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Judge rules against repressed memories

Nov 30, 2005 | AP A Douglas County district court judge has declared that repressed memories are not reliable enough for filing claims of sexual abuse years after an alleged incident at Boys Town.

On Monday, Judge Sandra Dougherty ruled that Todd Rivers of Omaha could not present expert testimony that Rivers had repressed memories of abuse.

In his lawsuit, Rivers said a priest molested him in the 1980s.

Rivers' expert, Dougherty said, did not prove that such a diagnosis is scientifically valid.

Even if the memories do exist, the condition may not apply to Rivers, Dougherty said.

Rivers alleges that the Rev. James Kelly of Girls and Boys Town made him drop his pants during confession and re-enact how he would masturbate. Rivers also alleged that Kelly touched his crotch after he pulled up his pants.

Rivers said he didn't remember the incident until he "recovered" it in a dream nearly 20 years later, in 2002.

Dougherty ruled there is no evidence as to when Rivers repressed the alleged abuse and noted that Rivers stopped going to confession after the incident.

"So it is clear that for some period of time Rivers remembered the incident," she wrote in her 25-page order.

Rivers is one of at least four former residents of Girls and Boys Town who have alleged they were sexually abused by priests or staffers at Boys Town.

Last year, the home's executive director at the time, the Rev. Val J. Peter, said an extensive Boys Town investigation revealed no evidence to back up the allegations.

The investigation team was headed by Omaha attorney James Martin Davis and included a former FBI agent and a former police detective.

The former residents have filed four separate lawsuits against Girls and Boys Town. Three of the plaintiffs claim the abuse took place in the 1970s and '80s when the home was known as Boys Town. The fourth lawsuit claims abuse in August 1997 after the facility changed its name to Girls and Boys Town. All four plaintiffs are male.

Cases such as Rivers' alleged abuse would be otherwise barred by the statute of limitations, but many sexual assault victims take one of two paths when filing claims years later. Some say a disability, such as a mental illness, precludes them from taking action. Others say they suffered from repressed memory.

Dougherty is the first Nebraska judge and the sixth judge nationally to rule on repressed memories.

Of the five other rulings, two federal judges and a Louisiana judge recognized repressed memory as an acceptable diagnosis. Two state courts rejected the idea as unscientific.

A U.S. district judge in Nebraska is expected to decided the same issue after hearing another man's lawsuit against Kelly and Boys Town.

Kelly has denied the claims. He left Boys Town several years ago and now lives in Carson City, Nev.

Davis, who represents Girls and Boys Town in the Rivers case, said he will ask Dougherty to dismiss Rivers' case, arguing that the statute of limitations has passed.

Rivers' attorney, Patrick Noaker of St. Paul, Minn., said Rivers stands by his account of what happened and hopes the decision doesn't deter others from coming forward.

Dougherty noted that the psychiatric community is divided on whether repressed memory exists.

The American Psychiatric Association, Dougherty noted, said that some abuse survivor's "coping mechanisms result in a lack of conscious awareness of the abuse for varying periods of time the only way to prove the accuracy of a recovered memory report is to produce corroborating evidence."

Noaker said Rivers' corroborating evidence is that his accounts of alleged abuse matched two other students' accounts of Kelly's behavior.

But even if he produced a buried memory, Dougherty questioned how anyone could attest to the validity of the account.

"The fact that there is approximately 20 years between the alleged events and the 'recovered' memories increases the unreliability of the memory," she wrote.

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