The False Justice Syndrome

By Cole, Susan G. | Herizons, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The False Justice Syndrome


Cole, Susan G., Herizons


The False Justice Syndrome.

The system sure worked for Robert Ross, former psychologist at Grandview Training school for Women. Ross was found not guilty of six sexual abuse charges last November. The jury was hung on 11 other counts. The charges stemmed from complaints laid by six ex-Grandview residents and a social work placement student based on incidents some 20 years ago.

The verdict is not only a setback for the women who testified to being abused. The way evidence was presented during the trial could have a severe silencing effect on survivors who want to bring similar charges. As is inevitably the case when there is disagreement about what has taken place behind closed doors, credibility (of the victims) was the crucial factor during the hearing.

Ross' team of woman lawyers gnawed away at the complainants' believability. In the case of one complainant, the defence created a portrait of a damaged woman with a criminal record -- can you believe a woman who has been convicted of fraud? -- bent out of shape by substance abuse?

For another, joining the Grandview Survivors Support Group was used to suggest that the support group increased the "suggestibility" of the woman. One complainant's success in filing a compensation claim for $60,000 was construed by the accused's lawyers as a cash grab. Lawyers also cast doubt on the complainants precisely because their memories of the abuse were disclosed over 20 years after the incidents. We may take only small consolation in the fact that the judge refused to dismiss the incidents by calling them the result of false memory syndrome per se. But that was only because false memory was construed by the judge as existing only when therapists trigger memories, and not when friends and support groups -- or anyone else -- put ideas in girls' heads.

The spectacularly swift way the term false memory syndrome has entered into legal parlance and public discourse around sexual abuse speaks volumes to how ready people are to disbelieve the depth of our social crisis with sexual abuse. The fact that there is no evidence that memories of sexual abuse can be planted didn't stop the judge from commenting on false memory as if it were a legal or psychological reality. Advocates of false memory rest their credibility on a single study. Elizabeth Loftus reports that she was able to convince people that they were lost in a shopping mall when in fact they were not. Apart from the fact that it compares getting lost with severe trauma, the study does nothing to disprove the fact that traumatic memories are often repressed.

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