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Recovered memories and clergy abuse:

The three classifications of memories, described in an associated essay, have been observed in the current clergy crisis:

bulletAlways-present memories: Many adults and youths are now coming forward and revealing memories of their childhood abuse -- memories that have always been with them, from the time of the molestation to the present. Some did not realize, until recently, that their molestation was actually a criminal act. Some complained at the time of the abuse and disclosed their molestation to church officials. Some laid the memories of the abuse aside at the time, and are now acting on them. "In a scandal a decade ago in Massachusetts' Fall River diocese, Frank Fitzpatrick remembered, without therapy, being molested by priest James Porter when he was a boy. He was able to confirm the memories by reconstructing Porter's trail. Porter, who was eventually convicted of abusing 28 children and sent to prison, even confirmed Fitzpatrick's recollection of being served a rum-laced mincemeat pie." 1
bulletDormant memories: In Massachusetts, Attorney General Tom Reilly found that information provided by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston about Rev. Paul Shanley was "disgusting and devastating." The papers allegedly revealed that the "church knew their priest was a rapist and advocate of sex with boys, yet covered up for him and helped him stay in the priesthood for three decades.... the church hierarchy... consistently misled parishioners and other dioceses about Shanley's threat to minors." 2

Paul Busa, of Newton, MA, alleges that he was one of Rev. Paul Shanley's victims. He filed a lawsuit in 2002-MAR. According to the Associated Press, Busa says that "he was reading a newspaper article about a priest accused of molesting a child at Busa's old parish when, suddenly, the memories of more than a decade earlier came flooding back. Memories of being led from catechism classes to church bathrooms and confessionals, where, he says, he was abused by that same priest nearly every week for seven years, from age 6 to 13." Busa said: "This man ruined my life. He needs to go to jail." 2 In another interview, he said: "In the beginning, I questioned myself a lot. I thought, 'Was I making this up?' The way my body was reacting, I knew it had happened. I had no control over my body. Christ, I'm anxious all the time."
bulletRecovered memories: Probably the best-known cases of false memories of clergy abuse generated during RMT involves accusations against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, IL.  Stephen Cook was a student in Chicago during the 1970's. After undergoing extensive recovered memory therapy, he generated false memories of having been abused by Bernardin and another priest. He remembered in vivid detail being sexually abused on a specific balcony which he was able to identify on the side of a building. Bernardin emphatically denied the charges. Fortunately, investigators were able to prove that the balcony was on a building extension that was not built until after the time of the alleged abuse. Cook recanted four months later, saying that his allegations were based on false memories. Before he died of AIDS in 1995, Cook reconciled with Bernardin. The Cardinal died of cancer in 1996.

Many claims of repressed/recovered memories are now emerging as a result of the Roman Catholic priest scandal. One case involves "John Doe" of Metarie, LA, -- a man in his late 30's. He claims to have been molested in 1973 and 1978 by a priest at St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish in Houma and St. Louis Parish in nearby Bayou Blue, LA. "In the early 1990s, Doe began experiencing anxiety, depression and occasional sweats." 3 "...in 1994 he recovered repressed memories of sexual abuse during RMT therapy. His psychologist testified that two of the memories appeared to be genuinely repressed. Normally, the statute of limitations on an almost 30 year old case would have run out long before now. However Doe was able to get a ruling from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal which allowed the case to proceed to trial, because the memories had allegedly been repressed and only recently recovered.

There is the potential that false memories, recovered during RMT, of clergy abuse may be allowed as testimony in many of the trials being currently filed. Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, a national newspaper for lawyers, has stated that about 40 states have not clearly addressed whether recovered memories can be admitted into court testimony. About five allow expert testimony, as long as there is corroborating evidence. About five states forbid such testimony, because of its unreliability. In Massachusetts, a hotbed of accusations against priest abuse, case law is ambiguous. 1

Mark Pendergrast, author of "Victims of Memory" recently commented on the revival of belief in recovered memories during the current flood of allegations of clergy abuse. He suggests that recovered memories are once more being uncritically accepted by young journalists "who don't recall what happened when 'The Courage to Heal' was a bestseller." 4

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Case consolidation:

In some cases, attorneys for many alleged victims are asking that a group of civil lawsuits be consolidated into a single trial. One example is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence where 38 lawsuits have been filed, alleging child sexual abuse by 11 priests and one nun over a four decade interval. The diocese currently has 421 priests in 158 parishes. Consolidation would simplify the calling of witnesses -- some of whom are aging former bishops. Carl P. DeLuca, a plaintiffs' attorney, commented: "The facts might be different - one was molested on a camping trip, one in a rectory. But what is not different is the cover-up by the hierarchy." 5 James T. Murphy, an attorney for the diocese, said the cases involve varying scenarios and should be tried separately: "Some claim repressed memory. Some don't. Some claim they are of unsound mind. Some don't. Some claim there was some conspiracy. Some don't." 5 There is the possibility that if cases are consolidated, that false memories recovered during RMT might convince jurors of the guilt of one alleged perpetrator, and that this might adversely influence their conclusions about other defendants.

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California law to take effect for 2003:

Most states have laws which impose a statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases. California was one. Its law required that lawsuits against a church or other organization who knowingly employed sexual abusers had to be filed before the plaintiff was 26. This prevented most individuals who recovered memories during therapy from filing lawsuits, because the average age of a RMT client is in the mid 30s. 

The California legislature passed a law in late 2002 which was little noticed by the public and media. It allows civil lawsuits to be filed by persons of any age, but only for the year 2003. Om 2004-JAN-1, the previous law will be reinstated. Those individuals whose lawsuits were previously rejected on the grounds of statute of limitations will be able to refile. The bill was sponsored by two Roman Catholic Democrats: Ms. Escutia and John Burton. It was passed unanimously by both houses in 2002-JUN and was signed into law by the governor on 2002-JUL-11.

On 2002-DEC-2, priests at California's 1,100 Roman Catholic Churches, read a letter from the state's bishops alerting parishioners of a wave of sexual abuse lawsuits that could threaten the assets of church schools, parishes and charities. Maurice Healy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco said: "There is a gold rush to get into the priest litigation business. While trial attorneys may want to portray the church as a large corporate villain with deep pockets, the resources of the church are not infinite, and come from the people in the parishes." Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer from Irvine, CA said: "This law has literally changed their lives. I've seen a transformation in clients who felt like they had no control, no options and that in essence the perpetrator won again. This law has given them hope." Lawyers for plaintiffs have said that they are currently preparing over 400 lawsuits against dioceses in the state; they expect more when the public's knowledge of the law becomes widespread. 6

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  1. Denise Lavoie, "Case against priest rests on recovered memories, a controversial type of evidence," Associated Press, 2002-MAY-8
  2. Tom Mashberg, "Reilly to quiz church brass: AG 'disgusted' by Shanley Case," Boston Herald, 2002-APR-10, at: http://www2.bostonherald.com/news/
  3. Bruce Nolan, "Suit charging priest with sex abuse OK'd ; Man says he repressed memories for years," The Times-Picayune, 2002-MAY-11, Page 1.
  4. Renee Fredrickson, "Repressed Memories: A journey to recovery from sexual abuse", (1992), Page 203. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.

  5. "Alleged church abuse victims seek single trial for civil lawsuits," Associated Press, 2002-MAY-8.
  6. Laurie Goodstein, "California Dioceses Brace for New Abuse Suits as Law Allows Litigation of Old Cases," The NewYork times, 2002-DEC-6, Page A28; Column 1.

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Copyright © 2002 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JUL-30
Latest update: 2003-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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