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.