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Monday, June 02, 2008

Priest Convicted of Sexual Abuse Seeks New Trial Based on "Junk Science" of Repressed Memory Evidence

The Boston Globe recently reported that former priest Paul Shanley, currently serving a 12-15-year sentence for sexually abusing a boy in the 1980s, appeared in court last Thursday to argue for a new trial. In 2004, the Boston archdiocese settled a lawsuit arising out of allegations of sexual abuse by Shanley for $1.4 million. The following year he was convicted in a criminal case in which key testimony was based on recovered memories of the abuse.  The psycological theory of recovered memory asserts that memories of a traumatic event may be repressed and later recovered in therapy or as the result of some event that triggers the memory. The reliability of memories that were allegedly repressed at the time of abuse and recovered many years later is a source of ongoing professional and public controversy. Shanley's lawyer has called recovered memory "junk science" and is demanding a retrial.

Regardless of how the court ultimately rules on Shanley's request, one should careful not to overstate the role of recovered memory in the context of clergy sexual abuse allegations. First, since claiming recovered memory is one way to overcome statute of limitations problems, clergy sexual abuse litigation makes the frequency of recovered memory among victims appear to be greater than it actually is. Second, most plaintiffs seeking to avoid dismissal of their claims under the statute of limitations do not allege recovered memory but rather delayed discovery of injury--claming that, although they never forgot the abuse, they did not identify the damage that it caused or they did not attribute that damage to the abuse. Third, most lawsuits and prosecutions for clergy sexual abuse are supported by independent evidence of guilt.

I discuss recovered memory and clergy sexual abuse allegations in more detail in Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse (Harvard U. Press, 2008)

Posted by Tim Lytton on June 2, 2008 at 08:45 AM in Torts | Permalink


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Largely due to statutes of limitations on claims against Catholic priests in sex abuse cases, the use of repressed memory arguments have played a central role in making such lawsuits possible. At Prawfsblawg, Tim Lytton has an interesting post (related [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 3, 2008 9:47:42 PM



You make a good point that the publicity around the priest sexual abuse cases has given undue attention to repressed memory claims. I made the same point in one of my blog posts. I have represented hundreds of victims of childhood sexual abuse and in my experience a careful examination of all the facts surrounding each particular case usually provides evidence to corroborate the accuracy of most victims’ repressed memories.

John A. McKiggan
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Posted by: John McKiggan | Jun 3, 2008 8:37:03 AM

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