Robert Priest is Professor of Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Esther Cordill practices clinical psychology.
James Evinger and Richard Darr misunderstand and misconstrue two brief references in our article. They wrongly imply that these references were central. They fail to address the topic that was central. They instead launch a discussion of a topic our article did not address. In response, we provide clarification on what has been misunderstood, and comment briefly on the relevance of our article for their concerns.
Misconstrual of Two References
When what one intends is misunderstood, it is possible that others also might misunderstand. And so we welcome the opportunity to clarify what we did and did not intend with our two references to a PCUSA “Final Report.” One of the two references occurred in the context of describing how several middle-age MKs, who in 2001 did not have conscious memories of being abused as children, went through a several-year interactional process at the end of which they reported memories of a variety of named missionaries as having violently raped them when they were children (from three to eight years old). As a small part of our story, we described a listserv started in 2002 by these MKs where sexual abuse was repeatedly discussed, and wrote that one MK “described a recent report about MK abuse on the listserv, and summarized the report’s defense of the validity of repressed and recovered memories.” Here is where our footnote made reference to page 95 of the 2002 Final Report of The Independent Commission of Inquiry, Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
In retrospect, our effort to be concise (due to space limitations and the subordinate role of this event in the larger story) doubtless contributed to Darr and Evinger’s misunderstanding. Had space allowed, we might have quoted this MK directly, and discussed in more detail the relevant page of this PCUSA Final Report. On December 9, 2003, this MK wrote “I hope I’m not beating a dead horse by recommending again the MK Safety Net web site … It gives [a report] … regarding sexual abuse that occurred by missionaries within the PCUSA.” She said she found this report “very informative” as addressing “topics raised by several on this forum.” She then quoted from page 95 of this report:
In recent years there has been wide discussion about victims’ memories of child abuse and the validity or accuracy of memories that may not be continuous over time. … Research has demonstrated that it is not unusual for victims to push traumatic memories out of their mind for periods of time. One study [by Linda Williams] examined the memories of women known to have been sexually abused as children. They were identified through hospital records, and in each case their abuse had been documented. These women were contacted 17 years later and asked about the sexual abuse. A significant percentage of them, 38%, did not recall their abuse when interviewed later.1
We return to this first reference below.
On a second occasion, in the context of citing the stated position of a C&MA investigation that “gave no weight to memories that had not continually existed since the incident in question,” we contrasted this with the PCUSA Final Report which we said “defended the validity of repressed and recovered memories.” We did not assert that anybody was charged with abuse in this investigation based on “recovered memories.” The PCUSA Final Report does not provide this information.2 What we did assert is that the report defended the “validity” of the idea that memories are sometimes repressed and subsequently regained. Thus, after the section quoted above, the PCUSA report (95) continues, “It makes sense … for victims not to remember what happened to them if they have to continue to live with their abuser.” And again, “Memories return when the environment and context become less threatening to the victim’s ability to get along in her world.” Sources cited on this page represent the viewpoint that our article critiques.
Evinger and Darr concede that the PCUSA investigation accepted “witness testimony not based on continuous memory” (their wording). But they contend we failed “to recognize the Final Report’s regard for the nuanced realities of witnesses with non-continuous memory,” having “overlooked … the first paragraph on page 95 that summarized a prospective research study” by Linda Williams.
But in actual fact, rather than having overlooked this reference, we understood the Final Report’s very usage of this article by Linda Williams as itself evidence that the notion of repressed and recovered memories was being supported. Williams’ study is widely cited by advocates of the position we critiqued in our article. Her study seemingly shows that some people do not remember sexual abuse after it has happened, which she believes can only be explained through a mechanism of memory repression. But in fact many of the people her study interviewed had been abused at ages where few memories of any sort are likely to last into adulthood. A significant number were less than three years old at the time of abuse, with the youngest only ten months old. Furthermore Williams’ research did not ask interviewees about the specific incident in view, with the researchers who conducted the interviews not even being aware of the specific incidents. Rather, interviewees were asked simply to describe any sexual abuse they had experienced. Many respondents told of other incidents of sexual abuse but did not happen to mention the target incident (about which they were not directly asked). But Williams infers that the failure to mention the target incident must have meant a failure to remember, and thus must imply some form of memory repression. In her study there were a few who denied they had ever been abused and whose abuse took place at an age where we might naturally expect them to remember. But parallel studies demonstrate that even those who remember their abuse will often choose not to disclose or discuss it with a stranger for reasons having nothing to do with repression. Failure to disclose provides no unambiguous support for the notion of “repression.”
