Defrocked priest Paul Shanley, one of the central figures in the clergy sex abuse scandal, was convicted after a 27-year-old man tearfully described how the popular priest used to pull him out of catechism classes and rape him, beginning when he was just 6 years old.
The victim said he did not remember the abuse for two decades, until 2002, when memories came rushing back as he saw media reports about the clergy scandal unfolding in Boston.
Now Shanley is challenging his conviction based on an ongoing debate in the psychiatric community over the validity and reliability of repressed memories. The highest court in Massachusetts will hear Shanley's appeal Thursday.
The case is being closely watched by experts on both sides of the issue.
Nearly 100 scientists, psychiatrists and researchers have signed a friend-of-the court brief denouncing the theory of repressed-recovered memories. Another group has submitted a brief supporting the theory.
Shanley's lawyer, Robert Shaw Jr., argues that Shanley deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading, "junk science" testimony about repressed memories by prosecution witnesses.
"His conviction rests upon a theory that is false, that has not been shown to exist and has been rejected by the scientific community," Shaw said.
"They needed repressed memories to normalize for the jury what was otherwise an extraordinary assertion — that he could be completely oblivious that this ever happened and then remember it 20 years later," Shaw said.
The clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston in 2002 after church records were made public showing that church officials had reports of priests molesting children, but kept the complaints secret, shuffling some priests from parish to parish rather than removing them.
Known as 'street priest'
Shanley, now 78, was known in the 1960s and 1970s as a "street priest" who reached out to Boston's troubled youth. Internal records showed that church officials were aware of sexual abuse complaints against him as early as 1967.
The crisis, which led to the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, spread as similar sexual abuse complaints were uncovered in dioceses across the country.
A wave of lawsuits led to massive settlements, including a record $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 alleged victims in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and an $85 million settlement in 2003 with more than 550 victims in the Archdiocese of Boston.
All told, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The victim in the Shanley case received a $500,000 settlement from the Boston archdiocese about a year before Shanley went on trial in the criminal case.
Prosecutors originally charged Shanley with sexually abusing four men when they were children in Newton during the 1980s. They later dropped three of the men from the case. All four men said they recovered memories of the abuse years later.
During Shanley's 2005 trial, the remaining victim broke down and cried as he testified in graphic detail that Shanley raped and groped him in the church bathroom, the rectory, the confessional and the pews from age 6 to 12.
"It felt awful," he testified. "He told me nobody would ever believe me if I told anybody."
Shanley was convicted of child rape and indecent assault and battery. He is now serving a 12- to 15-year prison sentence.
A judge last year rejected Shanley's request for a new trial, finding that the theory of repressed-recovered memories, though controversial, is "generally accepted by the relevant scientific community of mental health professionals."
Shanley's lawyer appealed, and the state Supreme Judicial Court agreed to take the case.
The controversy began about two decades ago, as some psychotherapy patients began describing recovering long-repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Some experts questioned the reliability of such memories, and there were several successful, high-profile malpractice lawsuits against therapists who practiced recovered memory therapy.
Earlier cases involving memories
One of the best-known cases of recovered memory involved false accusations of abuse against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
Steven Cook filed a lawsuit in 1993, accusing Bernardin and another priest of molesting him in the 1970s while he was a pre-seminary student in Cincinnati. Cook recanted several months later, saying his allegations were false memories that took shape during therapy. Bernardin died of cancer three years after the accusations surfaced.
A highly publicized case in California also fueled national debate over the reliability of repressed memory.
In 1990, George Franklin Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder after his daughter, Eileen Franklin Lipsker, said she had recovered a memory of seeing her father kill her 8-year-old best friend in 1969.
The murder of Susan Nason had gone unsolved until Lipsker, then 29, testified that an image of her father raising a rock over her best friend's head flashed through her mind.
Franklin spent 6 1/2 years in prison before a federal judge overturned his conviction in 1995, saying his lawyers should have been allowed to introduce newspaper coverage of the murder as a possible source of his daughter's knowledge of details of the killing. Prosecutors decided against a retrial after learning that Lipsker had falsely accused her father of a second murder.
Dr. Harrison Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the leading critics of the theory, said he believes testimony about repressed-recovered memories should not be allowed in courtrooms.
"If you are going to present scientific opinions to a jury of non-scientists, it has to be science that is well-documented, where the scientific community agrees on it. You can't use so-called junk science in front of a jury," said Pope, one of the experts who signed a friend-of-the-court brief.
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