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ARE SECRETS LOCKED INSIDE?

Oops. Never mind.

Sure, I humiliated you and put you through a living hell. But gee, I just made a mistake. Sorry about that.

What do you say to someone whom you have falsely accused of child abuse when you realize you were wrong? It happened last week when Steven J. Cook, a 34-year-old AIDS patient in Philadelphia, dropped a lawsuit accusing Cardinal Bernardin of molesting him during his teens.

In court papers Cook said he'd come to see that his "memories" _ which he'd repressed and then recovered in therapy _ were unreliable. But suspicion may forever cling to Bernardin, spiritual leader of 2.3-million Catholics in the Chicago archdiocese.

Bernardin says he is praying for Cook. Others feel less charitable. Said novelist and priest Andrew Greeley: "If a man of the cardinal's reputation and position can be attacked with such reckless charges, no one is safe."

Repressed-memory therapy supposedly unearths buried memories of sexual abuse that occurred 20 or 30 years before. The therapy, which emerged in California in the late '80s, has spread across the country to become a huge force.

Some in the women's movement and in the mental health field view it as a blessing, the key to healing for many victims of incest and other traumas of childhood.

Others say the treatments actually generate false memories of events that never happened or tragically alter memories of events that did.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a group that says it represents 10,000 families who have been unfairly accused of abuse, says therapists aren't purposely implanting made-up memories in their patients.

But therapists who believe that present problems are caused by forgotten abuse in childhood are likely to have their expectations met, said founder Pamela Freyd.

"We're saying some memories are true, some are a mix of fact and fantasy and some are false," she said.

Some of the memories, real or false, are truly fantastic. Patients say they remember ritual abuse by satanic cultists who kill babies and drink their blood. Some claim to remember their birth, past lives, and even abduction by aliens.

Therapists who believe in repressed memory say the media are focusing on far-out cases just to discredit the legitimate ones.

Because most of the late-blooming memories involve allegations of incest, thousands of families have been fractured. One father who says he lost his daughter to the repressed-memory movement called it an "assault on the American family."

Richard Ofshe, a Pulitzer-prize-winning sociologist, wrote last year in Society magazine that patients have become "blank canvasses on which the therapists paint."

The clients, he wrote, "are victims _ victims not of their parents or their past, but of their therapists. The recovered memory movement is evolving into one of the century's most intriguing quackeries masquerading as psychotherapy."

Those who practice repressed-memory therapy say their critics are anti-feminist, status-quo types who want to return to the world of Ozzie and Harriet. In last April's Harvard Mental Health Letter, faculty members Judith Herman and Mary Harvey wrote:

"It has taken 20 years for women's organizations to bring the enormity of sexual assault to public attention and establish minimal standards of fairness for victims. As more victims try to hold their abusers accountable, it is natural to expect a backlash."

Some even portray critics of the movement as child molesters in "denial," who have repressed memories of their crimes.

On one thing, all agree: Children do suffer from sexual abuse, and that abuse is underreported. This controversy isn't likely to help.

The only certainty in the debate over the reliability of repressed memories is that it will not end any time soon. Emotion is overflowing, legislatures have opened the door for civil suits, and a lot of money is at stake:

_ Private psychiatric hospitals fill empty beds by offering the therapy to women as a possible solution for problems such as eating disorders, depression or anxiety. Many of the patients with repressed memories are being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, which insurance tends to cover.

_ Books on repressed memories can be quite profitable. A how-to-find-your-memories book has become a best-seller.

_ Movie stars and even non-celebrities find an easy entree to TV talk shows when they reveal new memories of abuse they suffered as children. Some claim to remember being molested at 6 months or even younger, a mental feat that most experts on memory say is impossible.

_ Lawyers stand to make a handsome profit on the expected explosion of litigation. The first wave of lawsuits against alleged abusers has begun in Florida, which dropped the statute of limitations in repressed-memory cases. It will accelerate if the Florida Supreme Court upholds the law, which is on appeal.

Last month, a Miami jury awarded 24-year-old Nini Gonzalez $1-million based on her repressed memories of sordid nighttime visits from her stepfather when she was ages 7 to 14. She began to recall the alleged abuse, she said, while watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. Therapists helped her uncover the rest, she said.

The state attorney's office declined to prosecute the stepfather, citing lack of proof. A juror later told the Miami Herald that if it had been a criminal case, the jury would have voted not guilty.

But this was a civil case. The only thing at stake was money.

Unless you count the family's heartbreak.

Memory is little-understood

What is memory, anyway?

It's a biochemical process that is centered in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, but beyond that, it's not well understood. How is it we can hum the Pepsodent jingle from the 1950s but fail to recall what we ate for lunch yesterday? How is it that all the witnesses to an event recall it differently?

Memory is often a combination of fact and patched-together impressions drawn from what we've seen, heard, dreamed or assumed. Adults superimpose their knowledge and experience on memories from childhood to make sense of them, and often transform them in the process.

