When is the Issue of False Memory Raised in Historical Child Sexual Abuse Allegations?
An archival study of 496 British cases
Authors: Dr Julia Shaw, Maria-Bianca Leonte, Georgina Ball, Dr Kevin Felstead
This paper hopes to elucidate a sample of the types of allegations where a claim of false
memory has been raised in the United Kingdom over the past two decades, and to explain
why understanding the prevalence and nature of such claims is critical for the development of
effective policies to deal with such cases within the criminal justice system.
Typically, a caller to the helpline contacts the BFMS in a considerable state of distress
following an allegation of (normally) historic child sexual abuse. The accuser has typically
received psychological or hypnotic therapy following depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or
relationship problems. In some cases, the caller does not possess sufficient information about
the allegation(s) to establish whether potential false memories are involved.
For the present study, BFMS files were redacted by the research team, removing all
personal information that could identify those making the claims and others involved, before
being photocopied, scanned, and analysed.
…. This study examined the prevalence and nature of false memory allegations in the
UK. It showed that over the past two decades, the issue of false memory, particularly of
historical child sexual abuse, has been of considerable concern to the British public. We
believe that the cases included in this sample represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
the prevalence of legally relevant false memories, because individuals who raise the issue of
false memory in the light of allegations, may not know about, or choose not to contact, the
If the BFMS archive is even partially indicative of innocent individuals being accused
of crimes on the basis of their accuser suffering from a false memory, normally as a
consequence of poor psychological therapeutic input, then this is a cause of considerable
…. We do not advocate that the legal system should take all claims of false memory at
face value, as this could be abused by perpetrators of crime, but we stress the importance of
at least considering claims of false memory. A proliferation of scientific and academic
research, as well as DNA exoneration cases from organisations such as the Innocence Project,
has shown repeatedly that false memories of highly emotional situations are easy to create
and can feel and look like real memories (for example see recent mega-analysis by Scoboria
et al., 2016). How police and other agencies should handle the claim that a false memory has
occurred in a particular case would benefit from evidence-based guidance.
It is also useful for the criminal justice system to understand the role that
psychological therapy can play in the generation of false memories. Anyone can generate
false memories, but highly suggestible interview settings increase the risk of modifying of a
person’s memory. A suggestible setting can include a therapist’s office where patients are
encouraged to try to remember back to a childhood drama (e.g., Lynn & Baltman, 2007). A
highly emotional childhood event may have never occurred but can be fed and developed in
therapy sessions until the patient starts using their imagination. It has been repeatedly
experimentally demonstrated that misinformation, in this case suggesting that an emotional
childhood event occurred when it did not, combined with imagination, is a potent recipe for
false memories (e.g., Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1995; Porter, Yuille, & Lehman, 1999;
Shaw & Porter, 2015).
In circumstances where a false memory has been generated through leading and
suggestive therapeutic techniques, we consider both the accuser and the accused to be
victims. The accuser can be seen as a direct victim, since entire memories of events are
introduced and elaborated within their mind, potentially leading to severe psychological
repercussions and alienation. The accused often face alienation from the family, may lose
respect within the community, and may even be prosecuted for a crime they did not commit.
Click on the link to view and download a copy of the study: BFMS Archival Study