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Clergy sexual abuse and recovered memories

Amicus Curiae brief on recovered
memories in the case: MA vs. Stanley

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Background:

Paul R. Shanley (circa 1936 - ) is one of the individuals allegedly involved in the Boston, MA sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholic clergy. That local scandal later triggered investigations and accusations elsewhere in the U.S. and eventually led to financial settlements that totaled billions of dollars by the Catholic church.

Stanley was prosecuted in 2005, and found guilty of four counts -- all on the same child. Two were charges of rape and two of indecent assault and batter. He was given a sentence of from 12 to 15 years. 1

Paul Busa, the alleged victim, testified that Rev. Shanley had repeatedly taken him out of Sunday school at St. Jean's Church in Newton, MA when he was between 6 and 11 years-of-age, and molested him. He said that he did not remember the abuse until the year 2002 when he learned of an article in the Boston Globe involving Shanley and other alleged perpetrators.

Before Shanley's trial, there had been claims that he had been sexually involved with adolescents or young adults in the 1960s and 1970s. However, nobody had previously accused him of being an abusive pedophile -- i.e. being sexually involved with young children. 2 Pedophilia is quite rare among Catholic priests.

During the trial, Shanley's lawyer -- Frank Mondano -- argued that the victim's recollections were false memories that had been implanted by friends, therapists, and personal injury lawyers. Teachers testified that they could not recall Shanley taking children out of class. One stated that Busa would not have been in the class at the age that he claimed the abuse happened.

Shanley has always maintained his innocence, and has appealed his case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He expects to hear by the spring of 2010 whether the court will accept the appeal.

A group of almost 100 "distinguished psychologists and psychiatrists" 2 filed an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) brief.  Such briefs are submitted by an individual or group with specialized knowledge who wish to supply background in formation to a court even though they have no direct involvement with either the plaintiff or defendant. In this case, the group wanted to express their beliefs about recovered memories.

The International Committee and their Amicus Curiae:

The International Committee of social, psychiatric, psychological, cognitive science, neuroscience and neurological scientists is a group of prominent specialists in "cognition, memory, development, trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder." 3

They submitted a brief on a phenomenon known by many largely interchangeable terms: 'repressed memory.' 'recovered memory.' 'traumatic amnesia,' 'dissociative amnesia,' 'psychogenic amnesia,' and related concepts."

Their brief states, in part:

"... to document the position of the relevant scientific community regarding the misleading, controversial, and unreliable notions of 'repressed-recovered memories,' 'dissociative amnesia,' and related concepts. Misleading notions such as 'repressed-recovered
memories,' 'dissociative amnesia' and similar concepts threaten the integrity of the legal system and expose legal, religious, educational, mental health, scientific, and other societal systems to grave errors of process and a loss of public trust. ..." 4

" 'Repressed-recovered memories', 'dissociative amnesia' and related concepts are best described as pernicious psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing scientific evidence. Such theories are quite incapable of reliably assisting the legal process. In our collective opinion, these unsupported, controversial notions have caused incalculable harm to the fields of psychology and psychiatry, damaged tens of thousands of families, severely harmed the credibility of mental health professionals, and misled the legislative, civil, criminal, and family legal systems into many miscarriages of justice. ..." 5

"Despite the enormous cultural-legal-mediapolitical momentum generated by this controversial theory, by the year 2001, the 1990?s tsunami of recovered memory therapists and patients had largely collapsed under the weight of dozens of scientific and media expos?, many successful and nationally reported psychotherapy malpractice lawsuits. ...." 6

"The relevant scientific community rose to the challenge posed by these dangerous and unreliable notions by publishing dozens of studies documenting the limitations, logical errors, methodological flaws, and lack of competent, reliable scientific information to support 'repressed-recovered memory' research, theories, and therapies. Research into memory contamination produced detailed and scientifically reliable explanations for why some adults make false 'recovered memory' allegations of childhood abuse. ..." 7

"Under the weight of this multi-pronged attack including civil suits, scientific research, licensing revocations, criminal prosecutions, Frye/Daubert exclusions, media exposes, and other processes, over the years from 1994-2001, the repressed memory 'industry' collapsed and the number of patients claiming to recover 'repressed memories' of abuse declined precipitously to a fraction of previous claims. Similarly, the rate of scientific publications regarding 'repressed memory' tumbled equally dramatically, from a peak in 1997 to only a fraction of that rate by 2001 and thereafter. Furthermore, journal articles appearing after 2000 on the subject of 'repressed memory of trauma' were often frankly skeptical of the concept, and few of the articles continued to present cases of actual individuals with putative 'repressed' or 'recovered' memories of trauma much less 'multiple  personalities'. ..." 8

"Throughout these ongoing 'memory wars', it has always been the consensus opinion of the 'relevant scientific community' that there is no credible, methodologically sound scientific evidence whatsoever for the theory that survivors of trauma truly 'repress' and then later 'recover memories' of actual events that were experienced as traumatic at the time.
Although a vocal subset of clinicians (psychotherapists), believe in the 'repressed/recovered
memory' hypothesis, research conducted by the most credible scientists over many years involving thousands of trauma-abuse victims demonstrates the persistence of trauma memories. ..." 9

"In sum, 'repressed-recovered memories', 'dissociative amnesia' and related concepts are best described as pernicious psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing scientific evidence. Such theories are quite incapable of reliably assisting the legal process. In our collective opinion, these unsupported, controversial notions have caused incalculable harm to the fields of psychology and psychiatry, damaged tens of thousands of families, severely harmed the credibility of mental health professionals, and misled the legislative, civil, criminal, and family legal systems into many miscarriages of justice." 10

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jonathan Saltzman, " 'Repressed memory' at issue in defrocked priest's appeal," The Boston Globe, 2009-SEP-10, at: http://www.boston.com/
  2. False Memory Syndrome Foundation Newsletter, 2009-Fall. Vol. 18 # 4," at: http://www.fmsfonline.org/
  3. "Statement of interest of Amicus Curiae," National Center for Reason and Justice, at: http://www.ncrj.org/ This is a PDF file.
  4. Ibid, Page 3.
  5. Ibid, Page 4.
  6. Ibid, Page 6.
  7. Ibid, Page 8.
  8. Ibid, Pages 8 & 9.
  9. Ibid, Page 10.
  10. Ibid, Page 11.

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Copyright © 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2009-OCT-12
Latest update: 2009-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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