Sex panics make for bad law. It could be said that they make for bad science, too, except that what has driven some of the most notorious legal cases to emerge from such panics has been more a masquerade of science, a belief tricked out in the language of medicine and social science to distract from the mumbo jumbo at its core. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is set to be the latest arena to test that belief, taking up the admissibility of “dissociative amnesia,” or “repressed memory,” in a case that some powerful interests no doubt hoped was as settled as the grave.
The petitioner is Paul Shanley, a once famous “street priest” who became infamous in the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, was tried in 2005, convicted and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison. Because the media, particularly the Boston Globe, were central to the allegations and the frenzy that provided the context, it has always been difficult to see the case plainly. But because justice, as opposed to its many stand-ins, is blind, imagine yourself or one you love as the defendant at the bar.
In October 2004 Dr. Daniel Brown, a Boston psychologist, took the witness stand in a pretrial hearing at Middlesex Superior Court and offered what would become the state’s only foundation for its prosecution. There was no evidence in the case, just a claim that depended entirely on faith. Dr. Brown was in the courtroom to give it the imprimatur of science.
The accuser asserted that from the age of 6, in 1983, he had been raped and otherwise indecently assaulted by the defendant for three years in a busy church on Sunday mornings. Each assault, it was alleged, instantly erased his memory of what had just happened, so that the boy re-approached the defendant in a state of innocent unknowing, to be assaulted again, to forget everything again and again, and then move on in life without the slightest inkling of the experience until twenty years later, when it all came back to him.
Dr. Brown had appeared as a certified expert in courtrooms for years, stating that the mind’s capacity for such “massive repression” was generally accepted as demonstrable fact in the psychological professions. That was always false. By 2004, however, as compellingly detailed in documents now before the Supreme Judicial Court, the literature in major scientific publications questioning the validity of repressed memory was weighty. Many of the therapists whose work Brown recommended had been disgraced, stripped of their licenses and revealed as dangerous frauds in successful malpractice suits.
Brown’s own testimony had been rejected as unreliable by courts in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Nevertheless, he was the expert favored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and defense counsel offered not a single study or witness to rebut. Almost fifty years of research on memory and trauma, involving 120 studies and more than 14,000 people with documented experiences of rape, sexual abuse, torture, death camps, war or other horrors, reveals no evidence of repressed memory–that is, an inability to remember that cannot be explained by ordinary forgetting, infantile amnesia, intoxication or brain injury. Ignorant of that record, Judge Stephen Neel ruled that “the theory of repressed memory is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community.” Thus, it was deemed admissible to buttress the criminal allegations.
When prosecutors first brought those, in 2002, there were four complainants, all friends or acquaintances, who reported identical experiences of sexual abuse, immediate memory loss and instantaneous remembering within a few days of one another. This quadruple “recovery” of memory began when one of them read an article in the Globe.