Victims' enemy isn't one

San Francisco Chronicle/July 31, 2002
By Stephanie Salter

Dr. Paul McHugh would be an asset to just about any truth-seeking panel or committee I can imagine. But it doesn't look as if the victims of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests will believe that. A psychiatrist, researcher and teacher, McHugh was appointed last week by U. S. bishops to a 12-person lay Catholic board that will oversee the church's response to molesting priests. That news has been deemed "an insult to victims and to professionals" who work with them and has landed McHugh, 71, on the victims' official enemies list.

McHugh's crime? Among the many areas of psychiatry to which his work has taken him -- he spent 26 years as the director of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine -- is one that involves so-called recovered memory therapy.

In the early-1990s, you heard a lot about this controversial practice because thousands of women and men were coming forward to report recently unearthed "buried memories" of childhood incest and ritual-cult sex abuse at the hands of their parents or other relatives. Hundreds sued their astonished and horrified parents or had them arrested. In one of the most famous cases, San Mateo firefighter George Franklin was accused by his daughter Eileen of murdering her childhood friend in 1969. Franklin spent nearly seven years in prison before a new trial overturned his conviction.

Most of the accusers had recovered their memories during psychotherapy or 12-step self-help programs. Nearly all cut off contact with their families if their charges were denied or even questioned.

Because McHugh had long treated convicted (and admitted) rapists and pedophiles at Johns Hopkins, he was tapped as an adviser in 1992 for the fledging False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Based in Philadelphia, the foundation was a response by Pamela and Peter Freyd to their adult daughter's recovered memories of incest that the Freyds insist never happened.

In just one year, the foundation's roster grew to 3,000 families who detailed Kafkaesque stories of surprise letters, phone calls or sheriff's visits that signaled the end of once-happy relationships with their children. Almost none of the accounts included a chance to answer disgusting, criminal and, often, impossible charges in the presence of the adult child's therapist.

Even parents accused of fantastic crimes like multiple murders and satanic cult sacrifices were told they were "in denial" of their alleged deeds.

McHugh was appalled. Everything he had learned since his medical school days at Harvard about the human mind, memory repression and sexual deviancy convinced him that recovered memory therapy was dangerous and manufacturing real victims among accused parents and their adult children.

For 10 years, he has said as much publicly -- a handful of times in court. One time was as a defense witness in his home city of Baltimore when two women with recovered memories accused a priest of rape and satanic ritual abuse 20 years before.

In the highly-charged atmosphere of the current Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, it matters little to victims' advocates that very few of the abusive priest cases involve repressed memories or that McHugh's false memories work has occupied "perhaps 2 to 5 percent" of his entire medical career. Still a full-time staff member at Johns Hopkins, he said earlier this week:

"Most of my time is taken up with studying and teaching molecular biology, the major diseases, such as schizophrenia, personality disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, and drug and alcohol addiction. I would hate to be remembered for just this one part in the memory wars."

None of the people who are calling for McHugh's removal from the bishops' lay board seems to care that the board's function is not to adjudicate individual cases of priestly sex abuse but to ensure that the bishops make good on their promise to significantly change the immoral and criminal way in which the church has dealt with abusing priests and their victims.

Far from excusing previous church policy -- send an abusive priest away for a month of "rehabilitation" then put him in a new parish to molest again -- McHugh is highly critical. He wants to know "what kind of psychiatrists" would advise anyone, even in the 1970s, that pedophiles could be cured by a little repentant therapy and prayer.

"That's like drying out an alcoholic then putting him back to work behind a bar," he said.

His treatment at Johns Hopkins of pedophiles and rapists has convinced him that "if you commit a crime, you have to pay for it. When you get out of jail, then we can see if there's something we can do to help you."

So far, none of McHugh's detractors has bothered to ask how, as a lifelong practicing Catholic, he feels about the decades of coverups, secret payoffs and perpetuation of predator priests for which his church is responsible.

"What I think is that this is as radical and as deep a betrayal as we can imagine," he said. "It is about sexual abuse of power over the vulnerable, which is a terrible sin. I think it is a huge and deep crisis of trust and commitment, a degree of crisis in which the church has not found itself in 500 years. I just hope I'm going to be allowed to stay in there and do something about it."

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