Criminologist Defends Child Sex Abuse Expert with Attack on Concept of “False Memory”

From an opinion piece in the Guardian by Australian criminologist Michael Salter:

Attacks on the credibility of abuse survivors are not justified by research

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

…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.

It is not clear what kind of “reforms” he has in mind – child sex abuse is already illegal across the developed world, and perpetrators face not only imprisonment but also social ostracism and public hostility to the point of personal endangerment. Perhaps he means that there ought to be a presumption of truthfulness for unsupported testimony that is presented as derived from recovered memories, rather than a presumption of innocence for those accused.

Salter’s thesis is that there is resistance to allegations of sex abuse because they are a “challenge to authority”:

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.

Salter argues that psychologists who testify in court about the phenomenon of false memories have a “conflict of interest” because they are paid to do so, and he strongly implies that they act in bad faith “on behalf of men accused of sexual abuse” – as if “men accused of sexual abuse” is a disreputable category of person before we even get to a conviction. (1)

Salter’s article has been published in the context of recent doubts about the credibility of the high-profile Australian activist Dr Cathy Kezelman, both as regards her professional influence over Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and her own – to use Salter’s terms – “brave testimony” as a survivor of abuse.

Kezelman was profiled in a long article by Richard Guilliatt that was published last weekend in the Weekend Australian Magazine. Guillatt, referring to Kezelman’s book Innocence Revisited and in conversation with her sceptical brother, charts how her allegations grew under therapy – starting with a sexual assault by a doctor when she was 14, to rape by the doctor, then extensive sex abuse by her late father of which her mother was aware, to sex abuse at the hands of a murderous group:

Kezelman now remembered that her father’s sexual assaults began when she was four and included violent rapes at gunpoint; she recalled her father driving her to his mother’s house in inner Brisbane, where she remembered being ritualistically abused by a “sadistic mob” wearing hoods. In other memories, she was taken to a cave where the hooded figures dismembered a young girl on a rough stone altar.

This is obviously a supposed recollection of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and the way that her allegations escalate from the plausible into Hammer Horror extravagances closely recall a case history presented by a therapist that I discussed here.

Kezelman’s book comes with a preface by the late Professor Freda Briggs, and it has been promoted by the NSW prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC. However, her allegations are not just unsubstantiated, but vehemently contradicted by her brother and mother – although this is not something that the media has been very keen to acknowledge:

In the seven years since his sister first revealed her extraordinary survivor’s story, [Claude] Imhoff has never been approached by the media for his account. Neither has his 94-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor who still lives in her home of nearly 50 years in Sydney.

Interestingly, Kezelman describes her own alleged experiences as her “personal Holocaust”.

Guilliatt’s profile also describes Kezelman’s involvement with an organisation called Adults Surviving Child Abuse, following the departure of Liz Mullinar:

Under Kezelman’s leadership the organisation “rebranded” itself with the help of Susan Leith-Miller, an experienced marketer, launching a telephone counselling service and devising counselling courses that attracted government funding. In one year alone ASCA’s government grants jumped from $12,859 to $405,355. As a medical doctor and a self-described survivor of paedophilia, Kezelman brought both professional and personal gravitas to her role. She enlisted Labor Senator Mark Arbib to launch ASCA’s inaugural Forget Me Knot Day in 2009, and joined the board of the Mental Health Coordinating Council of NSW, an influential body that trains public and private mental health workers.

