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 Australian False Memory Association (Inc.)


Merle Elson
Psychologist, Melbourne

 Part 2


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3.2 Events connected with the accusation

3.2.1 Date of accusation

The majority of the accusations made against persons responding to this survey were made between 1989 and 1994 - a total of 88% occurred during those years. This compares with the British survey which found the percentage of accusations between 1989 and 1994 was 92%[27]. The New Zealand study found an identical proportion to the British results - 92% of accusations - were made between 1989 and 1994, and also that the accusations peaked in 1992 - 93[28]. A similar pattern occurred in the United States, where the FMS Foundation found that the number of accusations peaked during 1991 to 1992 and has decreased since.[29] These patterns, of the peak in accusations during 1993 and the dramatic decreases during more recent years, is clearly observable in the graph which follows on page 15.

These world-wide trends, signifying a marked decrease in the number of accusations during the past two to three years, are most encouraging to all those concerned about the injustices inflicted by recovered memory therapy. Looking retrospectively at such comparative figures from all over the world strongly indicates that there was a false memory syndrome epidemic. Terms like that would have been considered emotive two or three years ago, but now that the statistics have been collected to back up mere impressions, epidemic is not too strong a word. The best news though, from these international comparisons, is that the occurrence of the syndrome is definitely now decreasing and hopefully is in its final stages.

In Britain only five families were accused prior to 1986 and in Australia there was only one family (in this survey) accused prior to 1986. The oldest accusation reported in this current Australian survey dates back to 1981, whereas the oldest accusation reported in the British survey occurred in 1955. In the United States there were also very few accusations prior to 1986. Based on available survey data, the peak years for accusations based on recovered memories were: in Australia, 1993, and also in Britain, 1993 and in the USA, 1992.


3.2.2 Age of accusing person

The average age of the accusing person when first making their allegations was 30 years which is the same as the USA study by the FMSF and very similar to the British survey (29.6 years). A study conducted in New Zealand found that the average age of the accuser was 31.4 years[30]. This remarkable correlation of ages across four countries appears to indicate similar precipitating experiences amongst 30 year-old women in Western cultures and warrants further research beyond the scope of these surveys.

3.2.3 Accusations were made against:

One abuser 34 (41%)
Multiple abusers 49 (59%)
Average number of alleged abusers: 2.4

Total number of persons accused: 202
Total number of men accused: 147 (73%)
Total number of women accused: 55 (27%)

Relationship of the accused person to the accusing person:

‘n % [31]
Father 74 89       36% only person accused; 57% co-accused
Mother 33 40         2.4% only person accused; 37% co-accused
Stepfather 2 2
Foster father 1 1
Grandfather 11 13
Grandmother 3 4
Uncle 14 17
Aunt 2 2
Brothers 9 11
Sisters 3 4
Others 24 29        includes cousins, in-laws, neighbours, classmates, etc.


Comparing percentages of biological fathers accused (including those who were co-accused) highlighted similarities and differences between those biological fathers accused in New Zealand[32], Britain and Australia. The British survey found that 72% of fathers were accused, whereas New Zealand had 88% and Australia 89%. The results for accused biological mothers however, showed that there were 28% in Britain and 26% in New Zealand, compared with Australia’s 40%, as shown above. It could be postulated therefore, that when persons recovered repressed memories of abuse there would be a higher probability of accusations against natural parents in Australia and New Zealand than in the United Kingdom.

3.2.4 Ages at which alleged abuse occurred

Alleged age (a) at commencement of abuse: Range: birth to 16 years
  Average: 3.8 years
  (b) when abuse ended: Range: 3 to 44 years
  Average: 13 years

As in the surveys in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, many of the families do not know at what ages the abuse was alleged to start or finish. Frequently they have never been informed of any details of the actual allegations except when it is mandatory for a criminal trial. Although pseudomemories are typically recovered with intricate detail - unlike most real memories - the person accused is usually only informed that they are guilty of sexual abuse.

