Mental Health Training Service (MHTS) at Greenlane Hospital

Article published in:

New Zealand Herald 9 August 1996, Dialogue Page.

The Press, Christchurch, 11 August 1996

The NZ Skeptic (Spring 1996 – No 41), "Newsfront" section, Pages 10 & 11.


Gordon Waugh is a retired military officer and a foundation member of COSA (Casualties of Sexual Allegations Inc.)

Dr. Greg Newbold is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Canterbury.

Certificate in Sexual Abuse Counselling – Approaches to Practice.

Over the last decade or so, New Zealanders have become increasingly aware of an area of crime which for many years has remained obscure; that of child sexual abuse. And as we have realised the size of the matter, so have we become concerned about the devastating effects that abuse can have on the development and life chances of children.

As our knowledge of this topic has developed, we have also sought ways to combat this endemic problem. New Zealand is woefully short of experts who are able to correctly diagnose and treat genuine cases of child sexual abuse , and we are equally short of qualified people to train workers in this field.

Since 1992, the Mental Health Training Service (MHTS) at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland has offered a training course entitled Certificate in Sexual Abuse Counselling – Approaches to Practice. An average of 50 people a year complete the training. It is the only Government-funded course of its type and it has accreditation from the NZ Qualifications Authority. Its duration is 12 days, at the rate of one day per week. MHTS claims that the course is balanced, and that it is "an introductory one which basically makes people aware of the different theories and methodologies in this field." It is also claimed that ‘academic freedom’ to explore any valid subject is an important aspect.

With government funding and NZQA endorsement, one might expect the course to conform to accepted standards of science and scholarship. A perusal of the curriculum, supplied reading material, recommended reference texts, and student lecture notes, however, raises serious concerns that these standards are not being met. The concerns of people who have seen this material and written about to the Minister of Health, are several.

First of all, students in the course have been taught that "13 percent of all American sexual abuse survivors are survivors of ritual abuse by satanic cults." They were also instructed on "key words" such as magic surgery, marriage rituals, mind control, forced perpetration, and on the ritualistic impregnation of children, and the birth, murder and cannibalism of babies. The alleged perpetrators of these heinous acts are, they were told, "invariably very respected members of the community, usually part of institutions such as businesses, churches and clubs." These monstrous claims are unsupported by any research or fact, and they will encourage graduates in practice to arrive at outrageous conclusions when faced with everyday human problems.

Secondly, the course relies on such widely-discredited books as Bass and Davis’ Courage to Heal and Blume’s Secret Survivors, amongst others. These titles promote the idea that it is common for sexual abuse victims to repress memories of childhood sexual abuse, which can then be recovered, years or decades later, by appropriate therapy. Repressed memory is, in fact, one of the core themes of the course. This is despite the fact that scientific evidence for the existence of a mechanism for repressed memory is totally lacking. Increasing numbers of former therapeutic clients now realise that the "memories" of abuse produced during therapy were false. A number of American therapists have been successfully sued for implanting memories in clients about things that never happened, and courts in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand now regularly reject evidence based on so-called "repressed memories". Aware of its unreliability, in 1994 the American Medical Association, and in 1996 the Canadian Psychiatric Association, both strongly and clearly warned against the use of "recovered memory therapy."

Thirdly, although there is no scientific evidence to suggest a causal link between sexual abuse and any specific psychiatric or psychological condition, students are taught to recognise a wide range of conditions as "indicators" or "symptoms" of sexual abuse. A small sample of these includes bedwetting, promiscuity, frigidity, impotence, unwanted pregnancy, sleeping too much or too little, unspecified relationship difficulties and nightmares. These ‘indicators’ could be applied almost to anyone on the planet. To assume they commonly arise from childhood sexual abuse is nonsense.

Finally, emphasis is given in the course to the necessity of uncritically accepting the validity of a child’s or adult’s allegations (whether elicited before or during therapy). Students are taught that children and adults are rarely mistaken about sexual abuse. But we know that they are often mistaken. There is now undeniable proof, from New Zealand and the United States, that young children who are subjected to repeated questioning or to certain verbal and non-verbal cues, can be induced to say almost anything. They can also easily be persuaded to believe that things happened which never happened at all. So can adults. Many of the allegations made by child and adult ‘survivors’ of satanic ritual abuse, both here and overseas, have been no less preposterous than those of the medieval witch crazes of five centuries ago.

In her reply to several members of the public who expressed their concerns about the MHTS course, the Associate Minister of Health, Katherine O’Regan, suggested that its critics have misunderstood it. She declares that the course is ‘professionally designed, delivered, accredited and monitored’ and concludes that there is no need for further investigation.

The Associate Minister’s general and non-specific response to such an important issue is wholly unsatisfactory. The public has a right to expect that any person working in the complex, sensitive and emotionally charged area of sexual abuse will have been trained on the basis of scientific, ethical, and testable knowledge. It also has the right to expect that any publicly-funded training programme, particularly if it carries the NZQA credential, will withstand the tests of ordinary commonsense and professional scrutiny.

The MHTS programme does not do this. Instead, it exposes students to a panorama of wild supposition, distortion, fantasy and fallacy. It presents junk-science as established fact. It is subsidised by the taxpayer and it is extremely dangerous. The damage which psuedo-therapy can do to clients and to those whom the clients may implicate, is immeasurable. Already, large numbers of innocent New Zealand families have been torn apart by unfounded allegations of sexual abuse made on the basis of ‘recovered memories’ by disturbed people, after counselling by zealous, misguided and poorly trained therapists. Such counsellors and therapists have been unable to distinguish good sense from nonsense.

The Certificate in Sexual Abuse Counselling course propagates a pernicious dogma. By funding this course, the Ministry of Health endows belief-systems which we know to be false, with an undeserved mantle of credibility. There is no excuse for this. No responsible government can allow cant and phantasm to dominate in an area so greatly in need of reason and sobriety. The public purse, the public good, and the credibility of the psychotherapeutic profession itself, all demand that our health system becomes responsive to the wisdom of contemporary science. As it does that, it must eradicate the madness from the Sex Abuse Industry.

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