Researchers have found it embarrassingly easy to help subjects create a memory which they then accept as fact. People can come to believe they have committed horrible acts, even though they are innocent.

A prominent Palm Beach Gardens psychologist who has done much work in post-traumatic stress disorder said that in 30 years of practice she has seen hardly any cases of repressed memory.

"People who have had significant traumatic events as early as age 4 almost always have some memory," said Dr. Norma J. Schulman. "It may be vague, it may be confused. But they remember something happened, and can usually remember who it was, even if they can't always put all the pieces together.

"It would be very rare in my experience for someone to have so completely repressed a major traumatic event that it was only 20 or 30 years later, with hypnotherapy, that they were able to recall."

Schulman is skeptical of most allegations based on repressed memories.

"There are always going to be those people who are suggestible and are going to want a reason to explain why their lives are not what they want (them) to be," she said.

But clinical psychologist Larry Miller of Seminole, who has worked with numerous cases of repressed memory, said he is satisfied that the diagnoses are on target. He's certain, he said, because he's careful and conservative and patients get better after treatment.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of therapists out there hypnotizing people and trying to create memories," Miller said.

Defenders of repressed-memory therapy say the memories can often be substantiated. A small but widely cited study found that a majority of patients who said they had been abused were able to find corroboration, including those who had initially repressed the memories.

One who found proof was Frank Leonard of Fort Lauderdale. In a lawsuit, Leonard said that therapy in 1992 helped him recover memories of sexual abuse in the 1960s by his uncle, Tampa publishing executive Frank Louis Cowles Jr.

Records were produced showing that Cowles had been convicted in 1959 of sexually abusing young boys in Clearwater, and had been sentenced to probation and counseling.

According to the lawsuit, Leonard's uncle admitted the abuse and then killed himself after a confrontation. Leonard won a settlement from Cowles' estate.

If memories of such things can be legitimately suppressed and then remembered, why is it only now that the issue has come up?

Psychiatrist Bonnie Saks, medical director of the women's unit at Charter Hospital in Tampa, says the mental-health field had to mature enough to become aware of memory repression and its effects on personality.

"It was always common," she said. "We just were not taught to look for it."

Patients were misdiagnosed for years, she said. "I think it finally had to hit us on the head that this is happening."

A growing movement

There's another reason, say those who defend repressed-memory therapy. Victims of incest and other sexual abuse were not free to speak out.

At one time, such abuse was considered rare. But as the women's movement took hold, opinions gradually changed. Women's concerns about rape and children's accounts of abuse began to be taken seriously.

Eventually, adults who had been abused as children began prosecuting and filing suit against those who had harmed them. State legislatures made this possible by expanding the statute of limitations for criminal and civil prosecution, under the reasoning that children are in no position to come forward while they're still living at home. Eventually some states, including Florida, made it possible for suits to be brought even though the abuse was alleged to have occurred decades before.

Plaintiffs said they would recover memories when they heard a few bars of an old song or glimpsed a familiar scene. But many of the memories returned during therapy, through treatment with hypnosis or sodium amytal injections or guided imagery. Some patients were encouraged to do stream-of-consciousness writing or make drawings. The therapist helped interpret.

Then the questions began. Why were some therapists finding lots of these cases while others were not? Perhaps, said critics, some therapists were suggesting to patients who had no memories of abuse that they might be repressing them, basing the guess on the client's body language, eating disorder, or anxiety level.

It was only natural that the patient couldn't remember the abuse, these therapists said. The abuse was too painful for the patient to confront.

A 1988 best-seller, The Courage to Heal, told women that if they felt they were abused as children, they probably were.

"Even if your memories are incomplete, even if your family insists nothing ever happened, you still must believe yourself," a widely quoted passage says. "Even if what you experienced feels too extreme to be possible or too mild to be abuse, even if you think "I must have made it up,' ...you have to come to terms with the fact that someone did those things to you."

Patients who recovered memories of incest were invited into hospital treatment or support groups, where they met others like them. Soon, the memories pouring forth went beyond incest by a single relative to rape by groups of relatives and cults.

Eyebrows rose. The American Psychological Association appointed a panel to study the issue. The American Psychiatric Association advised its members to stay neutral, and the American Medical Association urged caution in the use of hypnosis and other memory-inducing techniques because they are "fraught with problems of potential misapplication."

But the repressed-memory movement has only grown; indeed, it has plowed new ground.

It has now become fashionable in mental health circles to view those with repressed memories as suffering from "dissociation" or even multiple personality disorder. The theory is that the abuse is forgotten because people who suffer trauma split off the terrible experience and leave the memory in some part of their unconscious, or even with an alternate personality.

Considered extremely rare until recently, multiple personality disorder is now being diagnosed routinely in thousands of people, including many who lead productive, apparently normal lives.