Of those respondents who were informed of the ages at which the alleged abuse occurred the following comparisons are provided:

Australian Survey   British USA New Zealand
Under 8 years of age 90% 70% 94% 9 yrs  
Under 5 years of age 72% 44% 68% 4 yrs 45%
During the first year of life 13% 5% 35% 0-2 yrs 3%
During the accuser’s adult life 17%      

Some of the results of the current Australian survey are quite remarkable, especially the fact that 13% claimed to have remembered sexual abuse during their first year of life. It is impossible to remember anything from infancy as the human brain is too immature to store memories during this stage for later retrieval. This period is commonly referred to as "infantile amnesia" and has been well-documented in psychological textbooks for decades. For further information about early childhood amnesia, readers are referred to the review of research and theories on this topic by Fivush and Hamond (1990)[33].

It is also highly unusual for anyone to be able to remember anything in great detail that occurred to them under five years old.[34] Yet 72% of accusers believed they had memories of being sexually abused when they were under five years old. Whether it is likely or not that such young children are sexually abused, it is difficult to accept that they would be able to comprehend what was happening to them and categorise it in their mind as sexual abuse. For example, some forms of sexual abuse may mistakenly be interpreted by a young child as cuddling whereas a necessary medical examination may be perceived as sexual abuse. Neither would be correct.


3.2.5 Number of alleged episodes of abuse



One: 6%   10%
Two: 2%   4%
Several/numerous 51%   49%
Don’t know: 41%   35%

3.2.6 Type of abuse alleged

Aust. British USA NZ
Satanic Ritual Abuse 20.5%[35] 8% 18% 14%
Penetration 45% 29% ....[36] ....
Sexual abuse 88% 62% .... 50%
Physical (non-sexual) abuse 29%    
Allegations vague or not known 16%  

The figures in all the above categories were relatively high when compared to some in the overseas surveys, which may have been due to the Australian participants providing more detail in response to this question. It was of concern to note the extremely high level in Australia of alleged satanic ritual abuse (SRA) even compared to the United States. However, as this form of "recovered memory" is even more discredited than any other, there may be less cause for concern: most of the allegations are so weird and even impossible, that they are not readily believed. There have now been several investigations into the veracity of memories of SRA, both overseas and in Australia, which have found no substance to these bizarre claims. For example, Ed Ogden, a Forensic Physician and a member of the AFMA Professional Advisory Board, investigated numerous SRA claims for his Masters thesis during 1994. In the United States, Kenneth Lanning, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI[37], and in Britain, Professor Jean La Fontaine[38], after extensive investigations, also found nothing to substantiate the belief in widespread organised satanic ritual abuse of children.

3.2.7 Method used to inform the accused person of the allegations



Via another person 37%   14%
By letter 24%   21%
Face-to-face 17%   23%
By telephone 12%   13%
Police interview 10%   6%


Almost half of the accused people in the Australian survey first heard of the allegations against them via a third party, either a person other than the accuser, or in ten per cent of cases, at a police interview.


3.2.8 Changes to the allegations since first made:



Became more serious and extensive 55%   37%
Have remained unchanged 30%   47%
Partially or fully retracted 15%   9%
More than one category listed     7%

Although a large percentage of the original allegations became more serious and extensive, it is the final figure of 15% of allegations that are partially or fully retracted that will give some hope to parents. It appears that during the first few months the memories being recovered (usually with the guidance of a therapist) often become more horrific and bizarre and the number of alleged perpetrators increases. Then much later, sometimes even after several years, and if the accuser can escape from the influence of their therapist, the accusers gradually begin to doubt the accuracy of their recovered memories. Most retractors the writer has spoken to said that they only began to realise what had happened to them when, for various reasons, they had changed therapists.

The co-dependent relationship between the accuser and their therapist is not unlike that of a cult devotee to their guru and both unfortunately usually take several years before victims realise their own deterioration under the influence of a destructive belief system. As the effects of cult membership has a much longer history, FMS families may gain from learning from the experiences of cult survivors by comparing them to their own adult children’s survival from recovered memory therapy. In both situations parents hoping for family reconciliation need to be very patient. A quarterly Australian review Cultwatch is produced by, and available from, the organisation CultAware[39] and may be of interest to those affected by ruinous forms of therapy.


