New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner/photo by Carmen Natale

The New Jersey Supreme Court, reversing decades-old precedent, decided Tuesday that a psychological theory used for decades to prosecute criminal cases of child sexual abuse is largely invalid.

In a 58-page opinion authored by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the unanimous court ruled against the admissibility of expert testimony on most elements of a theory, child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, long used to explain why children often don’t disclose sexual abuse until they grow up.

The high court, in State v. J.L.G., also ordered the creation of new model jury charges for delayed disclosure, which the court ruled is the one aspect of the theory that survives scientific scrutiny.

The rest, Rabner said, does not.

“Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Roland Summit, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist, identified five categories of behavior that were reportedly common in victims of child sexual abuse: secrecy; helplessness; entrapment and accommodation; delayed, conflicted, unconvincing disclosure; and retraction. Dr. Summit drew on various sources, including his own clinical practice, and asserted that the five behaviors comprised a syndrome—the ‘Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome’ (CSAAS),” Rabner wrote. “Courts across the nation embraced Dr. Summit’s findings, which paved the way for experts to testify about the syndrome in criminal sex abuse trials. In 1993, this Court found that CSAAS evidence was sufficiently reliable to be admitted. State v. J.Q., 130 N.J. 554 (1993).”

However, Summit’s syndrome was never fully accepted by the scientific community, and in recent years, it has been rejected outright, Rabner said.

“The syndrome does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the mental health field’s authoritative list of mental disorders,” Rabner said. “And the notion of a child abuse accommodation ‘syndrome’ has been examined, critiqued, and undermined by a number of scientific studies.”

It’s unclear how many cases could be affected. “That decision will turn on the facts of each case,” Rabner said.

However, the case at hand will not be affected. “Here, because the victim gave straightforward reasons about why she delayed reporting abuse, the jury did not need help from an expert to evaluate her explanation,” Rabner said.

The court ruled that the exclusion of expert testimony would not have affected the guilty verdict against a man identified in the opinion only by his initials, J.L.G. He was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and other crimes against his stepdaughter, starting when she was 14, according to the decision. She was identified by a fictitious name, Bonnie.

The stepfather’s defense attorneys challenged her testimony on the basis that she had no proof of the abuse. But she had made an audio recording of a sexual assault only weeks before she disclosed the abuse to her mother and the police, the court said, noting that the tape contained graphic language with the man making specific sexual demands of the girl. She testified that the abuse had escalated daily for about 18 months, and he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 23 years in prison, according to the decision.

The decision upholds a ruling last year by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Peter Bariso, acting on a remand from the Supreme Court. Bariso ruled that judges should not allow prosecutors to admit CSAAS evidence as expert testimony.

Rabner said he and the other justices relied heavily on expert testimony elicited during a four-day hearing before Bariso.

“Based on what is known today, it is no longer possible to conclude that CSAAS has a sufficiently reliable basis in science to be the subject of expert testimony. We find continued scientific support for only one aspect of the theory—delayed disclosure—because scientists generally accept that a significant percentage of children delay reporting sexual abuse,” Rabner said. “We therefore hold that expert testimony about CSAAS in general, and its component behaviors other than delayed disclosure, may no longer be admitted at criminal trials. Evidence about delayed disclosure can be presented if it satisfies all parts of the applicable evidence rule.”

Assistant Hudson County Prosecutor Najma Rana represented the state and argued in support of the theory. The prosecutor’s office didn’t provide a comment.

Assistant Deputy Public Defender Lauren Michaels defended J.L.G., arguing against the theory’s validity. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.