"Recovered" or "repressed" memories are terms that refer to the recall of traumatic events, typically but not exclusively, of child sexual abuse, by adults who have exhibited little or no previous awareness of such experiences. This is also called "traumatic amnesia".
The phenomenon of traumatic amnesia has been noted in a variety of populations over the last century, including war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of natural disasters. By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research indicated that many adult survivors of child sexual abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. While some people always remember having been abused, others do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, whilst others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse.
Traumatic amnesia can be a major obstacle to the prosecution of child sexual abuse. Prior to the 1980s, survivors were often unable to pursue civil charges, because the crime had occured so long previously that they were not permitted to sue by law. In criminal cases, defendants often claimed that adult survivors were unreliable witnesses because they had not reported the abuse until years or decades later.
By the late 1980s, lawyers argued that the limitation period (or the "statute of limitations") for child sex offenses should be extended in cases where a complainant has suffered from traumatic amnesia. Parents accused of sexual abuse sought defence lawyers and psychological experts to help defend against these claims. A new concept, “False Memory Syndrome”, was created to explain delayed memories of sexual abuse in court.
The debate on "recovered memories" and "false memories" dominated the media coverage of child abuse for much of the 1990s. In the media, proponents of the "false memory" position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that "recovered memories" of sexual abuse were unreliable, and often the product of overly zealous therapists, and hysterical, malicious or confabulating women. Since then, this debate has become less heated, with science increasingly affirming the existence of traumatic amnesia and the reliability of "recovered memories".
While it has been established that false memories can and do occur their existence does not negate that of recovered memories. The validity of "False Memory Syndrome" per se has not however been established.
If you are interested in reading more about the debate on "recovered memory", please see two articles by Dr. Kenneth Pope: 'Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic' and 'Science as Careful Questioning'.