3.2.9 Amnesia

Respondents were asked if the accusing person claimed to have forgotten about the abuse for some years and then remembered alleged events of which they previously had no knowledge, when something triggered this memory. Responses were:

Yes 84.5% (British study 73%) No 3.5% Don’t know 12%

If it is assumed that some of the "don’t know" category may also have suffered from repression or amnesia, then it is possible that over 95% of accusing persons in this survey were basing their allegations of childhood sexual abuse on events that they had supposedly forgotten and had no knowledge of for many years. This is a frightening situation, given the improbability of such a mechanism as psychological repression.[40] As stated in the recent report into recovered memories commissioned by the British Royal College of Psychiatrists: "Despite widespread clinical and popular belief that memories can be ‘blocked out’ by the mind, no empirical evidence exists to support either repression or dissociation. No evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified, severely traumatic events..."[41]

3.2.10 Therapy

Respondents were asked to provide details regarding the therapy which the accusing person was involved in. In spite of many accused persons not knowing some of these details, overall there was a considerable quantity of useful information. A total of 190 therapists were attended by 77 accusers, that is an average of 2½ therapists for each accuser. Although only six accusers were not known to have attended formal therapy, most accusers attended more than one therapist and many attended several. One accusing person actually attended ten different therapists and one 20 year old woman had already attended nine.

It is not possible to ascertain from a survey of this type, the reasons for the high number of therapists attended. However, it does indicate shopping around and therefore a certain dissatisfaction with the first, second or subsequent therapist attended. As a practising psychologist, I have found clients often do not want to accept unpalatable explanations for their current distress. Some people have difficulty accepting personal responsibility for their own mistakes and the effects these mistakes have on their lives. They would prefer a magic wand, an elixir, or even a simplistic explanation that off-loads responsibility from themselves onto some external force. Perhaps they go searching for a therapist who can offer them an easy way out, instead of having to do the hard work of changing their own behaviour or lifestyle. Then perhaps they are told that, even though they have no recollection of it, they must have been sexually abused as a child. An authority figure in the guise of the all-knowing therapist, explains that they have all the symptoms of repressed childhood sexual abuse, and at last, they have found the explanation, the cause of all their current distress.

Below are listed the types of therapists attended by the accusing persons as reported by the survey respondents:

Type of therapist No. %
Psychologists 31 16
Psychiatrists 22 12
Psychotherapists 19 10
Sexual Assault Counsellors 19 10
Social Workers 17 9
Pastoral/Church Counsellors 16 8.5
Counsellor 13 7
Medical Practitioner 12 6
Group Therapy 12 6
New Age Healer 10 5
Community Counsellor 7 4
Clairvoyant 5 3
Hypnotherapist 3 1.5
Family therapist 2 1
Naturopath 2 1


3.2.11 Therapists’ qualifications

It is difficult to make any definitive statement regarding the qualifications of the therapists attended as some accusers saw a mixture of qualified and unqualified therapists and many parents did not know if the therapists were qualified or not. However it could be assumed that most of the more professional type of therapist (psychologists, psychiatrists and medical practitioners) would have been qualified, as there are strict legal constraints in all Australian States on their professions.


From the above table though, it unfortunately appears that even attending a psychologically-trained and registered professional does not protect clients from the practice of dubious therapeutic techniques such as the recovery of childhood or past life memories. It is distressing, as a qualified professional, to note that psychologists top the table and their medically-trained counterparts, psychiatrists, come second. It is a claim to fame that brings no credit to our professions. It is even more of a problem to observe so many accusers have attended therapists such as psychotherapists, church counsellors, clairvoyants and New Age healers who would often have no formal qualifications and no understanding of medical or psychological illnesses or disorders. It could be speculated that the professional and non-professional types of therapists may have differing motivations and reasons for using memory recovery techniques. For example, many traditional psychiatrists and psychologists have a psychoanalytical background and subscribe to Freudian theories like repression. Perhaps the untrained, New Age type of therapists base their beliefs on current pop psychology theories learned through attending seminars by charismatic American lecturers or reading the latest self-help manual. This effect was most noticeable in the dramatic recent upsurge of belief amongst many Australian therapists in MPD (or DID) and dissociation.