Presumably we must not compare this $400,000 with the “financial stake” that Salter believes explodes the credibility and personal integrity of psychologists who testify in court about the possibility of false memories. (2)

Salter’s Guardian article has been criticised by the psychologist Julia Shaw on Twitter:

A pernicious article which misrepresents the scientists studying false memory. WE DO NOT COMMENT ON CREDIBILITY. [Link] False memories are not an attempt to lie. We do not assess credibility. We do not even assess whether a memory is “true” or “false”. [Link] False memory scientists say that EVERYONE can have false memories, and that there are circumstances that increase their likelihood. [Link] We understand that delayed disclosure is common. We understand that awful things happen that people report years later, for many reasons. [Link] What we say is that from time to time there is evidence that the way a memory was recalled mirrors how we know memories can be implanted. [Link] What scientists say is that SOMETIMES in SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES memories are not reliable. [Link]

In other words, an expert may talk in general terms about the conditions in which false memories may arise, but it is not their job not diagnose a particular item of testimony as being the result of a false memory. The credibility or otherwise of testimony is for others to assess.

Shaw also addresses Salter directly:

Michael, this is a pernicious article which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what those studying false memory do. [Link] This is not constructive. Your issues are important, but be cautious w the science. Experts are not hired guns, we have a duty to the court. [Link

Shaw – author of The Memory Illusion recently appeared on a BBC London news segment about the need for greater regulation of regression therapy; the context here was the tragic case of Carol Felstead, a nurse who was made to believe that her family were satanists and that she had been raped by a government minister using a claw hammer.

It would be interesting to hear Salter’s take on the Felstead case; or, closer to home, his views on the extravagant allegations of Fiona Barnett.

Footnotes

(1) Salter also claims that

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.

This clicks through to an academic article titled “Organized abuse in adulthood: Survivor and professional perspectives”. The item is paywalled at a prohibitive cost, but the abstract does not refer to this particular detail. Instead, the paper “analyses the fraught relationship between mental health and physical safety for adults subject to organized abuse”, drawing on “interviews with survivors and mental health professionals”.

(2) A companion piece by Guilliatt about criticism of the Royal Commission was published in the Australian on the same day:

Richard Bryant, director of the Westmead Trauma Stress Clinic, said the royal commission ­appeared to be advocating counselling practices that were potentially dangerous and contradicted guidelines endorsed by the ­National Health and Medical Research Council.

His concerns were echoed by several experts in psychology, including emeritus professor Don Thomson, chairman of the ethical guidelines committee of the Australian Psychological Society, and Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California Irvine, an internationally renowned memory researcher who described some of the ideas endorsed by the commission as “brain babble”.

Meanwhile, Kezelman has responded in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“My initial series of flashbacks did not occur in therapy at all, but at home with my husband witnessing them. They were terrifying and it took me some time before I could even mention them to my therapist.”

Dr Kezelman said it was “totally inaccurate” to suggest the counselling guidelines recommended “in any way that counsellors should help patients retrieve implicit memories” that were hidden from consciousness.

One Response

  1. Astonishing that Michael Salter has the cajones to be publicly critical of anyone else’s methodology or motivations.
    “My research has found” -whatever he wishes to find! Salter solicits persons who may self-identify as a victimized person with some particular traits or characteristics of their abuse experience that he wishes to “analyze” and “develop findings” about. For example, persons who might self-identify as “a victim of Organized Abuse”. Salter makes no effort to verify or validate anything that his respondent/ witness/ informants tell him in their “life history” disclosures – whatever they say is fact & truth for him. Salter then sorts, collates, and “analyses” common elements from these life history narratives, (HIS personal perception, that there are indeed “common elements”), and…surprise, surprise! generates “findings” that coincidentally support his very blatant “radical feminist criminology” biases and doctrines!
    But you should also be aware that Salter possesses true magical powers – specifically, the power to “diagnose” EVENTS in another person’s life, on the basis of the “signs & symptoms” of their behaviour (as observed by him), without the other person ever saying anything to him, or anyone else he knows, – directly or indirectly – about those events in their life history! He claims that, while still in his teens, he correctly diagnosed that a female room-mate of his had been sexually victimized as a child, solely on the basis of her behaviours. You might say – well, a lucky guess! but Salter doesn’t talk about it tat way. He (magically) KNEW what had taken place in her life, asking her about it and receiving confirmation from her was just a formality.

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