How well can you forget?
Posted by c. wagner on October 27, 2009
I’ve been debating posting on this for a couple of days now. On one hand, the question of the reality and validity of repressed memories is interesting. On the other hand, we are talking about a man convicted of an awful crime that is related to a perhaps even more evil cover-up.
Remember Paul Shanley? The now-former priest who became the poster molester of the sex abuse in the Catholic church a few years ago? He’s now appealing his conviction. And he may have a good argument.
There were dozens of priests and hundreds of victims involved, but Shanley’s case is unusual in that there is no corroborating evidence of his crimes. Often in cases of accusations of sexual abuse — even ones that occurred years earlier — there is some other supporting proof. But the only evidence against Shanley was the memory of a now-grown man who said he didn’t recall the abuse until 2002 when he heard about a newspaper article on the clergy abuse scandal. That, he claimed, triggered a flood of memories of abuse that had occurred decades earlier at Shanley’s hand.
The problem? What the victim claims is unheard of in science.
Shanley’s lawyer argued that the former priest deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading “junk science” testimony about repressed memories, wrongly suggesting that such memories were considered valid by the psychological and scientific community. (Indeed, a judge concluded that repressed memories are “generally accepted by the relevant scientific community of mental health professionals.”)
Shanley’s lawyer is correct: There is no scientific consensus (and little research suggesting) that people can completely forget about traumatic events, only to recall them in detail years or decades later.
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, for one, has spent her career studying the mechanisms of memory and how easily memories can be corrupted. Here’s her overview of the literature on creating memory, repressed memories, and the power of suggestion as of 2003.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Even if this conviction is overturned, Shanley was accused of abuse by three others, who were dropped from the original suit.