MA Supreme Court Upholds Repressed Memories in Priest Sex Assault Case

The Massachussetts Supreme Court today upheld the child sex assault conviction of defrocked Roman Catholic priest Paul M. Shanley. Shanley was prosecuted by Martha Coakley based on repressed memory evidence. Not only was the conviction upheld, but the Court officially validated the dubious evidence considered by many to be junk science.

"In sum, the judge's finding that the lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable the theory that an individual may experience dissociative amnesia was supported in the record, not only by expert testimony but by a wide collection of clinical observations and a survey of academic literature,'' Justice Robert Cordy wrote for the SJC.

As amicus brief author R. Christopher Barden, a psychologist and attorney.one of the amicus brief authorspsychologist says: [More...]

...the court "has now broadly damaged the credibility of the Massachusetts legal system.''

He added, "future reviewers will cringe at this science-illiterate opinion. In its reliance upon debunked, irrational, junk science, the Shanley case revisits the infamous Salem witch trials."

Not surprisingly, Martha's good pal Wendy Murphy filed an amicus brief supporting the conviction. She "heralded" the decision (as she did the conviction of nanny Louise Woodward years ago.)

"that the inability of a child to remember will never be used as a reason to deny a victim access to justice.''

The victim came forward in 2002, 20 years after the alleged abuse, which he says occurred when he was between the ages of 6 and 11. He received a $500k settlement from the Archdiose. The Boston Herald reports:

[t]he victim also testified that he had repressed the memory of his abuse for years only realizing that he was a victim after he began reading about cases in Boston and looking at photographs of Shanley in the papers and on the Internet. At the time he was stationed at an Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Dalia Lathwick in 2005:

According to the 27-year-old witness, his memories of the abuse began to surface only in 2002, when he was a military police officer stationed in Colorado. His girlfriend called to tell him about an article about Shanley in the Boston Globe and about another man, Greg Ford, who claimed to have been raped by Shanley at St. Jean's. Ford was a good friend, and hearing about his experience seems to have tripped his own memory. He called a lawyer.

Back to the Globe report:

During the trial, prosecutors had argued that the victim should be believed because the emotional trauma he suffered created a "dissociative amnesia,'' which is recognized by the mental health profession as a legitimate psychiatric disorder.

The Court didn't even rule out a conviction based on repressed memory when its the only evidence:

"We do not consider whether there could be circumstances where testimony based on the repressed or recovered memory of a victim, standing alone, would not be sufficient as a matter of law to support a conviction,'' Cordy wrote in a footnote.

As for Shanley, he's 79 and serving a 12 to 15 year sentence:

The opinion is here. Some studies on the unreliability of the evidence are referenced here.

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    I wish I could repress my memory (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Inspector Gadget on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 08:58:43 PM EST
    now and then.

    I have a younger brother who claims he was raped by a priest and only knows this because his psychologist reached into his repressed memory and found that truth for him. That was 27 years ago, now. My brother remains in therapy, can't remember a single detail of these alleged rapes, but absolutely loves being a victim and hating the family that didn't protect him from this outrage.

    After 27 years of weekly sessions we've realized he has to be creating stories to talk about with his therapist. The priest died more than 30 years ago, and none of us believe the story (my brother does not know we don't believe him, though).

    The damage these mental health therapists do is bad enough, but when they include prosecutors who are willing to believe and put this stuff on trial the damage is multiplied so many times over. Seems to me the repressed memory era was back-to-back with the daycare trials.

    Coakley and Murphy have done nothing since the nanny trial to change my opinion that their contribution is to the dark side of the law.

    repressed memory shouldn't be (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by athyrio on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 10:05:08 PM EST
    a basis for conviction unless there is other evidence to validate those memories IMO...How can a person confront their accuser if the accuser doesn't really remember anything except the repressed stuff?? Doesn't really seem fair...

    Well said... (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 07:31:33 AM EST
    Need more than just repressed memories to convict...amen.

    I don't doubt repressed memory is real, but I also don't doubt people can be convinced of a repressed memory that never in fact occurred.  The human mind is funny like that.


    Please remember you are on a (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 09:18:24 PM EST
    criminal defense site. This has nothing to do with excusing child abusers, it has to do with the law. If you want to rant against offenders, please do it elsewhere.

