Victims can lose all memory of child abuse, says judge

The head of the royal commission into institutional child abuse has declined to respond to criticisms that it is endorsing controversial “repressed memory” counselling techniques but says he has seen ­direct evidence that victims may have complete ­amnesia of their trauma.

Judge Peter McClellan told a conference of psychotherapists in Sydney on Saturday that he had been “somewhat startled” while leading the inquiry to meet abuse victims who have no memory of their childhood trauma.

“I have sat with people in private sessions … when we know that that person has been abused by someone and the perpetrator has confessed and been convicted, and the victim has no memory of that abuse having occurred at all,” Justice McClellan said.

The Weekend Australian revealed on Saturday that experts in the field of trauma and memory were critical of the commission for endorsing “ethically dubious” counselling ideas that they say are identical to the repressed-­memory therapy of the 1980s and 90s, when a rash of false and biz­arre allegations of abuse were made.

Justice McClellan said he would not comment on the criticisms, which centre in part on the commission’s endorsement of the counselling guidelines of Cathy Kezelman, a high-profile activist who says she was sexually abused during her childhood by her father and a pedophile cult led by her grandmother.

The Weekend Australian revealed on Saturday that Dr Kezelman’s mother and brother repudiate her claims, and her psychologist was investigated by the Psychology Council of NSW. Dr Kezelman, who is president of the Blue Knot Foundation and sits on the expert panel devising the $4 billion redress scheme for victims of institutional abuse, denied at the weekend that the counselling guidelines she co-wrote advocated the retrieval of repressed memories.

Fairfax Media quoted her as saying it was “totally false” to suggest her repressed memories were triggered by her psychotherapy, because the memories began emerging when she was at home, not while with her therapist.

Dr Kezelman was scheduled to introduce Justice McClellan at Saturday’s conference but did not appear because of illness. The judge has previously called her an “old friend” of the commission and said her knowledge exceeded that of many judges and bureaucrats dealing with child abuse.

In his speech, Justice McClellan alluded to an address he gave 11 years ago that contained cautionary words about the repressed memory phenomenon, whereby adult psychotherapy patients recover memories of entirely forgotten child abuse. In that earlier speech, he noted that these memories could be false, citing scientific research.

On Saturday, Justice McClellan said the royal commission had commissioned a wide range of experts, and its research indicated memory was ­constantly refined and reconsolidated. Some adults could not recall their trauma in detail or at all, which could present problems when dealing with police or seeking compensation.

More than 7500 people have told the royal commission they were abused in institutional settings, and all will be eligible to apply for compensation payments and subsidised counselling under the federal government’s proposed redress scheme for victims. The maximum individual compensation has been set at $150,000.

Justice McClellan said counsellors employed by the redress scheme should have expertise in dealing with complex trauma.

The judge’s speech was preceded by a presentation from Joan Haliburn, a psychiatrist at the Complex Trauma Unit at Westmead Hospital, who said at least half of her patients had no memory of their trauma before entering psychotherapy with her.