3.2.12 Length of therapy

The average length of time the accusing person attended psychotherapy was 3½ years, although it would eventually be considerably longer as 24 out of 77 of the accusers (31%) were known to still be in on-going therapy at the time of responding to the survey. The length of therapy already attended by the accusers ranged from 3 months to 20 years.

3.2.13 Diagnoses

Similar comments as those above also apply to psychiatric diagnoses - many parents or others would not have known of a diagnosis provided to the accusing patient. Apparently many therapy clients had not been provided with a diagnosis of their condition or presenting problem. The various diagnoses, from those who were able to provide this information, are listed below:

Childhood sexual abuse "Survivor" 17%
Depression 6%
Eating Disorder 3%
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 5%
Bipolar Disorder 3%

It is noteworthy to again observe the very low occurrence of eating disorders - only three per cent - which are considered by some therapists as a reliable indicator of childhood sexual abuse. If therapists who practice recovered memory techniques truly believe survivors have a high incidence of eating disorders, then such a low rate as found in this survey may lead them to suspect that these patients had not been sexually abused as children. In any case though, the correlation between eating disorders and childhood sexual abuse is no longer believed to be reliable and there have been studies in recent years which have challenged the validity of the theory.

3.2.14 Accusations connected with therapy


Attending therapy appears to be highly correlated with the making of accusations of previously unknown childhood sexual abuse. The British survey found that 93% of accusations were connected with therapy, and in New Zealand 91% of families "indicated that the allegations had been made with the involvement of counselling or therapy"[42]. In the current Australian study over 90% of allegedly false allegations appeared to be connected with attending therapy. When respondents were asked if they believed the accusations would have been made if the accusing person had not attended therapy, 88% said "no". Therefore an overwhelming number of accused persons in different studies across the world believed that psychotherapy had played an powerful role in the allegations against them.

3.2.15 Medication

Of those accusing persons who attended therapy, 36% were known by the respondents to have been prescribed drugs. The actual percentage may have been much higher as many parents and/or accused persons would not have known if the accuser had been prescribed drugs. There may also have been an effect on some accusing persons from non-prescription drugs, especially any type of mind-altering or trance-inducing substance.

3.2.16 Meetings with therapists

Meetings with therapists were requested in 48 cases (63%) where a therapist was involved. The following table lists who was responsible for making the request:

Parents 32 67%
Therapist 7 15%
Accusing person 7 15%
Siblings 2   4%  [43]

Of the 48 requests for meetings only 22 meetings between therapists and accused persons actually took place, that is, less than half the number requested. Almost every one of these meetings was reported to have been disappointing or disastrous for the accused parents involved, with no attempt made by the therapist to ascertain the accuracy of the alleged memories or to listen to the parents’ side. The meetings were generally described by the respondents as occurring in an antagonistic rather than conciliatory or even neutral environment, and were used as an opportunity to further confront and verbally abuse the so-called perpetrators. In the British survey, meetings between affected parties were requested in 47% of cases and actual meetings took place in only 18% of the families, a similar, though smaller, result than this survey.

3.2.17 Other therapeutic activities:

The following table lists other activities, related to therapy, that the accusing person was known to have participated in prior to making their allegations of sexual abuse. They are listed in order of frequency of the response:


No. % [44]

Reading the book Courage to Heal


Reading other ‘self-help’ books, including
Breaking Through
Freeing your mind from memories that bind
Toxic Parents
Allies in Healing
(given to parents to read)
Healing Victims of Sexual Abuse " " " "






Women’s centre or group


Survivor group


Guided imagery


Age regression or past life regression


Rape counselling


Dream interpretation


"12 step" recovery program


Eating disorders group



Other groups: counselling courses

positive self-image

group therapy

MPD group

incest survivors











Other techniques as specified by respondents:





Palm readings


Joint counselling


Keeping journal


Inner Child Healing


Exorcism - self-induced








Tricia’s Song (Trish Reynolds)







It is remarkable that a total of almost 90% of the accusing persons were known (by the respondents)[45] to have read self-help books, more than half of these reading The Courage to Heal[46] and the remainder reading mostly similar publications. Some accusers also gave these books or similar to their parents to read. The British survey found that 30% of accusers were known to have read The Courage to Heal and an additional 23% were known to have read other "self-help" publications.