    Perry Mason said... (none / 0) (#10)
    by diogenes on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 10:54:22 PM EST
    Perry Mason said that an attorney is an agent of justice.  In this case, repressed memory evidence is junk science, so it should be thrown out because of that, not because of a "wrongful conviction".  Junk science is just as bad if it is used to try to acquit someone.

    The real shame is... (none / 0) (#4)
    by Dadler on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 09:30:18 PM EST
    ... so many incompetent mental health "professionals" have disgraced their profession with patently unethical methods in this area that it has made it even more difficult for those who genuinely have blocked out traumatic events in their lives (and this does occur, as it must, or the conscious brain could not continue to function). The abuse of any vital profession by, essentially, quacks, hurts those involved in individual cases as well as so many more down the line.

    Maybe the root, but not the real (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by Inspector Gadget on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 09:54:36 PM EST
    shame. The mental health therapists who engage in these revelation eras start the ball rolling, but when a prosecutor, who should be able to see the ridiculousness, actually takes and destroys lives through the court system with it is when your reach the real shame.

    Coakley has been on the wrong side of shaken baby, repressed memory, and the daycare molestation trials. Now she wants to impact laws for the entire country.  


    Since the conviction (none / 0) (#8)
    by CoralGables on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 10:20:38 PM EST
    was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court today, it appears she was on the right side.

    courts are not always "right" (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 10:54:59 PM EST
    In my view, they are both misguided.

    oddly enough, (none / 0) (#12)
    by cpinva on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 12:18:32 AM EST
    that was the claim, by many prosecutors, for people convicted of crimes they later were exonerated for, by DNA evidence.

    juries and appellate court judges are human, by definition fallable.


    Of course (none / 0) (#13)
    by CoralGables on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 12:26:16 AM EST
    but you can't decide everyone is innocent on the basis that someday someone might discover a new way to look at evidence.

    If you're looking for someone to blame here, if you think the ruling is in error, look at the case presented by the defense attorney or the appellate attorney. Perhaps they blew it.


    I don't think anyone is suggesting that (none / 0) (#29)
    by Inspector Gadget on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:35:55 AM EST
    but, there are some cases that obviously require a much deeper look at the evidence...particularly circumstantial.

    This baby had old fractures that no one knew about. There are medical conditions that could have been at fault, but weren't tested for.

    It isn't difficult to see how our society is led through era's by our so-called experts and systems. Funny how there are no daycare mass molestations anymore (check Coakley's ability to uphold a false conviction there), ADHD gets little attention because Autistism is the new epidemic dysfunction, shaken baby just stopped on its own, etc. So many health and criminal issues come in waves that common sense needs to be imposed on those who are using these to further their ambitions.

    An attorney friend of mine once said that if he was ever falsely accused of a crime, he would waive the right to a jury because too many citizens are eager to hang 'em high.


    Since the Commonwealth (none / 0) (#18)
    by Rojas on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 09:32:54 AM EST
    relies on the Frye standard (generally accepted) one can conclude she was operating within the rules of evidence. I can assure you that don't make it right.
    Point being, the feds, most states, even back water hell holes like Texas, have higher standards in place for scientific testimony. At least as a matter of law if not in practice.

    Her decision to try this case with no corroborating physical evidence speaks to her judgment or more specifically, lack thereof.

    Her position in MELENDEZ-DIAZ makes her unfit. With the general knowledge of sad state of our nation's crime labs, it should make a pariah.


    Thanks for this, this answers my posts (none / 0) (#25)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:22:09 AM EST

    Massachusetts is a Frye state.  I am not surpised TX is not as Fed Rules and Daubert make it more difficult for plaintiffs.  Interesting the twist the Texas approach has for criminal cases, making it more difficult for prosecutors.  I am sure they hate that in TX, but bidness concerns must come first.


    Actually (none / 0) (#28)
    by Rojas on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:32:39 AM EST
    Texas had stricter rules before Daubert. In 1992, I believe.

    Probably makes it hard for defense (none / 0) (#32)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:48:53 AM EST
    to establish their expert's competence too.  Works both ways as most things do.

    I have a very good friend who was molested by a (none / 0) (#5)
    by Angel on Fri Jan 15, 2010 at 09:50:33 PM EST
    priest when he was about 12 years old.  He attended Jesuit school and had thought he'd become a priest.  Sadly, he has given up his belief in not only the Catholic church but claims to not believe in God at all.  I have no quarrel with either of those, but what happened to him was that he turned into someone who is and has been very sexually promiscuous his entire adult life, and I honestly believe that his abuse caused that behavour.  He still struggles to make sense of what happened to him 50 years ago - yes, 50 years ago.  Very sad.  

