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    Jonathan Rauch’s new National Journal column discusses a recent outcome in a Boston sexual-abuse-by-a-priest case:

    Last month, Paul Shanley was sentenced

    to 12 to 15 years in prison for child rape. Because Shanley was 74, this was effectively a life sentence. His accuser–not [Gregory] Ford [the one originally mentioned] but Paul Busa, a 27-year-old Boston-area firefighter who recounted a similar story — said in a victim-impact statement, “However he dies, I hope it’s slow and painful.” The city of Boston, outraged by priestly pedophilia scandals and clerical cover-ups, agreed.

    The jury was convinced that Busa was telling the truth. So is Busa himself, to judge from what’s presented here. The problem that his testimony is based entirely on “recovered” memory:

    The theory underlying this claim is that of traumatic amnesia. The notion is that some experiences are so horrible that the mind pushes them down into the subconscious, where they can fester and cause all sorts of physical and emotional distress. Eventually, often under the guidance of a therapist or on being cued by some stimulus, the amnesiac brings the memories into awareness.

    This theory has a checkered legal past. Recovered-memory cases alleging sexual abuse, sometimes by satanic cults, surged into the

    hundreds in the early 1990s. Many alleged victims were steered by insistent therapists, and in many cases the recovered memory itself was the only evidence of abuse. (One plaintiff said her evidence of having been sexually abused from age 2 to 11 was based on “just what’s wrong with me today … [and] I’m still afraid of spiders.”)

    I shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer, but I will anyway: I’m not making light of actual traumatic abuse. It’s possible that some of these people did have vague memories of real violation, and that their therapists were able to prod them in the right direction to remember more and come to terms with it. That doesn’t appear to be the general pattern, though. For all the reasons Rauch gives, backed up by trained researchers but mostly familiar from everyday experience, it is difficult to accept that an incident can seem to disappear entirely from the memory and then be miraculously restored in perfect detail–at least in any consistent and reliable way you could use in court.

    Rauch’s last example above is clearly an extreme one. It does seem suspicious in a general way, though, that all these memories happened to start being restored in a cultural environment in which people were looking for someone to blame for all of life’s downers (abetted by all those therapists, naturally). Rauch also cites an article from Legal Affairs that indicates that the complainants in this case (the testimony of only one ended up being used) had their share of downers. Shanley is obviously no innocent, but he was being tried on particular charges, not his entire record of moral misjudgments as a priest.

    It’s understandable that Gregory Ford and his family wouldn’t be able to understand why he turned out to be a wrong ‘un and would look for a single, concrete, external explanation. Sadly, that doesn’t mean there is one.

    10 Responses to “Flashbacks”

    1. Rory Connor says:

      This reminds me a lot of my own article on the Irish website http://www.voicesemerge.com which speaks for people who have been falsely accused of child abuse. By the way “Recovered Memory” is almost unknown in Ireland even though we have plenty of false accusations. It is a Freudian fable and Freudianism never put down deep roots in my country. The Catholic Church regarded it as an attack on the concepts of sin, of free will and of personal responsibility (and they were right).
      Rory Connor

      Shanley’s original chief accuser was a man called Gregory Ford. As his parents tell it he had tried in vain for years to recall being molested by anyone. They showed him a newspaper article and photo of Shanley and he did not even remember the priest. Finally they showed him a snapshot of his first communion with Father Shanley and he collapsed sobbing and said that from 6 to 11 he had been raped by the priest. He alleged that Shanley took him from his one hour Sunday school class, raped him and then returned him to his schoolmates. The Fords say that Gregory never exhibited any unusual behaviour during those years. THEY CLAIM THAT AFTER EACH ONE OF 80 SEXUAL ASSAULTS, GREGORY FORGOT WHAT HAPPENED AND APPROACHED EACH NEW ASSAULT AS IF IT WERE THE FIRST. “AS SOON AS IT HAPPENED, EACH TIME HE LEFT THE ROOM, HE FORGOT ABOUT IT,” GREGS FATHER RODNEY FORD SAID. “THE SPECIALISTS HE SEES NOW ARE AMAZED HE COULD BLOCK THIS OUT, THAT HE HAD SUCH CONTROL”. [1]

      Paul Shanley was convicted on ludicrous evidence because the USA is gripped by hysteria about child sex abuse. It is the same blind hysteria that secured Nora Wall

    2. Catch 22 says:

      Some opinions on the Shanley trial might be definitively modified if those making what might be called superficial claims or editorial opinion, examined the complete actual trial evidence presented to the jury which will be most likely beadvailable under the freedom of information act.
      My understanding is that ‘recovered memory’ wasn’t the only evidence.