As the preceding table shows, approximately a quarter of all of the accusers participated in both hypnosis and guided imagery, and both women’s groups and survivor groups. More than a third had been involved with psychotherapy. Together with age regression, these techniques and activities have apparently exerted considerable effect on vulnerable people. However, these factors are insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming sway of books like The Courage to Heal. It may be that the powerful influence of this book has been responsible, more than any other single factor, for the spread of the destructive "false memory syndrome" epidemic. As previously noted in other sections of this survey, the low numbers involved with eating disorders challenges popular therapeutic mythology.

3.2.18 Legal Experiences

Of the 83 respondents, 23 (28%) have faced legal proceedings, mostly criminal trials. Although almost all were eventually found "not guilty" they have had to endure intensive police investigations and prolonged legal proceedings, as one would expect. Some allegations were found to have no substance early in the police enquiries and were not proceeded with further by the Departments of Public Prosecutions, but frequently not before having a drastic effect on the accused persons’ health. One heart attack actually took place during prolonged police questioning. Several accused fathers were initially convicted and had to spend time in prison before the legal profession became familiar with the unreliability of recovered memories, and appeals were upheld. Many respondents wrote of the total devastation the false allegations had caused in every aspect of their lives - financial, marital, professional and most importantly to them, family relationships.

A further ten (12%) of the respondents have been threatened by the accusing persons that legal proceedings will be instituted against them. A few of the accused persons were even hopeful that the threat may be carried out so that they would have an opportunity to clear their name. Therefore, a total of more than forty per cent of respondents have either been charged or have a realistic fear that they may be charged with criminal allegations based solely on unsubstantiated "recovered memories".

Fourteen percent of respondents in the British survey had been involved with legal proceedings, only half that of their Australian counterparts. This may represent a greater reticence among the British, including the accusers, to bring these issues out in to the public or legal domain.

In this survey there was not one instance of the accused person pressing charges themselves, either against the therapist or the accuser for the emotional and financial damage suffered through being falsely accused. The accused parents generally had reconciliation with their accusing offspring as their overwhelming priority and were usually concerned about the accuser’s psychological well-being. Even if legal proceedings did reinstate their reputation and prove their innocence, it would not assist the restoration of their family or improve the emotional health of their estranged son or daughter. Yet, in the broader picture, legal proceedings against the perpetrators of false accusations could play an extremely important role. Pamela Freyd, in her conference address in Baltimore, suggested that legal cases are probably the reason for the change in attitude in the United States to the FMSF.[47]


3.3 Consequences of the accusations

3.3.1 Effects on siblings

The siblings of the accusing person reacted in different ways on learning about the accusations against their parents. It is difficult to make global statements about the siblings as frequently different members of the one family reacted differently. Many of them, although they did not believe the accusations, did try to remain impartial and were obviously concerned about their accusing sibling. More than half did however confront the accuser with disbelief - unfortunately the accuser then usually terminated contact with them. As people caught up in the false memory syndrome discover, anyone who expresses some disbelief or doubt about the accuser’s memories is usually denied any further contact.

3.3.2 Total number of family members affected by the accusations 1498
  Average number of family members affected by each accusation 18

To gauge the magnitude of the effects of these allegations, note that these figures do not include all the others who may be affected - in addition to family members - such as all the friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the accusing person and those they have accused. Considering that this survey provides only a very small sample of affected families, it could be estimated that there are probably many tens of thousands of people affected throughout Australia by recovered memory allegations.

3.3.3. Reaction of friends

Respondents were asked about the reaction (on finding out about the allegations) of the accusing person’s friends - who knew her and the family during the time the alleged abuse was occurring. Some of their responses were:

    "Most disbelieve the allegations entirely."

    "Stunned disbelief."

    "Some supported her at first, but not now."

    "They believe she was coerced into making the allegation."

    "Her allegations are so bizarre, they say - forget her."

    "Disbelief, bewilderment."

