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Why The Lessons Of The Sexual Abuse "Witch Hunts" Of The 1980s And 1990s May Be Relevant To The Catholic Church's Current Scandal


Tuesday, May. 21, 2002

This country learned some hard lessons in what are often referred to as the "witch hunts" of the 1980s and 1990s. Then, many parents and childcare workers were falsely accused, and some were falsely convicted, of acts of child abuse alleged to have occurred long ago. Some of the convictions were based on "recovered memories" the victims said they had long "repressed."

The concept that memories can be "repressed" comes from the theory of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the human mind took an active role in burying painful material in order to protect the fragile ego. Such buried material may then be "recovered," he thought, in the course of psychotherapy or hypnosis.

Now, in the context of the current Catholic Church scandal, allegations of long-past abuse by clergy - and even of "recovered memories" of abuse - are beginning to be reported. Many of the abuse claims against clergy have been amply corroborated, appropriately settled, and, in some cases, justly prosecuted. Some were raised soon after they occurred, and covered up or secretly settled by the Church. But others were raised only recently, and after the Church scandal had already broken.

These later allegations may also be truthful, but we should not automatically assume that is the case. These late-raised claims, especially those based on allegations of repressed or recovered memory, deserve our careful scrutiny, lest we repeat the "witch hunts" that now, in retrospect, we regret.

When child abuse is proven, it is, of course, a grievous crime - a crime that causes terrible psychological devastation that can last a lifetime. But the seriousness of the crime, and the hysteria of the current Church scandal, should not mitigate against carefully examining allegations of criminal conduct. That is all the more true when these allegations of long-ago conduct were not reported to law enforcement contemporaneously, or made the basis of a civil suit when the child in question reached the age of majority.

A Growing Number of Allegations of Long-Ago Clergy Abuse

On May 7, the Boston Globe reported that more than 500 Boston-area victims had retained lawyers since the paper first broke the Church scandal story in January. And over the past few months, similar claims have been raised across the country. While no doubt many of these allegations may be grounded in fact, they should be thoughtfully and carefully examined to insure their veracity.

Meanwhile, on March 18, the New York Times reported on another man's "recovered" memory of abuse he says he endured while an altar boy twenty years ago - abuse he remembered only after counseling, "sorting through" "repressed" memories, and experiencing visual flashbacks. Another claim of recovered memory comes from a 42-year-old Bostonian, who says that in 1998, he suddenly understood the root of his depression: He had been raped at the age of nine by his parish priest.

Again, all these claims may be truthful, and if so, they testify to devastating abuse. But before we assume their truth, we should remember the cautionary tales of the 1980s and 1990s "witch hunts."

Recent Suicides of Accused Priests

The reports themselves can lead to sobering repercussions. Recently, priests from Parma, Ohio and Bridgeport, Connecticut committed suicide after being accused of molesting people twenty to thirty years ago. In both of these instances, none of the claims appear to have surfaced until the scandal was made public.

These priests might have indeed been guilty, as was alleged, and thus may have committed suicide due to the shame of anticipated exposure. However, they also might have been innocent and may have taken their lives because they realized that such claims are very difficult to rebut. After all, proving their innocence would have required both proving a negative (it is hard to show abuse did not occur) and gathering evidence about a long-ago event alleged to have occurred in private.

Lessons From the Past: Questionable Assertions of "Recovered Memories"

Lawrence Wright's 1994 book Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory persuasively argues that in one famous "recovered memory" case from the 1980s, the abuse allegations were entirely false.

In 1988, Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington, was prosecuted based on allegations by his teenage daughters that he had repeatedly raped them throughout their childhoods. Ingram, a deeply religious man, was devastated. He had no recollection of such horror and neither did his wife or son.

Ingram's daughters were said to have "recovered" their "repressed" memories of childhood abuse while attending a church retreat. A counselor there told them that she had "prayed over" the girls and received a message from God that their father had abused them. That led the girls to other therapists and ultimate to Ingram's colleagues in law enforcement.

The clergy have not been immune from such claims in the past - and as with Ingram, they have not always been borne out. In one 1990s "recovered memory" case against a clergyman, the accuser actually recanted. In 1993, 34-year-old Stephen Cook claimed that Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, leader of the archdiocese of Chicago and then the highest-ranking American prelate in the Catholic Church, had molested him as a teenage pre-seminary student. Cook said he had recalled the abuse in therapy as an adult.

