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For a quarter of a century, the concept of “false memories” has provided a scientific fig leaf for sceptics of child sexual abuse allegations.

The “false memory” argument is deceptively simple: children and adults are prone to invent false memories of child sexual abuse that never occurred, particularly if encouraged by a therapist or some other authority figure.

So-called “recovered memories”, in which adults recall sexual abuse in childhood after a period of amnesia, have been a particular focus of disbelief.

In fact, scientific studies find that children are far less suggestible than we have been led to believe. Brain imaging studies have identified the neurological mechanisms involved in the process of forgetting and then recalling sexual abuse as an adult.

Delayed disclosure and amnesia are now understood as normal coping mechanisms in response to abuse.

However, for those uncomfortable with the social and legal reforms required to address child sexual abuse, the idea that large numbers of allegations are the product of “false memories” remains attractive.

This argument underpins recent reporting in the Australian, which has called into question the findings of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, on the basis that sexual abuse survivor testimony cannot be trusted.

Two lengthy articles have raised doubts about the recent prosecution of a mother and father for the prolonged sadistic abuse of their daughter, and challenged the trauma history of anti-abuse campaigner Dr Cathy Kezelman.

This reporting links therapy to the spectres of false memories and false allegations. The implication is that any child or adult who makes allegations of abuse after receiving mental health care may be suffering from therapy-induced delusions.

The “false memory” argument arose in the early 1990s. During this period, adults began pursuing criminal and civil actions for sexual abuse in childhood in large numbers. These legal proceedings were complex, since the alleged offences had often taken place decades ago. Many adults had sought mental health care for the effects of abuse prior to court action.

In response, people accused of abuse claimed that therapy was the cause of the abuse allegations. They paid psychology academics to testify in court about the fallibility and suggestibility of memory. Their theories of “false memories” were widely covered in the mass media by journalists who were dubious of the sudden increase in reports and prosecution of sexual abuse.

Of course, no memory is a pristine record of facts. From the moment it is produced, memory is shaped by interpretation as much as experience, and the meaning and availability of any given memory changes over time.

However, the new science of trauma and memory has shown that the assertions of “false memory” advocates were exaggerated.

Overwhelming experiences of abuse are encoded differently in the brain than other memories, and can produce amnesia and forgetting. My research has found that many perpetrators of severe abuse deliberately traumatise children in order to take advantage of this mechanism and prevent victims from disclosing.

It is vital that abused children and adults receive therapeutic support to address the psychological changes caused by sexual abuse, and their testimony should be taken seriously by law enforcement and the criminal courts.

Nonetheless, the imperative to deny and suppress these allegations is as strong as ever. Sexual abuse is a crime of the status quo. Offenders get away with abuse because they are camouflaged within their legitimate roles (as parents, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers and so on) in the lives of children.

As a result, allegations of sexual abuse are always a challenge to authority, revealing the weaknesses and failings of treasured social institutions.

In response, many are driven to reject the allegations outright, rather than examine the uncomfortable truths they reveal. For instance, church representatives have accused journalists of pursuing clergy abuse as part of a secular attack on Christianity.

Conservatives are suspicious that feminists and the state have exaggerated the problem of sexual abuse to expand control over the family and intimate life. Many progressives frame public concern over sexual abuse as a “moral panic” driven by unfounded anxiety over child safety.

For those who see hidden agendas driving abuse allegations, the “false memory” theory remains as compelling as ever. They find their suspicions reaffirmed by those academics who earn significant sums promoting “false memory” theories in court on behalf of men accused of sexual abuse.

This practice has been criticised as a “conflict of interest”, since objectivity is compromised when academics have such a large financial stake in interpreting research findings in specific ways.

In this light, attacks on the credibility of abuse survivors and advocates, and on the findings of the royal commission, need to be placed in political context. Despite their appeals to scientific expertise, such attacks are not justified by research on sexual abuse and traumatic memory; far from it.

The royal commission has revealed the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in child-focused institutions. Recent prosecutions, and the brave testimony of survivors such as Cathy Kezelman, highlights how family dynamics are manipulated by perpetrators of incest, to the point where non-abused siblings may be entirely unaware of the plight of the victim and groomed to disbelieve them if they disclose.

Perpetrators have many ways of drawing naive bystanders into a position of collusion or collaboration. Responding to the needs and rights of sexual abuse survivors will always prompt resistance from those wedded to the status quo, whether for personal, financial or ideological reasons.

The success of this resistance is evident in ongoing epidemic levels of abuse, and low rates of reporting and prosecution. Abuse needs our complicity. Due process and fair treatment of survivors, as well as the accused, requires a clear minded assessment of how facts and science are often distorted by the relations of power that make abuse possible.

Original article published here:


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Head to Health


“Blue Knot Foundation has a key role to play in the building of community capacity in care provision to those who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma in any environment.”

NIALL MULLIGAN Manager, Lifeline Northern Rivers

“I think Blue Knot Foundation is a fantastic support organisation for people who have experienced childhood trauma/abuse, for their families/close friends and for professionals who would like to learn how to more effectively work with these people.”

Psychologist Melbourne

“It's such a beautiful thing that you are doing. Helping people to get through this.”


“It was only last September when I discovered the Blue Knot Foundation website and I will never forget the feeling of support and empathy that I received when I finally made the first phone call to Blue Knot Helpline, which was also the first time I had ever spoken about my abuse.”


"At last there is some sound education and empathetic support for individuals and partners impacted by such gross boundary violations.”


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