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Church hires a psychologist who doubts repressed memories

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 3/5/2003

A controversial psychologist who has authored studies challenging repressed memories of sexual abuse is expected to present testimony for the Archdiocese of Boston when the first civil lawsuits against church officials go to trial.

In papers to be filed today in Suffolk County Superior Court, church lawyers will notify Judge Constance M. Sweeney that they intend to elicit testimony from Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, to defend the church against charges that the Rev. Paul R. Shanley molested plaintiffs Gregory Ford and Paul Busa. Both Ford and Busa have said they were sexually abused by Shanley as children, but did not remember the events until 2002. Their lawsuits against church officials are the first civil cases expected to go to trial in Massachusetts stemming from the recent scandal.

Loftus confirmed she has been hired, but said she did not yet know enough about the facts of the cases to assess the reliability of the plaintiffs' memories. ''I have been retained, but I have not fully studied these materials,'' she said.

Co-author of ''The Myth of Repressed Memory,'' Loftus frequently testifies for the defense in trials where plaintiffs contend they remembered a traumatic event years after it happened. Cases in which she has been a witness or consultant include the McMartin Preschool molestation case, the Rodney King trial, and the Hillside Strangler case.

Much of her research focuses on the weakness of memory. She contends that people can confuse memories of real events with events that they either imagined or that were suggested to them.

Other specialists, however, including researchers the plaintiffs intend to call as witnesses, say highly stressful events such as sexual assaults can induce amnesia and victims can later ''recover'' valid memories.

The reliability of repressed memories will probably be a significant issue in the upcoming lawsuits because many of the alleged victims, including Ford and Busa, will contend they did not come forward sooner because the trauma of being molested caused amnesia.

Ford, now 25, alleged in court papers that Shanley began molesting him when he was 6. Ford alleged the abuse occurred between 1983 and 1989. He only remembered it, he said, after his parents showed him a profile of Shanley that appeared in The Boston Globe on Jan. 31, 2002.

''This clearly now is shaping up as a situation where the memory of Gregory Ford is going to be attacked,'' said Ford's lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents approximately half of the 500 victims suing the church and its leaders. MacLeish estimated that at least 25 to 40 other clients suffered some form of amnesia after having suffered the alleged abuse.

J. Owen Todd, Cardinal Bernard Law's lawyer, said the church intends to call Loftus to rebut plaintiffs' memory specialists. MacLeish has included a number of memory specialists on his list of potential witnesses, including Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading researcher on how trauma influences memory, and Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has treated victims of former priest James R. Porter.

Grassian, while declining to discuss the specifics of Ford and Busa, said that recovered-memories cases are not especially different from other trials where the facts are in dispute. ''In any case, there are often conflicting views about what really happened,'' says Grassian. ''There's fallibility in all memory and all eyewitness testimony.''

Whether Loftus or the other memory experts will be allowed to testify will be up to Sweeney, according to legal specialists. Suffolk University Law School professor Michael Avery said he thought Sweeney would probably hold a pretrial hearing to determine the scope of Loftus's testimony.

''General experts on the topic of repressed memory could be helpful to a jury,'' said Avery.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 3/5/2003.
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