Cook sued Cardinal Bernadin for damages. Only after a vigorous defense by the Cardinal, which included the expert testimony of psychologist and memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, did Cook recant. In the end, he withdrew the suit and apologized.

Finally, consider a more recent case. In April of this year, a woman with a history of treatment for schizophrenia charged Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney with molesting her 32 years ago. A law enforcement investigation found no basis for the allegation.

How Psychotherapy and Other Sources Can Implant False Memories

Are alleged victims whose "recovered memory" claims are later not proven intentionally lying? The answer is no: They may sincerely believe their allegations.

Psychotherapy can lead to false memories. Consider, for example, the experience of Gary Ramona, a Mondavi Winery executive whose defense against his daughter's abuse charge, and subsequent suit against her therapist, is chronicled in Moira Johnson's Spectral Evidence. The Ramona Case.

Gary's daughter, Holly, "remembered" a childhood of sexual abuse and rape, after seeking psychotherapy for treatment of bulimia and depression. Holly sued her father for raping her repeatedly for more than ten years, but he prevailed in defending the suit. (Later evidence indicated that the claims could not have been true, for Holly was a virgin at the time the suit was filed).

Gary then successfully sued Holly's therapist for malpractice. The therapist had used several techniques that are now widely condemned. One such technique was bibliotherapy, in which the patient is told to read books about others' recall of childhood abuse. Another is guided visualization in which the therapist encourages the patient to imagine acts of abuse that might have occurred. Hypnosis and injection with sodium amytal were also used.

Gary won the suit, and received a $500,000 damages award - the first of its kind in this country.

Other sources besides psychotherapy can account for false memories. For example, the research of renowned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has proven conclusively that false memories of events can be "implanted" by media accounts, suggestions from others, "priming" of expectations based upon past experiences or from accounts relayed by other people, and interviewing and investigatory techniques.

Neuroscience research has found ample evidence that memories for traumatic events, far from being buried, are more likely to be persistent and intrusive - casting general doubts on repressed memory claims, and bolstering theories relating to post-traumatic stress disorder. Add to this the dearth of empirical support for repressed and recovered memories, and it is apparent why the legal system should be wary of such claims.

Indeed, these are the very reasons that medical and psychological organizations have taken public positions urging caution and skepticism when dealing with claims of "recovered" memories. These admonitions should be heeded in the current Catholic Church scandal as well, when it comes to allegations of abuse that have been reported after years of silence.

What Is the Appropriate Response?

For starters, the media should report responsibly on abuse allegations, and leave the trials to the judicial system. Law enforcement should investigate late-raised claims especially rigorously. And even plaintiffs' attorneys can play a role in weeding out untrue claims - by ensuring, as is their ethical duty, that "repressed memory" claims have some basis in fact and are not tainted by coercive questioning and suggestive psychotherapy.

In spite of demands by victims' groups, statutes of limitations should not be extended to the point at which they make a defense impossible, due to lost evidence and the fading memories of those who might clear the accused. States should reject the example of the Connecticut legislature, which in May passed a bill (which the Governor has promised to sign) to expand the civil statute to allow litigation within 30 years of the state's age of majority, 18. While it may not be realistic to expect an eighteen-year-old to sue, it is also unreasonable to allow the same person to wait to sue until he or she is forty-eight.

Meanwhile, courts should strongly consider barring expert opinion evidence regarding claims of "repressed" and "recovered" memories," unless and until these phenomena are supported by credible research. Current federal and state rules of evidence require verifiable science as a foundation for opinion testimony, and opinions on these topics may not yet meet this standard.

We must look carefully at - rather than automatically accepting - charges of abuse that have been "remembered" only after the scandal had broken; the Church (initially, at least) had indicated a propensity for quick and generous settlements; and high-profile attorneys had begun subtly "recruiting" victims through their own media campaigns. Only a balanced approached to emerging allegations will insure that this scandal does not degenerate into another "witch hunt," in which clouds of suspicion and speculation hang over every parish and priest.

Elaine Cassel practices in Virginia and teaches law and psychology online and in traditional settings. She writes and delivers continuing legal education courses in Internet law, privacy, genetics, and health law and is the author of Criminal Behavior (Allyn & Bacon, 2001). She is Vice Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Committee of the ABA Science and Technology Law Section and Co-Vice Chair of the Section's Genetic Research and Testing Committee.

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