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It Could Happen to You

Christian caregivers are to be commended for seeking to provide assistance to the survivors of child sexual abuse. However, we must be aware of a potential danger: the accusations could be false.

I lived in Southern California in the 1980s when the McMartin preschool sexual abuse hysteria gripped our community. A popular bumper sticker at the time declared, “I Believe the Children.” But these well-meaning citizens proved to be wrong. No evidence ever corroborated the bizarre accusations (which proved to have been started by a mentally ill mother). After the longest and most expensive U.S. trial to date, no convictions were made and the charges were dropped—but by then it was too late. The careers and the lives of the accused had been ruined.

This is not to say that all, or even most, claims of sexual abuse are false.

In the McMartin case, the children were led by overzealous therapists who used repetitive interrogation techniques and anatomically correct dolls along with leading questions.

What about the cases where adults remember sexual abuse that happened when they were children? They may have only recently realized that what they experienced was abuse, or perhaps only now do they feel confident enough to confess it and work toward healing. However, if these are newly discovered memories, a caution flag should go up, especially if the person has other life problems for which he or she is seeking answers. The victim may be influenced by a convincing therapist, or by hearing celebrities on television describe their childhood abuse. All too often, the victim comes to believe that she was abused by reading a particular book with a misleading title: The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. It has convinced thousands of troubled women that their current problems were caused by forgotten childhood sexual abuse. In some cases, rather than receiving healing, they get worse.

It was after my daughter read The Courage to Heal that she began to consider the possibility of having been sexually abused as a child. This idea grew as it was fed by a support group of other troubled women who shared horrendous details as they sought to fill in gaps in their supposed memories. The number of imagined abusers also increased with time. She cut off her relationship with all members of our family, following the book’s suggestion to leave one’s family of origin and form a family of choice. Not only did I lose a daughter, I also lost my grandchildren. It happened to me. It could happen to you.

So proceed with caution when hearing reports of childhood sexual abuse. Be aware of current pop psychology, celebrities du jour, and societal trends. Caring people can help by listening and by encouraging openness and honesty without prompting. Telling a secret to a wise and trusted confidante is the first step in breaking its power. Justice may be lacking, but God’s grace never fails.

I regret that my children were raised in a church that stressed male authority and submissive wives and children. I wish I had empowered my daughter so that she was unafraid to say “no” to any adult or person in authority, be it a sexual predator or a misguided therapist. Let’s encourage our daughters to be independent, so that, in the end, they can protect themselves when we are not with them.

Resources for Further Study

Goldstein, Eleanor and Kevin Farmer. Confabulations: Creating False Memories, Destroying Families. Boca Raton, Fla.: Social Issues Resources Series, 1992.

Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives, 2nd ed. Hinesburg, Vt.: Upper Access Books, 1996.

False Memory Syndrome Foundation: 1955 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-5766, 2 15-940-1040, www.fmsfonline. org.

Elizabeth Loftus’s Web page at the University of California, Irvine, includes links of interest and a list of selected publications: www.seweb.uci.edu/faculty/loftus

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