    3. Sean Kinsell says:

      Do you have a link, Catch 22? I haven’t seen anything to suggest that. If you’re just making a general statement that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, well, okay; but they knew who was supposed to testify and who ended up bowing out.
      The things I’ve seen haven’t said that no evidence whatever was used besides Busa’s testimony. What they’ve said is that his testimony was the only evidence that would directly support the charge that Shanley molested him. I’d be surprised if the prosecution hadn’t fleshed out its case with evidence that Shanley had had sex with those in the community he was supposed to be serving; he seems to have all but come out and admitted that himself. That doesn’t corroborate Busa’s story (or the other boys’ stories) specifically.

    4. Catch 22 says:

      My error for not bookmarking the stories I’ve read.
      I did come across some news stories that the jury was presented with a mountain of evidence that contributed to their decision that was in disfavor of the defendant. As a viewer and a reader, I have a hard time discounting a jury’s decision except in the OJ case. No big deal here.

    5. Sean Kinsell says:

      Thanks for the link. I shortened your comment only because a lot of the information is duplicated from the Legal Affairs article, and people might be tempted to skip over the rest of it because of that. I think I left the separate points that you were making, but if I sliced anything out, please let me know.
      The thing about Freudianism and Ireland is very interesting. In Japan Studies, you’re told from the get-go, “You can interpret Japan with Jung but not with Freud.” A gross generalization, but one that overall is good to bear in mind. Maybe this says more about me than about Freud, but I found him useful for thinking about the way emotions churn.
      Whether his explanations of where they come from are valid is a different matter. Wanting to solve mental problems at the source is not a bad thing, but taken to an extreme, it assumes that there is a source we can find and address. We Westerners (especially Americans) have a post-Enlightenment side that likes coherent, verbalizable (is that a word?) answers, and gets agitated when there aren’t any. The there-must-have-been-abuse-in-your-childhood routine to explain adult unhappiness or anxiety reflects that, I think.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      Fair enough, Catch. BTW, I wrote and deleted a reply to your comment on the Tokyo fire-bombing post about five times. It kept coming out like a game of can-you-top-this? You know, like, “You’ve got a story about a Japanese person who dealt well with the war? I’ve got a story, too!” So I let it go. Just wanted to say thanks for your comment, though.

    7. Catch 22 says:

      re: Tokyo–firebombing. I wasn’t trying to top anyone–just my observations of my friend Ando-san
      and conversations we’d had years ago. Sometimes I look at the younger generations and speculate there must be more to add to comments other than
      abstract speculations.

    8. Sean Kinsell says:

      I know you weren’t; I just didn’t want to look as if I were.

    9. Rory Connor says:

      Thanks. I think the fact that “Recovered Memory Syndrome” is almost unknown in Ireland is sufficient to discredit the notion. (I can recall only one case that made it to court and the judge dismissed it without letting it go to a jury.)
      Irish people are not THAT different from Americans, certainly not where reactions to deep trauma are concerned. WE don’t react to trauma by burying our memories. Shanley originally had four accusers, all of whom claimed Recovered Memory, so it’s more like an epidemic over there than a once-off phenomenon.
      I don’t believe that a “Syndrome” that is so culturally specific, can be real. It’s more like the “Spectral Evidence” of the Salem Witch Hunts.
      Best Wishes

    10. Sean Kinsell says:

      If you think this case is bad, you should see The Oprah Winfrey Show.
      I think that acculturation probably does affect which vulnerabilities groups of people have. It would almost have to; that’s what our brain chemistry and genetics and other physical-entity stuff are mediated through. But you’re right that the idea that American memory is that special doesn’t pass the smell test.
      Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, by the way, though I guess it’s over for you (?).