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Repressed Memory Theory

The repressed memory theory is highly controversial, especially when it comes to child molestation and child sex abuse. Under the theory, a child unconsciously blocks an event from their memory and recalls it at some point later in life. It’s also known as dissociative amnesia.

Child Sexual Abuse Cases & Repressed Memory Theory

The repressed memory theory received significant media attention in the 1990s due to a 1994 psychological study which revealed problems with the theory. Researchers implanted false memories in study participants and were able to induce the participants to “recall” them later. As a result, multiple courts rejected the repressed memory theory in both criminal and civil cases. Pennsylvania was one of those states. In a 1997 case, Dalrymple v. Brown, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shut the door on the repressed memory theory in cases involving child molestation.

Resources for Victims of Abuse in NJ

New Jersey’s Child Sexual Abuse Act – Statute of Limitations (Deadline for Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits)

In cases of child sex abuse, New Jersey law is very unique. Passed in 1992, the NJ Child Sexual Abuse Act (Act) allows a victim of child sex abuse or assault to file a civil lawsuit 2 years after reasonably discovering that the abuse caused damage or mental, emotional injury. Get more info about time limits in NJ child sex abuse lawsuits.

In other words, a NJ victim of child sex abuse must file a lawsuit within 2 years of making a causal connection between the abuse and their emotional harm. This is a flexible statute of limitations, compared to other states like PA which impose a strict age limitation. In PA, that age is 30; after the victim’s reaches the age of 30, they are barred from filing a civil lawsuit for child molestation. New Jersey’s law, however, assumes that victims of child sex abuse often have difficulty recalling the abuse and therefore applies a more flexible time limit, or statute of limitations.

Lopez Hearings – When Does the Clock Start Ticking?

If a plaintiff files a civil lawsuit under the Act using the repressed memory theory, the court is likely to hold a special hearing known as a “Lopez” hearing. At that hearing, the court will determine precisely when the clock started ticking and whether the lawsuit can proceed. This is specified under the Act which provides:

Nothing in this act is intended to preclude the court from finding that the statute of limitations was tolled in a case because of the plaintiff’s mental state, duress by the defendant, or any other equitable grounds. Such a finding shall be made after a plenary hearing. At the plenary hearing the court shall hear all credible evidence and the Rules of Evidence shall not apply, except for Rule 403 or a valid claim of privilege. The court may order an independent psychiatric evaluation of the plaintiff in order to assist in the determination as to whether the statute of limitations was tolled. (emphasis added)

The language of this section specifies that NJ courts can pause the statute of limitations due to the “plaintiff’s mental state.” Essentially, the 2 year clock starts ticking when the individual recognizes that they were harmed by the abuse, not 2 years from when they first remembered the abuse. This is a critical distinction.

For example, a victim of child sex abuse recalls the abuse decades later. Some event triggers a flood of memories. Let’s say that happens on October 1, 2016. The individual starts seeing a therapist to try to make sense of the memories. On December 1, during therapy, the individual makes the connection that the abuse caused trauma in adulthood. It explains the alcohol/drug abuse, failed relationships, depression, anxiety, etc. In this instance, the 2 year clock starts ticking on December 1, when the individual discovered the causal connection between the abuse and the emotional harm.

At least one recent New Jersey (federal court) case, Byron v. Diocese of Camden United States District Court, the District Court expressed support for the repressed memory theory. This certainly gives New Jersey victims of child sex abuse hope that they can file civil lawsuits. They must however, do so within 2 years of recalling the abuse and realizing that it caused mental/emotional harm.


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 Posted by on November 11, 2016 Sexual Abuse