Checking up on abuse memories

When New Zealand police investigated a man suspected of coercing girls from poor families into engaging in sex acts for money with himself and a circle of male acquaintances, they found some unusually damning evidence. The suspect had a collection of hundreds of photographs and audiotapes of sexual acts between men and girls as young as 8, some of which directly implicated him in arranging the illegal encounters.

Those discoveries, when compared with the testimony of four girls soon after they took part in the so-called sex ring, provide a rare chance to pit memories of childhood sexual abuse against an objective record of what happened. In this case, all of the children offered accurate, detailed, and reliable information, say Sue Bidrose of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and Gail S. Goodman of the University of California, Davis.

In police interviews and courtroom hearings, the four girls—ages 8, 13, 14, and 15—described sexual exploitation that involved eight men and lasted from several months to 2 years.

Supporting evidence in photographs, audiotapes, or both existed for 137 of 160 alleged sex acts, Bidrose and Goodman report in the May-June Applied Cognitive Psychology. The psychologists also found corroborating records for 15 of 35 alleged coercive acts (such as threats and bribery by the ring leader), 33 of 40 alleged preparatory acts (such as arranging of sex sessions), and 9 of 10 additional allegations (such as the ring leader directing sexual activity).

The girls proved more likely to omit allegations of events for which independent evidence existed than to describe events that couldn’t be confirmed. Although only about 40 percent of the girls’ coercion allegations were supported, many instances of coercion that were recorded weren’t mentioned by the girls. They may have accurately recalled being manipulated and threatened but erred on the specific actions of the men, Bidrose and Goodman suggest.

Each girl saw the incriminating photographs in between the police interviews and the court hearings. The youngsters, however, didn’t shift their testimony in hearings toward allegations about acts that they had seen in the photographs, the researchers point out.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.