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History has taught us to tread carefully with Satanic sexual abuse allegations

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Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

Just over one week ago two British newspapers reported that some charities dealing with sexual abuse, claimed that ritualistic, satanic abuse of children was occurring in Scotland. Break the Silence in Kilmarnock and Izzy's Promise in Dundee were reported as claiming that children were forced to take part in satanic rituals, snuff movies and there was also the allegation of ritual sacrifice of babies.

These allegations were supported by spokespersons for the organisations. Many of the incidents were alleged to have taken place in the past but the charities believe that the events may still be occuring.

At the moment these are just claims and there is little concrete information on the specific sources although one suggested that these came from members of the organisation.

There are other gaps that need to be filled including whether those alleging these incidents have been in therapy and if so, what type of therapy. The key role of memory as it applies to events in the past, will come in for close scrutiny should any investigation or inquiry be mounted.

Similar accusations of satanic orgies were made throughout the late 1980s, 1990s and into the current decades.

At the time the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reported that satanic abuse was widespread in the UK.

The most notorious examples were reported from Cleveland (physical as well as sexual abuse), Rochdale, Orkney, Lewis as well as from countries in mainland Europe and North America. Anybody who dared question these was pilloried as a sexual abuse denier, amid widespread media acceptance of the claims.

The claims arising in Britain were not accepted by all journalists, among them Debbie Nathan, an American feminist journalist and Rosie Waterhouse, a British freelance investigative journalist.

Waterhouse pointed out that in spite of the claims there was no findings of bones, bodies or other identifiers of death as the lurid reports described.

In the most distressing cases, police swooped on families in the early hours of the morning in Rochdale and the Orkney Islands. However, lacking corroborative evidence the children were returned to their parents.

The public is likely to be much more wary of similar claims after the events of Rochdale and Orkney.

Also, we know much more about memory for past events than we did then. The general public has always believed that memory is akin to a cine camera in which events are replayed exactly as they occur and are immune to distortion, except in unusual circumstances such as dementia, intoxication or deliberate distortion for gain.

It is now accepted that memories for past events can be distorted and even forgotten. Yet for very traumatic events memory is more likely to be intact although details may be forgotten.

Thus, when a person comes forward with an allegation of a major trauma some years after an event it is reasonable to ask why there was a delay.

If the claim of not remembering or "repression" is pleaded then it is reasonable to tread very cautiously before accepting this as the absolute truth.

In the early 1990s a phenomenon known as False Memory Syndrome was identified. It was based on stories of individuals credibly describing events that never in fact happened.

This created a huge controversy at the time since the events described mainly related to hitherto "forgotten" memories of child sexual abuse being recovered during therapy.

The public feared that those who had been sexually abused would not be believed. Many found it difficult to accept that people could "make-up" such accusations and insisted that suggestions of false memories were a plot to discredit helpless victims.

Although False Memory Syndrome didn't have an explicit name before that, it had been recognised for some time that memory was unreliable and that in some instances memories could be exaggerated and even implanted.

Recent studies by Giuliana Mazzoni, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Hull, England have yet again confirmed that memories can unknowingly be fabricated and recalled with certainty until their falsehood is confirmed by others.

These are called Nonbelieved Memories and involved researchers asking subjects if they could recall memories for events that they now know never happened.

One fifth answered positively to recalling such events in childhood. They only realised the truth when they were disabused of these by trusted others, or simply realised that they were completely implausible, as did one person who previously recalled flying unaided.

Had these 'memories' not been challenged they would still be part of his 'remembered' experience.

A researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, Professor Gisili Gujjonson, has drawn attention to the danger of implanting memories of having committed crimes, during the police interrogation process.

He describes this as arising "memory distrust syndrome", when the individual is unsure if he truly recalls an event as having taken place or whether he has been told so frequently that he comes to accept the story as reality.

The present allegations must be taken seriously but the real possibility of these being part of a false memory process is also applicable.

This is not to deny sexual abuse and its terrible ramifications in the lives of those abused but to add a note of caution in the interests of those who are victims and those who may be falsely accused.

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