BACKGROUND The growth in the USA of 'recovered memory therapy' for past sexual abuse has caused great public and professional concern. It became apparent that the polarisation of views and fierce controversy within the American psychiatric community was in danger of bringing psychotherapy into disrepute and it seemed important to examine objectively the scientific evidence before such polarisation developed in the UK.
METHOD A small working group reviewed their own experience, visited meetings and centres with expertise in this field, interviewed 'retractors' and accused parents, and then began a comprehensive review of the literature.
RESULTS There is a vast literature but little acceptable research. Opinions are expressed with great conviction but often unsupported by evidence.
CONCLUSIONS The issue of false or recovered memories should not be allowed to confuse the recognition and treatment of sexually abused children. We concluded that when memories are 'recovered' after long periods of amnesia, particularly when extraordinary means were used to secure the recovery of memory, there is a high probability that the memories are false, i.e. of incidents that had not occurred. Some guidelines which should enable practitioners to avoid the pitfalls of memory recovery are offered.