It was found that the accused people who received positive reactions, reassurance and support from long-time family friends did not feel as severely affected physically or psychologically by the accusations. Vice versa, many accused persons felt too ashamed of being unjustly accused of such serious crimes that they did not tell anyone. Unfortunately this deprived them of the opportunity of being believed and supported by extended family and friends, and the tremendous assistance this would have given to their coping abilities.


3.3.4 Psychological treatment

Respondents were asked if they had sought treatment or help from a therapist or counsellor following the accusations. The responses to this question had not been anticipated: 68% had sought counselling treatment or help following the accusations, with varying outcomes. In Britain only 29% of the accused persons sought psychological help for themselves, which may reflect culturally different attitudes in a person’s willingness to attend a therapist or counsellor. Attending therapy may be generally lower in the UK than in Australia, just as the rate is probably considerably higher in the US than in other countries.

This figure of over two-thirds of the Australian sample was an unexpectedly high rate, as it had been presumed that most accused persons would have a negative attitude towards psychotherapy and similar treatments after personally experiencing the destructive effects of questionable therapy. However many respondents wrote of needing help to cope with the devastating emotional and physical effects of the accusations, including stress reactions, heart attacks, depression, insomnia, cancer and even death.

The accused people who attended therapy themselves saw various types of counsellors. Some discussed their problems with their priest (or equivalent) or their family doctor, whereas some were referred to professional counsellors, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Many respondents reported that they felt the help they received from counselling was disappointing, however it should be noted that these people had usually only attended one session and were apparently hoping for an instantaneous magic cure. Ideally to have a successful outcome, therapy for such a severe crisis would need to be at least short term, that is, lasting between five to ten sessions. Nevertheless, many other respondents who had only attended a few consultations felt that the advice and support they received had been useful and had assisted their ability to cope through their trauma. As in most situations, the counselling outcome for accused parents would be correlated with their expectations and the extent of additional supportive networks.


27 Gudjonsson, G H, Accusations by adults of childhood sexual abuse: a survey of the members of the British False Memory Society (BFMS). Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol.11, 3-18.
28 Goodyear-Smith, F A, Laidlaw, T M & Large R G. Surveying families accused of childhood sexual abuse: A comparison of British and New Zealand results. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol 11, 31-34, 1997.
29 Freyd, Pamela. 1997. op.cit.
30 Goodyear-Smith, F A. et al, op.cit. p.32.
31 Note that percentages add to more than a hundred because of multiple persons accused.
32 Goodyear-Smith, F A. et al, op.cit. p.32.
33 Fivush, R. & Hamond, N.R. Autobiographical memory across the preschool years: Toward reconceptualizing childhood amnesia. In R. Fivush & J.A. Hudson (Eds), Knowing and remembering in young children (pp.223-248). New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990.
34 Unless it is a special event that has been 'rehearsed' often, i.e., family members discuss it frequently or look at photographs of it, so that the original memory is constantly refreshed and therefore retained more effectively.
35 Percentages do not add to a hundred as most respondents had been accused of more than one form of abuse.
36 Figures are missing from some categories in the overseas surveys as these details were not available.
37 Lanning, K. Ritual abuse: a law enforcement view or perspective. Child Abuse and Neglect. Vol.11, 1991, 171-173.
38 La Fontaine, J. The extent and nature of organised and ritual abuse. HMSO: London. 1994.
39 CultAware, Locked Bag 1000, Granville, NSW 2142.
40 Amnesia after physical trauma, such as a car accident, caused by brain damage through head injury is obviously a different matter, and is nothing to do with the concept of psychological repression.
41 Reported in the Melbourne Age, 17/1/98. p.1.
42 Goodyear-Smith F.A. et al, op.cit. p.33.
43 Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.
44 Many respondents selected several categories, therefore percentages are related to how many (out of the total number of accusers) participated in each activity.
45 It is likely that the actual number of accusers reading these books was higher than that reported in the survey, as some accusers may have read The Courage to Heal or similar publications without the respondents being aware of the fact.
46 Bass, E & Davis L. The Courage to Heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1988.
47 Freyd, Pamela. op.cit.



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Australian False Memory
    Association (Incorporated)

Australian False Memory Association
Caring for Families and Individuals

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