Some mental-health experts say multiple personality disorder (MPD) is being grossly overdiagnosed. Among the skeptics is marriage and family therapist Charleen Ratcliff, program director of the women's unit at Horizon Hospital in Clearwater.

"MPD is very rare, if it even exists," she said.

Ratcliff said she left Charter Hospital in Tampa last fall in disillusion when the MPD diagnoses began to proliferate beyond all reason.

"We're about the only facility that has a women's program that aren't jumping off into dissociative and MPD crap," she said.

This movement reminds her of the '70s, when primal-scream therapy dictated that everyone roll around on the floor and cry out in rage.

Said Ratcliff: "Some people are always going to jump on a bandwagon."

A matter for the courts

Often, lawyers say, accusations of abuse based on recovered memories never make it as far as court. The prospect of public humiliation leads many of those accused to offer settlements.

Kevin Farmer of Boca Raton, co-author of books that question repressed-memory therapy, calls the settlements "clearly extortion."

High-profile Tampa Bay attorney Barry Cohen said he spent many hours in research after being approached by several women who wanted him to represent them in delayed-memory abuse cases.

"I have kind of decided not to file these cases unless there's some corroboration of some type," he said.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed last month to decide whether repressed-memory suits are constitutional, using a Pinellas County case as the vehicle.

In 1992, the Legislature extended the statute of limitations for sex-abuse lawsuits, and also created a four-year "window" in which anyone may file suit, regardless of how much time has passed. That window expires in 1996.

The law enabled Carrie Young of Pinellas Park to sue her grandfather, Calvin Wiley, for a rape that she says occurred when she was 15 _ about 20 years ago. Wiley has denied abusing Young.

Last year, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland allowed her suit to go forward, and Wiley appealed. The state Supreme Court has announced it will hear oral arguments in May.

The case is a precedent-setter that could allow or prohibit hundreds of millions of dollars worth of litigation. Adding to the attention it is bound to garner is that Carrie Young is the niece of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

Lawyers who bring repressed-memory lawsuits say it would be unconscionable for the court to disallow such cases. Norm LaCoe of Gainesville says the Legislature should go even further to ease the plight of sexual-abuse victims.

"I hate the (SOBs) who hurt children," he said. "I would shoot them like dogs. I would send them to the pound to be gassed."

But lawyers who represent people who have been accused of decades-old abuse say it can be impossible to prove their innocence. Roger Schindler of Miami, attorney for an elderly man accused of abusing his niece more than 30 years ago in Cuba (see story, ), said a defense will be difficult and costly.

Schindler can see allowing an abused young person to wait five or six years after reaching adulthood to file suit. But, he said, 30 or 40 years violates the legal rights of defendants.

"How does a defendant after all this time defend himself?"

Reliability questioned

Clearwater mental-health counselor Kelly Dummar said shudders ripple through her sex-abuse survivors support group whenever doubt is cast on the reliability of repressed memories.

"It's very frightening to us as therapists that it's becoming so controversial," she said.

Psychologist Miller also feels for his patients. "It's a horrible thing to be abused, and then to have people tell you years later when you start to remember it that you're making it up _ can you imagine?"

As questions intensify, therapists worry that patients will cave in to social pressure to remain silent or recant.

In fact, there have been an estimated 200 recanters already, according to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The recanters even have their own newsletter.

Some recanters have sued the therapists who helped them recover what they later decided were false memories. Others, according to the foundation, have even accused the therapists themselves of sexual abuse based on repressed memories uncovered with the help of a subsequent therapist.

Because so many repressed memories emerge through hypnosis and related techniques, the the hypnosis research arm of the American Psychological Association has taken special interest. In January, several experts reporting in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis said that therapists place much too much confidence in the accuracy of such memories.

San Diego researcher Michael Yapko discovered in a 1992 survey that large numbers of psychotherapists thought patients could not lie under hypnosis, and almost half thought the technique enhanced accuracy. He and other hypnosis experts say the opposite is true: Under hypnosis, the risk of creating erroneous memories grows graver. The patient is highly suggestible and easily led by the gentlest of cues.

Perhaps even worse, the experts said, is that patients who create pseudo-memories under hypnosis tend to become unshakeable in their belief that the memories are true. Unwitting subjects in research projects who are led to believe erroneous "facts" through hypnosis can later pass lie-detector tests.

In his survey of more than 800 therapists, Yapko said, 1 in 5 knew of cases in which trauma victims' memories seemed to have been created by suggestion, and were not genuine.

The experts agreed more research is needed. They said no reliable method currently exists for distinguishing a real memory from a false one.

Wrote Yapko: "I am deeply concerned that psychotherapy patients will be led to believe destructive ideas that are untrue, recall memories of terrible events that never actually happened, jump to conclusions that are not warranted, and destroy the lives of innocent people _ and even their own lives _ in the process, all in the name of "psychotherapy."

_ This report includes information from wire services. The Times library staff helped in the research.

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