Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Crisis of Faith: the case of Paul Shanley

By JoAnn Wypijewski
The Nation – Law & Justice – February 25, 2009

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...

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