Thursday, January 27, 2005

Paul Busa's recovered memory

Paul R. Shanley, the notorious Boston priest who wore long hair, challenged the Church teachings on homosexuality, attended NAMBLA meetings, and supposedly molested dozens of schoolboys, is now on trial. The prosecution is down to one witness against him, and that man has holes in his story. He appears to have suddenly and mysteriously remembered being abused in 1983 at the age of 6, just in time to collect a $500k settlement.

The accuser's name is Paul Busa. I am not sure why the mainstream news media is refusing to name him. He is 27 years old, and he has been in the news for a couple of years. The name of Shanley's other main accuser, Greg Ford, has been reported many times. If I were a juror, I'd be wondering why Ford and all the others who got big payoffs are not testifying at Shanley's trial.

I am very skeptical about prosecutions based on recovered memory from childhood. I believe that the evidence is that such memories are very unreliable.
The accusations against Shanley rely on a psychological theory called dissociated or repressed memory. It holds that the mind can submerge the most traumatic memories in some walled-off place, where they remain unaltered and retrievable in exact detail by a triggering event or therapy. The idea comes from Freud's early work, and is one which he ultimately rejected. It was reformulated in some feminist psychotherapeutic circles beginning in the 1970s, and reached its apex in the 1980s and early '90s, when children, prodded by therapists, began reciting "memories" of satanic ritual abuses committed at their day care centers. Many people went to prison as a result of those stories. Most of those convictions have since been reversed; others continue to be fought. Yet the theory persists. Daniel Brown, a psychotherapist who testified to the grand jury in Shanley's case, argues that "material that is too intense may not be able to be consciously processed and so may become unconscious and amnesic."

Other experts, however, reject the notion that highly traumatic memories can be spontaneously repressed and recovered. One of Ford's first therapists, Robert Azrak, testified in a deposition that "there is no scientific basis" for the type of recovered memories described in this case. As Richard McNally, a clinical and experimental psychologist at Harvard and the author of Remembering Trauma, pointed out, "There is just no mechanism in the mind for keeping the door shut to traumatic memory. The more times a particular type of event happens, the harder it may be to distinguish one incident from another, but that doesn't mean people fail to remember the entire set of events." Remembering trauma, McNally said, "is crucial to evolutionary development; if you've been threatened, you better remember if you want to survive." That was as true for cavemen as it is for the contemporary child who, once burned, learns to avoid a hot stove.
Such testimony should not be allowed in court. It is just Freudian nonsense.

Update: (Feb. 7) Shanley was convicted on all 4 counts. Shanley did not testify, and it appears that his lawyer put on a weak defense.

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