‘Repressed memory’ at issue in defrocked priest’s appeal

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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Defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley, one of the key figures in Boston’s clergy sex abuse scandal, plans to challenge his rape and indecent assault convictions before the state’s highest court today when his lawyer argues that the victim’s “repressed memory’’ was junk science.

Shanley’s appellate lawyer contends that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence that the victim, a 27-year-old firefighter, buried memories of repeated abuse as a Sunday school student for two decades, only to recover them when the scandal erupted.

“Overwhelming evidence proves that the theory of ‘repressed memory’ is not generally accepted by the relevant scientific community on multiple grounds and that the commonwealth’s experts provided misleading junk science testimony that should not have been admitted in a judicial proceeding,’’ the lawyer, Robert F. Shaw Jr. of Cambridge, argues in his brief.

Nearly 100 psychiatrists, psychologists, and scientists have submitted a friend-of-the-court brief saying that the notion of people recovering repressed memories is “one of the most pernicious bits of folklore ever to infect’’ the fields of mental health. However, another large group, the Leadership Council, which consists of lawyers, academics, and scientists, has filed a brief saying repressed memory is a legitimate phenomenon.

Lawyers for Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., whose office prosecuted Shanley in 2005, plan to argue when both sides appear before the Supreme Judicial Court this morning that Middlesex Superior Court Judge Stephen E. Neel was right to admit the evidence.

The prosecutors say “dissociative amnesia’’ is recognized as a legitimate disorder by many in the mental health field, including the American Psychiatric Association. Merely because specialists “may not be unanimous about dissociative amnesia does not rule out its validity,’’ prosecutors wrote in their brief.

Shanley, now 78, was known in the 1960s and 1970s as a “street priest’’ who reached out to troubled youth, roamed Boston’s streets in blue jeans, and was an outspoken backer of gay rights.

He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison in February 2005 after a jury convicted him of two counts of raping a child and two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child, all in connection with the attacks on the firefighter as a boy.

The victim accused Shanley of pulling him out of Sunday school at St. Jean’s Church in Newton when he was between 6 and 11 years old and molesting him in the pews, rectory, confessional, and boys’ room. The former altar boy testified he did not remember the abuse until 2002, when he learned about a Globe article outlining accusations against Shanley by other men, including a former Sunday school classmate. Three other accusers were part of the initial case but were dropped as it went to trial.

During the two-week trial, Shanley’s defense lawyer, Frank Mondano, argued that the victim’s recollections were “false memories’’ that had been planted by friends, therapists, and personal injury lawyers. Shanley’s accuser had a troubled family history and previous substance abuse problems, and had $500,000 in the bank from a civil settlement with the Boston Archdiocese at the time of the trial.

In a high-stakes gamble, Mondano called only one witness, Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, who challenged the validity of repressed memory. Loftus, who has built a career out of debunking the phenomenon, said scientific experiments have proved that people can be manipulated into remembering things that never happened.

“I don’t believe there is any credible scientific evidence for the idea that years of brutalization can be massively repressed,’’ she testified.

But under cross-examination, she agreed that people can forget traumatic events and remember them later. Loftus is among those who signed the brief supporting Shanley’s appeal.

Shanley’s lawyer said in his brief that no appellate court in Massachusetts has considered whether repressed memory is a valid, scientifically accepted phenomenon. If so, the high court’s ruling in the case could have significant repercussions.

Leone said recently that the concept of recovered memory “by victims of abuse has been accepted by both the scientific and legal communities, as well as the jury that convicted Mr. Shanley of child rape after hearing the full evidence in this case.’’

He said the verdict was just and expressed confidence that it will be upheld.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at