    The issue isn't molestation, it's science (none / 0) (#14)
    by mcl on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 12:39:57 AM EST
    The scientific evidence says that repressed memories are garbage. Neuroscience has shown via repeated experiments that human memory is highly malleable: new memories can be created in people by directed questioning. The most impressive experiment involved inducing "recovered" memories of bchildhood experience by carefully directed leading questions by psychologists in subjects to whom the experience actually never occurred.

    Look, I despise pedophile priests as much as the next guy, but the science simply isn't there. "Recovered memories" are garbage, no different from dowsing and substantially less reliable than the polygraph -- which itself is no more reliable than a coin flip, as an NAS study has proven.

    Two issues (none / 0) (#15)
    by lentinel on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 06:59:56 AM EST
    One issue is whether we consider dissociative amnesia to be real.
    The other is whether recovered memories are sufficient to convict someone.

    I can't judge the latter.

    But I can attest to the former.

    In my early thirties, I found myself repeating certain behavior patterns with which I did not really identify. I started reading a book of Freud's lectures on psychoanalysis. I realized as I read, that I had absolutely no memories of my school days. I had very few memories of my college days. As I read, floods of memories came back to me - including an attempt to molest me by a teacher at the all-boy private school I attended in New York. The very nature of an all-boy school was so repressive, I was astonished at everything I had completely obliterated from my conscious awareness.

    When memories returned, they were vivid. Nothing vague about them. Nothing I could have imagined. Each memory was like being there again.

    So dissociative amnesia, or selective amnesia, is for me a very real phenomenon. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism which kicks in to relieve us of living with trauma.

    I'm not sure that's really unusual (none / 0) (#24)
    by Inspector Gadget on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:19:38 AM EST
    I don't recall much at all of my school days, or even the days to follow. It just wasn't really important to me. Then, about a decade ago my ex- announced he was getting married again. Out of compassionate sympathy for what this woman would have to deal with memories of those horrible years dominated my head for weeks. More recently, my mother passed away last year and a rush of memories from those early years through recent years came forward.

    I do believe there is a small percentage of people who are so incapable of coping with trama of any degree that they push the memory as far away from the conscious level as they can. But, based on the high number of children who report molestation when it occurs one has to look at repressed memory on a case by case. Do these people remember nothing, or do they have a vivid imagination?

    In the case of my brother, his years in therapy have turned him into a pathological liar and a perpetual victim. We can't believe his claims because he has made horrific claims of outrageous events against all of us and none of it happened.


    I agree (none / 0) (#30)
    by lentinel on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:40:01 AM EST
    That's why I said that "recovered memories" are not sufficient to convict anybody. It would the same with any accusation that could not be substantiated.

    It just was very dramatic for me to realize that I have completely blotted out at least a decade of my day to day existence. It meant a lot to me to recover those memories. But that's because I was interested in getting to the bottom of some things about myself. Not to begin a vendetta against anybody.


    Triggered memory (none / 0) (#33)
    by Inspector Gadget on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:54:06 AM EST
    or recovered memory, as you defined it, is pretty normal, I think. Repressed memory, on the other hand, seems only accessible to the therapist who is trained to dig that deep, apparently :)

    Since the daycare trials, the Menendez brothers, ADHD epidemic, Austism outbreak, etc. I need a great deal of proof on anything that comes from the world of pyschology. Being a parent was so much more stressful knowing how easy it would be to become a victim of the system. I was so lucky, but friends of my son weren't. They got labeled, stuck on gateway drugs that took them to juvenile courts and off-campus schools. All because they were active, intelligent boys who irritated their teachers.


    More (none / 0) (#35)
    by lentinel on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 12:03:32 PM EST
    For what it's worth, I was in therapy with a psychiatrist (an M.D.) for several years. 4 sessions a week.
    I remembered nothing. Just babbled on about current happenings and what I thought about them.

    On the other hand - when I read Freud's book - a veritable explosion of information became accessible to me.

    I don't know whether the things that came back to me qualify as repressed memories or recovered memories. When I remember feeling was that part of my brain had become totally numb. And then it came alive again.

    What I sense with respect to recovered memories which are part of some kind of legal action, is that there is the danger and the temptation of the "therapist" to lead the subject to a memory.
    I do think that is possible, as Kdog said, to "remember" things that never happened.


