Convicted ex-priest challenges repressed memories

By | September 11, 2009

Convicted ex-priest challenges repressed memories

Defrocked priest Paul Shanley, one of the central figures in the clergy sex abuse scandal, was convicted after a 27-year-old man tearfully described how the popular priest used to pull him out of catechism classes and rape him, beginning when he was just 6 years old.

The victim said he did not remember the abuse for two decades, until 2002, when memories came rushing back as he saw media reports about the clergy scandal unfolding in Boston.

Now Shanley is challenging his conviction based on an ongoing debate in the psychiatric community over the validity and reliability of repressed memories. The highest court in Massachusetts will hear Shanley’s appeal Thursday.

The case is being closely watched by experts on both sides of the issue.

Nearly 100 scientists, psychiatrists and researchers have signed a friend-of-the court brief denouncing the theory of repressed-recovered memories. Another group has submitted a brief supporting the theory.

Shanley’s lawyer, Robert Shaw Jr., argues that Shanley deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading, “junk science” testimony about repressed memories by prosecution witnesses.

“His conviction rests upon a theory that is false, that has not been shown to exist and has been rejected by the scientific community,” Shaw said.

“They needed repressed memories to normalize for the jury what was otherwise an extraordinary assertion — that he could be completely oblivious that this ever happened and then remember it 20 years later,” Shaw said.

The clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston in 2002 after church records were made public showing that church officials had reports of priests molesting children, but kept the complaints secret, shuffling some priests from parish to parish rather than removing them.

Shanley, now 78, was known in the 1960s and 1970s as a “street priest” who reached out to Boston’s troubled youth. Internal records showed that church officials were aware of sexual abuse complaints against him as early as 1967.

The crisis, which led to the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, spread as similar sexual abuse complaints were uncovered in dioceses across the country.

A wave of lawsuits led to massive settlements, including a record $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 alleged victims in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and an $85 million settlement in 2003 with more than 550 victims in the Archdiocese of Boston.

All told, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. …

via The Associated Press: Convicted ex-priest challenges repressed memories.

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