The reliability of memory in sexual abuse claims

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Related Theme: Sexual crime

The reliability of memory in sexual abuse claims

It is no secret that in the past the police have frequently and repeatedly failed the victims of sexual abuse. Keen to right the wrongs of their past sins, and under considerable pressure, the police are now more motivated than ever to ensure that they perform their duty of care to victims of sexual abuse who come forward. However, questions have begun to emerge about how much weight the police should be giving to victim allegations. Apprehensions about Operation Midland in particular are being raised, with a concern that a number of famous people have had their reputations ruined on the basis of unfounded allegations.

The problem with these concerns are that they seem to offer only two possible options for sexual abuse allegations – either victims are telling the truth, or they are lying; and indeed, why would someone lie about something so serious?

However, what about victims who come forward who truly believe they were sexually abused, but in fact may not have been? Is it possible to have false memories for something as traumatic and serious as sexual abuse? In an interview by the BBC, Peter Saunders (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) stated that:

“Certainly as you get older your memory fades and your memories can change. But the fundamental memory of whether or not something terrible happened to you isn’t gonna change (sic)”

This is a worrying misconception that I have seen in both laypeople and decision makers throughout the criminal justice system. Decades of research have taught us that our memory does not work like a video recorder. We cannot push a button, or take a special pill to allow us to remember things. Instead, memory is a reconstructive process, one that is influenced greatly by time and questioning. Even the simple act of describing an event can influence its accuracy. Not only is memory subject to forgetting over time, but new information can become easily incorporated, especially false information. And indeed, this falsely incorporated information can lead to believed memories of entire events that never occurred.

Perhaps critically here as well, is that the a priori beliefs held by police officers about the occurrence of certain events can shape victim interviews, and directly influence how accurately information is retrieved from memory. In perhaps one of the most famous studies to date, people who were shown a video of a car crash and were then asked if they saw the’ broken headlight were twice more likely to say yes than if they were asked if they saw a’ broken headlight (Loftus & Zanni, 1975). All it takes is the difference of one word when questioning witnesses or victims and the account they will recall can be entirely different.

To answer my earlier question; yes, it is entirely possible for a victim to have a false memory for childhood sexual abuse. Research has shown this time and time again, particularly when controversial recovered-memory therapies’ are involved.This raises a number of important questions with regard to investigating childhood sexual abuse. How well equipped are police officers to assess the reliability of memories? What consideration is given by police to the memory processes that underpin victims’ beliefs? How self-aware of their own biases are they when conducting interviews?

The disconnect between the science of memory and the beliefs held by those involved in judicial processes can and has led to a large numberof miscarriages of justice. In most cases of historical childhood sexual abuse the victim’s memory is often the only evidence available in court, with entire cases and subsequent convictions hinging on memory evidence extracted from police interviews. It stands to reason then that the police need to be made better aware of the fragility of memory in these investigations, but at present they are not well trained or equipped to identify and deal with it.

Allowing victims to feel that they will be taken seriously is not only commendable, but crucial for encouraging the victims of abuse to come forward. However, there are two risks here: one that victims are not believed or taken seriously, and another that innocent people will have their reputations, careers and lives ruined by allegations which turn out to be the result of false memories. Given the increasing pressure for police to bring the perpetrators of historical sexual abuse to justice, as well as a fear of repeating past mistakes, we need to make sure the police are properly trained and equipped to minimise both of these risks.