    I do think what you experienced (none / 0) (#36)
    by Inspector Gadget on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 01:59:12 PM EST
    is exactly as you state. The stress factor of your experiences easily took your hidden memories to deeper recesses in the brain, I'm sure. Everyone has a different threshold.

    I am only really relaying my own experiences by comparison. It's quite irritating to me that I can't seem to draw up memories without a trigger when it comes to most of my history. I sit in job interviews and can't come up with examples of things I have routinely done, but when asked to do that same thing again, a flood of memories come to help me formulate my plan and action. Then, they disappear again.


    I (none / 0) (#39)
    by lentinel on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 03:21:11 PM EST
    wonder whether some of that is a reaction to pressure.
    Under certain situations, when asked unexpectedly, I can't recall my social security number or - even more annoying - my phone number. And it's always connected with when I have to deal with some bureaucracy or other.

    I believe some people repress their memories, (none / 0) (#17)
    by Angel on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 08:20:08 AM EST
    depending on what happened to them, in an attempt at self-preservation.  But not everyone who claims to have repressed memories do, I'm sure.  I guess the problem is how to decide if a person is being honest and truthful about it.  That's the rub.

    Another "zero tolerance" Democrat (none / 0) (#19)
    by Rojas on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 09:44:29 AM EST
    how's that workin out for ya.

    I have a repressed memory (none / 0) (#20)
    by Rojas on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 09:57:59 AM EST
    of a day when due process had tangible value to those who cared about a more perfect union.

    It seems to be at odds with SCOTUS Frye decision (none / 0) (#21)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:00:35 AM EST
    don't you think it will be appealed to the SCOTUS?

    Sorry the Daubert scientific evidence case (none / 0) (#22)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:02:42 AM EST
    overruling Frye.  

    HOw was the expert testimony allowed? (none / 0) (#23)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:17:06 AM EST
    "that the lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable the theory that an individual may experience dissociative amnesia was supported in the record, not only by expert testimony but by a wide collection of clinical observations and a survey of academic literature,''

    If there exists no scientific testing underlying the expert testimony, how was that expert testimony, relied upon by the judge when deciding to allowing repressed memory evidence, ever itself allowed into evidence?  

    Are observations and academic literature all that is needed to qualify expert testimony in Massachusetts?


    The decision references Frye (none / 0) (#27)
    by Rojas on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:27:37 AM EST
    I don't think they have adopted Daubert.

    I am kind of offended by the implication (none / 0) (#26)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:25:39 AM EST
    that those concerned with rules of evidence and other "technical" legal matters have something other than zero tolerance for child abuse.  

    I am certain that is not the case.

    True enough (none / 0) (#31)
    by Inspector Gadget on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 10:45:06 AM EST
    In fact, zero tolerance for child molestation should piggyback onto zero tolerance for wrongful convictions. But, the people who are most often alone in having to live with the horrors of wrongful convictions are those who were convicted. Their lives are destroyed, and those who destroyed them go on to aggressively pursue their next victim.

    That's not possible (none / 0) (#34)
    by jbindc on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 11:13:08 AM EST
    Under our justice system, the prosecution is held to the standard of proving a defendant "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt".  Note that it doesn't say "guilty beyond all doubt." The state is not held to an impossible standard. I think many people confuse the concepts in their minds.

    Yes, it is horrible when a truly innocent person is sent to jail.  But, despite what what seems to be the pervading opinion around here, that really doesn't happen very often except on television.


    I recall the GOP Governor of Illinois (none / 0) (#37)
    by BobTinKY on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 02:12:03 PM EST
    not long ago imposing imposing a moratorium on the death penalty because so many convicted of capital crimes in that state were later found not to have committed the crime.  

    It happens alot, far more often than it should.  I suspect it happens in plea bargained cases the most, where the accused pleads guilty to something in order to avoid malicious prosecutorial pursuit of a loved one, or prosecution of more serious crime of which the accused may also not be guilty.  Of course there is not too much to challenge about a guilty plea.

    Are most people guilty of the charge for which they are being prosecuted? Yes.  Are too many not guilty of the charge for which they are imprisoned?  Also, yes.


    Well, then (none / 0) (#38)
    by jbindc on Sat Jan 16, 2010 at 03:19:39 PM EST
    If this an epidemic of such proportions as you imagine, then all those defense attorneys are not doing their jobs and should be reported to the bar.