After our own CSR paper was accepted for publication, Linda Williams’ study was explicitly discussed in a Minnesota Supreme Court case (2012) that was centrally focused on reviewing scientific research relevant to whether or not repressed memories are valid. Even the expert witness defending the validity of repressed memories conceded that Linda Williams’ study was “flawed because researchers failed to specifically ask the subjects about the traumatic event” and because “it really was impossible to know for sure whether or not they actually remembered these events” and “it’s very hard to say, okay, this was due to repression, [as opposed to] some kind of normal forgetting.”3 The Minnesota Supreme Court, in what possibly was the most comprehensive and up-to-date review of the science of memory ever carried out in a legal setting, and after hearing ex- pert witnesses discuss Linda Williams’ study as well as scores of others, ruled that the studies claiming to prove the existence of repressed memories “lacked foundational credibility.”4
In short, Evinger and Darr misconstrue our two references to the PCUSA Final Report as about the methodology of investigation, when in fact what we were doing was referencing the simple fact that this Final Report defended a viewpoint that we (along with the Minnesota Supreme Court) found problematic. This viewpoint was supported in the PCUSA Final Report, but not in the C&MA Final Report, which is what we alluded to in our brief reference.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that Richard Darr’s MK Safety Net has long been unhappy with the C&MA investigation’s exclusion of “recovered memories” as evidence. Thus in a 2008 “Position Paper,”5 the MK Safety Net argues that the C&MA should have allowed for evidence based on “recovered memory” since “recovery of repressed memories” is a “well-recognized dynamic in child abuse cases” (9). The Paper goes on to suggest that when veteran missionaries and adult MKs report memories contradictory to those of individuals reporting abuse, this may well be because they have “deeply repressed” their own memories (see pages 13, 11).
We do not believe we were incorrect to indicate that the PCUSA Final Report (unlike the C&MA Final Report) had defended the viewpoint that our own article was critiquing, and that this defense had played a small role in the MK conversations in the separate case study we were examining in our own paper. And that is all that these two references in our paper said. All six claims by Evinger and Darr about how we misrepresented the methodology of the PCUSA Final Report miss the mark, since they misrepresent us as writing about investigative methodology.
As an aside we note that the phrase “recovered memory” is used both in the MK Safety Net “Position Paper,” and by reports co-authored by Evinger (for examples, see quotes in footnote 45 of the paper by Evinger and Darr). But in our usage, the phrase is first used in quotation marks, signaling that the question of whether these are genuine memories is an open question to be considered. We did not prejudge the question by immediately labeling such memories as false. Rather it is only at the end of the article after laying foundations for our conclusions step by step, that we eventually assert that certain sorts of “recovered memories” are likely to be “confabulations.” Contra Evinger and Darr we never use the phrase “false memory syndrome” except where the phrase shows up in a quotation or in the proper name of an organization. And we believe our article does provide the exposition necessary to understand the theoretical roots and grounding of the viewpoints we subsequently critique.
Misconstrual as Central
Darr and Evinger misconstrue our two references to the PCUSA Final Report as being central to our article, thus meriting their 8,000-word rebuttal. In fact these two sentences took up exactly the amount of space we felt they merited, given their subordinate role in our account. Rather than use our limited word space here to rebut assertions about how central these two references were in our article, we simply deny this is true, and invite readers to reread our article and judge for themselves how central or subordinate these two sentences are to the article as a whole.
Failure to Respond to the Core Argument of Our Article
For several years Robert Priest, one of this article’s co-authors, has encouraged scholars and those involved in investigations of decades-old reports of sexual abuse in missionary settings to have a direct and public conversation about the presence and validity of “recovered memories.”6 As part of this, Priest organized a one-day colloquium (April 19, 2008) at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School focused on sexual abuse and on the question of the validity of recovered memories. He invited Evinger and Darr to be speakers, as well as Darr’s colleague from the MK Safety Net, Beverly Shellrude Thompson, while offering to cover their expenses. Both Darr and Thompson accepted, although Evinger graciously declined citing time constraints. At this meeting forensic psychologist Paul Simpson and Wheaton College professor Ray Phinney presented papers that critiqued the validity of recovered memories, and an earlier version of our own CSR article was presented. In attendance (at our invitation) were the Sexual Misconduct Ombudsperson for the PCUSA and the Mission Agency Personnel Director who supervised the investigation we reported on in our paper. Paul Simpson triggered a lively discussion on the implications of the PCUSA Final Report’s defense of the validity of recovered memories. While two or three of the presenters clearly represented the viewpoint that such memories were valid, there was minimal effort on their part to defend their position or rebut critiques. Since the MK Safety Net had recently posted a “Position Paper” supporting the validity of recovered memories,7 we were interested to see if there would be any revisions subsequent to our conference. The posted position paper remains unchanged five years later.
So when we learned that Richard Darr and James Evinger had written a response to our article, we initially were encouraged to imagine that there would finally be a direct discussion of our core concerns. But within the first paragraph of their paper they redirect the focus off of the topic we addressed. They first mischaracterize our article as describing the “methodology of one denomination’s inquiry,” and then, while recognizing that our “article’s singular focus [was] on recovered memories” (to use their own wording), they contend that this singular focus “diverts attention from other matters that deserve wider consideration,” and thus proceed to shift the conversation onto a topic we did not address. Repeatedly they remind the reader of their claim that we have a “one-dimensional focus” on “recovered memories” which “diverts attention” from the “larger, essential task” which we set ourselves. In the process they themselves “divert attention” from the fact that they never directly respond to and engage the core arguments of our paper.
