed retrieval of traumatic memories experienced by some victims of priest abuse has been recognized for nearly 100 years in combat veterans. When found in soldiers, society accepted the concept of traumatic memory loss without major difficulty. However, its discovery in sexual abuse victims resulted in a well-organized backlash by some of those accused and their supporters. Their claims that recovered abuse memories are really "false memories" implanted by therapists caused the issue to become controversial.
Yet, despite the strong efforts of some professionals to cast doubt on delayed abuse reports, over 68 studies have documented the reality of recovering forgotten memories of traumatic events. Dissociative amnesia is also listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), the diagnostic manual followed by all psychologists and psychiatrists. Moreover, research on adults with documented child abuse histories has demonstrated that accurate remembering of forgotten trauma is possible.
Conversely, despite 10 years of intense scrutiny, no empirical validation has been offered for "False Memory Syndrome" as a diagnostic construct; nor have its symptoms been systematically described or studied. As a result, this so-called "syndrome" is not accepted as a valid diagnosis by any professional organization.
Although research shows that false reports of abuse are not common, the rights of both accuser and accused deserve careful consideration and protection. For this reason jurors are asked to decide matters of credibility in these cases. Currently, there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of child abuse reports without some form of external corroboration. Such corroboration can come from a confession, the evidence of other victims, and other supporting information such as school or medical records.
The Leadership Council is headed by Paul Fink, MD, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. Its goal is to provide professionals, officers of the court, and policy makers with the latest and most accurate scientific information on issues affecting the health and safety of society's most vulnerable members -- our children. For more information go to: www.leadershipcouncil.org