Ruling spurs repressed-memory debate

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/June 18, 2006
By Clay Barbour

David Clohessy was watching a movie when he says the first memory came back to him - a horrible image that he says remained deep in his subconscious for more than 20 years.

The memory was of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. Clohessy was 12.

"If you had asked me before that movie if I had been abused, I would have said 'no,'" Clohessy said. "And I would have passed a lie detector test, too. That's how repressed those memories were."

In 1991, Clohessy filed a lawsuit against the priest. Because of the Missouri statute of limitations, the case was thrown out a few years later.

But last week, the Missouri Supreme Court broke with precedent and allowed a man to proceed with a lawsuit based on repressed memories.

The ruling may open the door for scores of similar cases, such as Clohessy's. Advocates called it a victory for victims of abuse.

Many health professionals see only trouble ahead - for the courts and for people wrestling with inner demons.

"I think this was the wrong decision," said Steven Bruce, director of the University of Missouri at St. Louis' Center for Trauma Recovery. "It could well open the floodgates for these kinds of cases, and I'm not so sure that will be a good thing for many of these people."

Are memories real?

According to Bruce, mental health professionals are divided over the issue of repressed memories. Many respected professionals doubt their existence, or at the very least, their accuracy.

UMSL's trauma center specializes in treating the adult survivors of abuse. Bruce, who said he believed cases of true repression were very rare, said he was afraid that the recent ruling could open the door for the unscrupulous to prey upon the vulnerable.

"Suggestion is a powerful force, especially for someone wrestling with a lot of issues," he said.

The idea of repressed memories is a relatively new psychological theory. In 1990, in a landmark case from California, George Franklin, 51, was convicted of a 20-year-old murder based mainly on the testimony of his daughter, Eileen.

The victim was an 8-year-old friend of Eileen's named Susan Kay Nason. Eileen testified that her father had killed Susan. Eileen said she had repressed that memory for almost 20 years.

Over the years, such cases have become more commonplace. However, the debate continues unabated.

Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that in general, younger victims experienced repressed memory - a "survival mechanism" that allows them to cope with the abuse.

"The kid becomes two kids: the kid who was abused, and then there's this other kid who comes down and eats corn flakes and goes to school," she said.

Clohessy, SNAP's national director, can relate. He said it made perfect sense for a small child to bury painful memories.

"How else can a child's mind deal with something so horrible?" he said.

But according to Donna LaVoie, a psychology professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on memory, such memories are often faulty.

"Our memories are not like videos," she said. "We don't simply play back what happens to us exactly like it happened. In every memory, there is a little fact, a little fiction and a little perception."

LaVoie said this was especially true of so-called recovered memories. She said that although there was sometimes a kernel of truth there, it was often polluted by other influences.

"We are able to produce phantom recollections in people," she said. "We can actually make people believe they remember something that never happened. So this can be dangerous ground."

The current Supreme Court case deals with sexual abuse that is alleged to have happened 30 years ago at Chaminade College Preparatory School.

Michael Powel filed suit in 2002 naming Chaminade, the Marianist religious order that operates it, former Archbishop Justin Rigali and two faculty members - a priest and a religious brother - accusing the teachers of molesting him in the mid-1970s, when he was 15 to 17 years old.

Decision's effect

Lawyers who are still in the process of examining the Supreme Court's opinion say the full meaning and effect of the decision will depend on how it is interpreted in upcoming court cases and appeals.

"I have nothing but questions myself," said Gerard Noce, who is representing Chaminade and the Marianists in the Powel case.

Noce said he was very skeptical of repressed memory.

But Patrick Noaker, a lawyer from Minnesota who has filed more than 2,000 clergy or school sex abuse cases nationwide, said only a "loud minority" remained skeptical.

Perhaps the loudest critic of repressed memories is Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor with the University of California at Irvine. She is co-author of "Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial."

Loftus is considered one of the leading national experts on the issue of repressed memories. She calls them the "mental health scandal of the 21st century."

"There is no credible scientific evidence to prove that repressed memories even exist," she said. "And yet they keep clearing the way for these kinds of trials which have ruined hundreds, if not thousands, of families."

The skeptics upset Clohessy. He agrees with Noaker that it is a loud minority of mental health professionals who don't believe in repressed memories.

"It is very painful to me to have anyone, especially in the mental health community, doubt the existence of repressed memories," he said. "I know dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have experienced them. We all cope with trauma in different ways."

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