Writing an Essay on a Topic Our Article Did Not Address
In an earlier and unpublished 40,000-word report on the same situation examined in our article, a document submitted privately to mission agency leader- ship, we provided extensive commentary and critique of certain practices related to carrying out sexual abuse investigations. We believe that such a discussion of investigative practices is extremely important. However, in the interests of an adequate and concise treatment of the topic of repressed and recovered memories (which, as Evinger and Darr recognize, was our “singular focus”), we chose not to address broader issues of investigative methodology. We commend Darr and Evinger for their interest in fostering a discussion on investigative methods, on whether investigations of missionaries are better carried out by independent investigative panels or internally within a mission, for example. But we do not believe it is fair to critique our article, or any article, for failing to do something it did not intend to do. And while we are tempted to weigh in on some of Darr and Evinger’s discussion related to investigative methods, virtually their entire paper is unrelated to the focus of our article.
There is one area where our article does naturally interface with their concern over investigative procedure, although this is not where they focus. Our article demonstrated that there are a wide variety of influences contributing to the emergence and validation of “memories” not formerly present. And since many people do question the validity of such “memories” (in our view, with good reason), then it is not uncommon for those individuals whose memories emerged from a therapeutic or survivor-group process of memory retrieval to fail to disclose to others that their conscious memories of abuse were recently acquired. And it is not uncommon for investigators to fail to probe as to whether a memory was or was not continuous, which means that the investigators themselves simply do not fully know which memories were recovered or continuous. And, if the investigators themselves do not believe that there is likely to be a significant difference in the truth value of a continuous memory as against one acquired while working through a handbook designed to surface repressed memories (such as in a case we examine in our article), then it should not surprise us when such investigators fail to differentiate and discriminate carefully between the two. Why would they, since they trust both? And finally, it is often the person being accused of abuse who is least likely to be informed that the charges against him or her are based on recovered memories. The fact that the accused might then fail to mount a defense highlighting the problematic nature of accusations based on recovered memories is not surprising, since this information is seldom disclosed or available to the accused. Procedurally, if we take into account the implications of our article, then minimally, investigations should carefully probe as to the nature of the memories involved, and should explicitly record, differentiate, and discriminate between continuous and recovered memories. These procedural steps and safeguards should be explicitly spelled out early in any investigation (and included in the methodology section of investigative reports) if others are then fully to trust subsequent assurances that no one was identified as an abuser based on recovered memory evidence. Furthermore, if people are being charged based on recovered memories of abuse, this information should be made available to the accused as relevant to their own defense.
While Evinger and Darr misconstrue our article as centrally focused on the PCUSA investigation and its methodology, they are correct to worry that readers, if persuaded by our article, might naturally have doubts about the findings of investigative reports when the investigators assume and treat “recovered memories” as genuine memories. One possible response to their concern would have been a direct rebuttal of our article and a full defense of the validity of “recovered memories” as genuine and largely reliable. This was not done. Alternatively, Evinger might have written a short note for CSR readers clarifying that the investigators for the PCUSA Final Report were careful to record, differentiate, and discriminate explicitly between continuous and recovered memories, and that as one of those investigators he can attest that there were continuous memories of abuse as the basis for each person being identified as abuser. A couple of hundred words of this sort would have addressed any concern our article might have raised. Again, this was not done.
Despite our sense that Evinger and Darr largely missed the mark in their response to our own article, we do believe that issues raised in both articles merit further consideration. Much is at stake.
Cite this article
- While this listserv was removed from the Internet in 2006, the authors have an electronic copy of conversations on this listserv between March of 2003 and December of 2004, with selected months after this, in case documentation is needed.
- The report did specify that the “overwhelming majority of the victims who testified have continuous memories of their abuse.” But since the overwhelming majority of the victims (twenty-two of them) were accusing one person, and since other individuals being identified as abusers had as few as one victim, and since the report did not specify which victims had continuous versus recovered memories, the report does not provide adequate information for readers to know whether or not anyone was accused based solely on recovered memory.
- P 28-29, Case No. A10-1951, State of Minnesota in Court of Appeals, John Doe 76C, Appellant, vs. Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Diocese of Winona, Respondents. http://mn.gov/web/prod/static/lawlib/live/briefs/pdfs/a101951car2.pdf.
- Minnesota Supreme Court Rejects ‘Repressed Memory’ Junk Science against Priest, Media Yawns, TheMediaReport.com, July 31, 2012. http://www.themediareport.com/2012/07/31/minn-supreme-court-rejects-repressed-memory/.
- http://www.mksafetynet.net/documents/090206%20MK%20Safety%20Net%20Final%20Position%20Paper.pdf, most recently accessed September 26, 2013.
- For example, Priest helped organize the meetings of the Evangelical Missiological Society in 2013, and will serve as co-editor (with Dwight Baker) of a resultant book (forthcoming with William Carey Library), where three of the papers (by Philip Jenkins, Raymond Phinney, and David Dunaetz) focus explicitly on the topic of recovered memories.
- From “Position Paper,” MK Safety Net, http://www.mksafetynet.net/documents/090206%20MK%20Safety%20Net%20Final%20Position%20Paper.pdf, most recently accessed August 24, 2013.