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Recent Developments in the Acceptance of Scientific Theories Regarding Sexual Abuse Allegations

For religious organizations who work with children, child safety is paramount. Understanding the scientific theories behind how victims report and respond to sexual abuse is a piece of child safety, as investigations gather evidence and evaluate credibility. Here, we’ve gathered some of the recent developments on how certain scientific theories regarding sexual abuse and assault allegations are coming under scrutiny. First, in New Jersey, the State Supreme Court is considering whether expert testimony on Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome—a theory that attempts to explain how children report and react to sexual abuse—should be admissible in court. Second, the science behind the current response to sexual abuse on college campuses has also recently come under fire.

Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome and New Jersey

Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) is the brainchild of Dr. Ronald Summit, posited as a way to explain why certain behaviors of children who have been sexually abused might not conform to widely held expectations. “To that end, Summit devised a list of factors ‘which were most characteristic of abuse and most provocative of rejection in the prevailing adult mythology about legitimate victims.’”1 These five categories are (1) secrecy; (2) helplessness; (3) entrapment and accommodation; (4) delayed, conflicted and unconvincing disclosure; and (5) retraction.2

In the criminal context, CSAAS testimony has been often used to explain why a child victim might have waited so long to disclose abuse, or recanted an allegation of abuse. But CSAAS is not a diagnostic tool. It is widely agreed that CSAAS cannot be used to predict child sexual abuse. And recently, its use in criminal child sexual abuse litigation has been challenged due to questions about its reach and reliability.

Apparently due to concerns about how CSAAS is used in court, the New Jersey Supreme Court tasked a trial court with conducting a hearing about whether expert testimony on CSAAS should even be admitted at all.

At the beginning of September, a New Jersey trial court ruled that “there is no general acceptance of CSAAS among the relevant scientific community, rendering CSAAS testimony inadmissible under N.J.R.E. 702.”3 The Court had held a hearing over several days which was essentially the battle of the experts.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that for several reasons there was a lack of consensus on the scientific reliability of CSAAS. The Court’s hearing was intended to provide the Supreme Court of New Jersey with factual findings so it could ultimately decide whether to rule on the legal question of whether expert testimony on CSAAS should be admissible. It has yet to issue an opinion on this question. But in the interim, the trial court’s opinion on the hearing is a fascinating collection of the leading opinions in the scientific community about this issue.

If CSAAS is not reliable, then this could impact the credibility analysis of reported abuse, at least in some cases.

Questioning the “Bad Science” Behind Campus Responses to Sexual Assault

At another level, critics are taking another look at theories underpinning campus responses to sexual assaults. A recent article in The Atlantic entitled, “The Bad Science Behind Campus Responses to Sexual Assault,” suggested that some prevalent theories regarding how trauma physiologically impedes the victim’s ability to coherently remember an assault have little support in science.4 While this article focuses on the college-age level, its discussion of the science of trauma and memory is both informative and relevant to other contexts.

The article primarily focuses on how a presentation by Professor Rebecca Campbell, who is a professor of psychology but not a neuroscientist, has promoted a theory about the neurobiology of trauma. The article describes the high points of this presentation as follows:

[T]he damaged memory of a victim can be likened to “tiny Post-it notes” scattered randomly across “the world’s messiest desk.” For a sexual-assault victim to reconstruct what happened requires a sympathetic questioner who will give the victim the time and space to reassemble the Post-its in a coherent order. She assured her audience that the story that emerges will be a true account of the crime: “What we know from the research is that the laying down of that memory is accurate and the recall of it is accurate.” She briefly recognized that victims who consumed alcohol may have serious memory problems as a result—“their Post-it notes are just blank.” Tonic immobility, she said, is a “mammalian response that is in all of us,” likely affecting close to 50 percent of sexual-assault victims. “Their body freezes on them,” she said, and not just for a moment or two. The victims go into an extended state in which they can’t speak or move, and hence cannot fend off an assailant.5

Campbell’s presentation has been integrated into campus training and approaches for how to respond to sexual assaults in universities and colleges across the country. However, the Atlantic article explains that leading experts on memory and trauma disagree that science supports such a theory.

For example, when the reporter described the idea to Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory manipulation, Loftus “said it sounded disturbingly like a return of ‘recovered memory’ theory, with some neurobiology thrown in ‘to give luster’ to the argument.”6 Another expert, Richard McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard and critic of recovered memory theory has stated that “‘[t]he notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma’ . . . is devoid of convincing empirical support.’”7

Again, the deeper question is whether the story that emerges to the “sympathetic questioner” is actually accurate. The article dives deeper into this complex issue and is timely given the Department of Education’s recent repeal of Obama-era guidelines on Title IX enforcement.

While these issues do not apply in many child abuse cases, they may apply in some, and it is important to be aware of current scientific theory.

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1 State v. J.L.G., No. 12-11-1994 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Sept. 1, 2017) (slip op. at 6).
2 Roland C. Summit, The Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, 7 Child Abuse & Neglect 177 (1983).
3 J.L.G., No. 12-11-1994 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Sept. 1, 2017) (slip op. at 2).
4 Emily Yoffe, The Bad Science Behind Campus Responses to Sexual Assault, The Atlantic (Sept. 8, 2017).
5 Id. (quoting Campbell’s 2012 talk).
6 Id.
7 Id.
Featured Image: "Unnamed" by Cater Yang on Unsplash.
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