BOSTON — Paul R. Shanley was convicted in 2005 of raping and assaulting a 6-year-old boy while serving as a priest in suburban Boston, in a case that hinged on memories of abuse the accuser said he had repressed and recovered decades later.
Now Mr. Shanley, 78, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest at the center of the clergy abuse crisis here, is challenging his conviction, the accuser’s recollections and the science of repressed memory.
“You have prominent scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists saying this is not generally accepted. So why allow it in a court of law in a criminal proceeding?” Mr. Shanley’s lawyer, Robert F. Shaw Jr., asked the state’s highest court Thursday.
The debate over repressed memory — the idea that some memories, particularly traumatic ones, can be inaccessible for years — has simmered since the 1980s, when some patients in therapy described long-past scenes of sexual abuse. Some of those experiences turned into high-profile legal cases. The scientific controversy boiled over in the 1990s — as experts raised questions about many claims — and then died down.
Recently, scientists have begun to spar again over the theory. New studies suggest, and many scientists argue, that what people call repression may just be ordinary forgetting; memory is not “blocked.” Others say the process is more complex and may involve a desire to forget.
“My impression is there continues to be a few scientists who honestly believe that it is actually possible for someone to be involved in a traumatic event and not be able to remember it at all,” said Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “But you cannot possibly argue that it’s generally accepted, which is the criteria for it to be admissible from a legal standpoint.”
Mr. Shanley’s case has become a rallying point. Dr. Pope is one of about 100 scientists, researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists who signed a friend-of-the court brief denouncing the theory of repressed memory.
Mr. Shanley, a controversial street priest who worked with runaways, troubled youth and denounced the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, was accused of abuse by about 24 people. But only the case of the accuser, now a 32-year-old suburban Boston firefighter, made it to trial.
The man, who accused Mr. Shanley of abusing him during Sunday Catholic doctrine classes, said he had no memory of the abuse until 2002, at age 25, when his girlfriend told him about a newspaper article on clergy sexual abuse and Mr. Shanley. That phone call set off the memories, the accuser said, which led to breakdowns, hospitalizations and a discharge from the Air Force.
“I felt like my world was coming to an end,” the accuser said in the trial. He received $500,000 the year before the trial as part of an $85 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston.
The accuser tearfully testified that from age 6 to 12 he was raped and groped on the church altar and in the bathrooms, pews, rectory and confessional of the church in Newton, Mass.
Mr. Shanley’s former lawyer, Frank Mondano, questioned whether the accuser’s memories were true or whether they were “false memories” suggested by lawyers, friends and therapists. Mr. Mondano called only one witness, who challenged the theory of repressed memory but said on cross-examination that people could forget and subsequently remember traumatic events. Mr. Shaw now claims that Mr. Mondano was ineffective counsel, and that Mr. Shanley should receive a new trial. Mr. Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison.
Timothy D. Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse” (Harvard University Press, 2008), said most memories of clergy sexual abuse “do not involve recovered memories — this is a small percentage of cases we’re talking about,” he said.
The vast majority of clergy sexual abuse suits, Professor Lytton said, were backed up with substantial evidence.
The most high-profile repressed memory case involving clergy sexual abuse came in 1993, when a former seminarian accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and another priest of sexually abusing him in the 1970s. The man later recanted, saying the memories were false and drawn out during therapy.
Last year, a federal judge in Nebraska voided a $1.75 million judgment in a case involving clergy sexual abuse and repressed memory. Patrick Lynch, the Rhode Island attorney general, dismissed a case based on repressed memory in 2007, saying, “the high burden for admissibility, at trial, of testimony based on repressed memory” would create “a legal impediment that the state is unlikely to overcome.”
Mr. Shanley appealed to the Superior Court last year and was denied. The highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court opted to hear it and will rule in 180 days.
Katie Zezima reported from Boston, and Benedict Carey from New York. John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 16, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Friday about a defrocked Roman Catholic priest who is challenging his conviction of rape and assault of a child misstated, in some editions, the ages at which the child was raped. It was from age 6 to 12 — not age 6 to 9.