Repressed memories of sexual abuse may be false and can be inadvertently suggested by therapists, University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus will tell the American Psychological Association tomorrow.
A study by the researcher follows recent liberalization of laws, including in Washington sue decades after incidents occur.
Her report at the APA's annual convention in Washington, D.C., is expected to cause an uproar in a legal community already struggling with civil and criminal abuse cases with little physical evidence to prove or disprove them.
Loftus has a national reputation as an expert on memory. She has written a book called "Witness for the Defense," but has drawn fire from opposing attorneys for testifying as an expert witness in scores of court cases for hefty fees.
In an interview, the psychologist stressed she is not saying repressed cases of child abuse never happen. Rather, she says the firm research evidence on repressed memory is slim.
Loftus said those claiming sexual abuse believe they are telling the truth. And therapists don't intentionally try to plant the notion in their heads.
But she said both patient and therapist are looking for a cause for mental distress. "I know there is a tremendous amount of suggestion going on in therapy sessions," she said. "People are desperate for an explanation for their problems, and feel this (past abuse) is the answer."
To prove that memories can be planted, she and colleague Jim Coan have launched a study in which they try to convince subjects that they were lost in a shopping mall at age 5.
They often start by having a parent or other trusted authority figure suggest to the study subject the event is true.
Not only have the first five subjects developed a memory of the false incident, she said, but they also often elaborate the story with their own details.
Julia Heiman, a researcher and therapist at the UW, said proving memories can be planted is easier than proving they're real.
"Loftus is right some of the time," Heiman said. "Sometimes these memories are created. But I also think repressed memories are possible and exist."
In a recent case in Northern California, Loftus said, a therapist convinced a woman she had been sexually abused by her father, even though the woman had no initial memory of abuse.
So the defense attorney hired a woman detective to visit the same therapist and voice the same complaints. The detective got the same suggestion of abuse.
"I think counselors can be very suggestive," said Seattle attorney David Tracy, who recently defended parents accused of sexual abuse and Satanic practices by an adult daughter who cited childhood memories. "One counselor told me he assumes every woman patient who comes in has been abused."
The issue has taken on added urgency since 1989 when the Legislature, responding to a state Supreme Court ruling, lifted the statute of limitations on civil suits claiming past sexual abuse. Since then, people have been able to sue for abuse claims that are decades old, arguing the abuse was buried in their memory.
Loftus said a number of recent high-profile cases demonstrate the high stakes. She cautioned she has no opinion whether the allegations are true or false:
-- On July 31, Mason County Commissioner Michael Gibson resigned his post after his stepdaughter, 27-year-old Lynn Bowman, reported she had regained memories of childhood abuse after sessions with a therapist.
-- Earlier in July, Seattle resident Janet Curry, 29, told a Missouri audience that her father Charles Curry, 73, a former Jackson County, Mo., presiding judge and former national Democratic Party treasurer, had sexually abused her over a span of 24 years. Curry denied the charges.
-- Last week, an Ohio jury awarded Julie Herald, 33, $5.15 million for abuse she said she endured when living with her uncle, former Tallmadge, Ohio, Mayor Dennis Hood. She said she repressed the abuse until 1989. Hood said he would appeal.
The courts are struggling with how to deal with such cases, because there is often little supporting evidence.
"It's a terrible, terrible situation the legal system is trying to deal with," said Seattle attorney Hank Fields, who handled the defense in an abuse allegation case that was eventually settled out of court. Fields said victims sometimes recall abuse only in therapy and only after being exposed to survivors manuals graphically describing what might have been done.
"How does someone accused defend himself?" Fields asked.
Lucy Berliner, director of research for the Harborview Sexual Assault Center, says, "I don't disagree with the contention there's a lot we don't know about the quality of these memories."
But Berliner, who has read Loftus' paper, says scientists can't prove the memories are wrong anymore than they can prove they are correct.
And she thinks it takes more than false memories to motivate an accuser:
"Why would a child testify against her parents if nothing happened? The idea these memories come out of nothing I find hard to believe."
She said the problem may be stickiest in civil cases, where instead of having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt an accuser need only convince a jury that the preponderance of the evidence is on her side.
Loftus had advice for therapists involved in such cases: "I would hope therapists would be more careful in how they approach their patients."
She suggested that they should not assume abuse, should try to avoid suggesting it and, ideally, should get a second opinion.