What is our methodology

Psychological appraiser for sexual offenders : "Our method is reaching its limits"

Renate Volbert is a professor of forensic psychology at the Psychological University Berlin and prepares expert opinions in sexual criminal proceedings.

Ms. Volbert, there are counseling centers that warn rape victims not to file criminal charges. Do you understand that?

A procedure can be stressful, that's right. If a statement is the only evidence, it must be checked whether that evidence is actually correct. It is in the nature of constitutional criminal proceedings that critical inquiries are also made. But I can understand that victims can see this as unjust.

What are the advantages of an advertisement anyway?
A general advising against filing a complaint would mean that rape would not be prosecuted. A process can also have positive effects for those affected. When a woman learns that she is being listened to and her complaint leads to conviction.

Such an opinion often signals to the victims: We don't believe you. How do the women react to you as a reviewer?
The commissioning of an expert opinion does not per se mean that one is not believed. First of all, it only means that a court draws on psychological expertise in the difficult testimony-versus-testimony constellation. There are witnesses who rate the opportunity to present their experiences in detail positively. Others are initially angry. I understand that, maybe I would feel the same way.

How do you advertise trust?
We explain the function and the process of the assessment; that often reduces uncertainty. And: These are voluntary examinations. Nobody has to cooperate if he or she doesn't want to.

How does such an opinion work?
When an order is placed, we get access to the files as experts. Then we invite you to an assessment, in which we talk to the witnesses: about the current state of health, the biographical development and the charges. Sometimes psychological tests are added, it depends on the case. Based on this material, we will prepare a preliminary written report. Then we are invited to the main hearing and can ask questions to witnesses and defendants. At the end of the taking of evidence, we will give an oral opinion.

Are there any indications of a credible statement?
We systematically check whether the statement could have come about otherwise than through an actual experience. The test of “true” versus “invented” is primarily about the quality of the statement. We know that experience-based statements differ from invented ones. There are content-related features that suggest that someone is referring to a real memory. Fortune-tellers, for example, begin to tell and say something like: "Oh, funny, now I don't even know how it is exactly true ..." They comment on themselves while remembering. Or they report incidental details that have nothing to do with the actual reproach have to do.

I could prepare myself for that as a liar, couldn't I?
As a rule, it's not just about individual sentences, but a whole process has to be invented. In addition, you have to keep the statement constant, because there is often more than one survey and you have to be careful not to say anything that can be clearly refuted. Lying convincingly is a very high cognitive challenge.

Is it true that you sometimes let the story be told backwards?
This is what you do in research because it further increases cognitive stress. Liars actually do worse there. But I wouldn't ask someone who reports a rape in question to tell the whole thing backwards. In my opinion, this exceeds the limit of reasonableness.

Has the number of reports increased noticeably with the reform?
As appraisers, we are poor indicators of changes in the number of advertisements, as we can only process a certain number of orders and usually receive more inquiries than we can accept.


The new sex criminal law has been in force for three years. But what does that mean in practice? The search for the truth has not gotten any easier. You can read the full report here


Does the new sex criminal law make your work easier or harder?
If a case is all about whether someone has once said no, our methodology reaches its limits. The differences between true and invented statements are greater, the more complex the event and the statement are. Information about details about the room or the situation can provide important information about the truthfulness if the whole statement is in question. But when the accused says: We had sexual intercourse, but it was consensual. And the woman, on the other hand, says: It was not consensual, I clearly said no, but then did not resist further after my no was ignored - then the material on which we can base our analyzes is extremely limited.

It becomes even more complicated when the victim and the perpetrator have lived in a relationship.
I have experienced this difficult constellation repeatedly as a reviewer: after a difficult relationship has broken, a complaint is filed. The statement "I didn't want that back then" can of course be true. Sometimes, however, it also appears that the witness actually did not want sex in a certain situation or did not want it so, but allowed it to avoid an argument or to save the threatened relationship. If the relationship is broken in the end, in retrospect, the subjectively not wanting to be in the foreground is particularly in the foreground.

So a false accusation?
That is not a lie in the narrower sense, but it does not adequately describe the original situation either. On the other hand, the retrospective does not always have to be the wrong view. Some people only realize from a distance that they have been manipulated in a situation. Such subsequent knowledge can, however, under certain circumstances also change the memory of whether or how clearly one has expressed an opposing will. I often find it very difficult to judge these cases.

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