Paul Busa says he was reading a newspaper article about a priest accused of molesting a child at Busa’s old parish when, suddenly, the memories of more than a decade earlier came flooding back.
Memories of being led from catechism classes to church bathrooms and confessionals, where, he says, he was abused by that same priest nearly every week for seven years, from age 6 to 13.
Those so-called recovered-memory allegations — which now form the basis of child-rape charges against the Rev. Paul Shanley — represent a highly controversial type of evidence that many courts view skeptically because of fundamental questions about its reliability.
The concept of memories being repressed and later recovered is widely accepted by psychiatrists. But there has been a string of lurid cases in which recovered memories turned out to be false memories that may have been planted or suggested by the patient’s therapist.
“It makes it more difficult to corroborate the victim’s testimony because the defense is naturally going to say, `Why didn’t you say anything before?’ and `What do you mean you didn’t remember?'” said Paul Martinek, editor of Lawyers Weekly USA, a national newspaper for lawyers.
One of the most well-known cases of recovered memory involved false accusations of abuse against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
Steven Cook filed a lawsuit in 1993, accusing Bernardin and another priest of molesting him in the 1970s while he was a student. Cook recanted four months later, saying his allegations were false memories that took shape during therapy. Bernardin, who maintained his innocence, died of cancer three years after the accusations surfaced.
Martinek said courts in about 10 states have clearly addressed whether experts may testify about the validity of recovered memories in criminal cases. Half of those states allow expert testimony, as long as there is corroborating evidence. The other five states do not allow such testimony, he said.
In Massachusetts, case law is ambiguous, he said.
Busa, 24, said he remembered in February that Shanley took him out of his religious instruction class at St. John Parish in Newton, pulled down his pants and fondled him, and later raped him.
“In the beginning, I questioned myself a lot,” Busa said in a recent interview. “I thought, `Was I making this up?’ The way my body was reacting, I knew it had happened. I had no control over my body. Christ, I’m anxious all the time.”
Busa has said he suffers severe anxiety attacks, nausea, sleep disturbances and other symptoms. He quit his job as an Air Force security officer in Colorado and is now receiving psychiatric treatment.
Shanley — who has become one of the most notorious figures in the Boston sex scandal because he openly advocated sex between men and boys — pleaded innocent Monday and was ordered held on $750,000 cash bail.
Therapists who treat victims of sexual abuse say that despite instances of “false memory syndrome,” most cases of recovered memories are legitimate.
“Certainly, there can be induced memory and there can be false accusations, but against the reality that there is repression — that is just absolutely a fact — the numbers are small when it comes to false memories,” said Richard Sipe, a retired psychotherapist and former priest from La Jolla, Calif., who has worked for plaintiffs in lawsuits against the church.
Sipe said that typically, other evidence is found to corroborate the abuse. People who knew the victim will recall sudden changes in behavior, mood and sleeping habits around the time of the abuse.
“Parents will say, `Yes, something happened to our son when he was in sixth grade, but we didn’t know what it was,'” Sipe said.
In a scandal a decade ago in Massachusetts’ Fall River diocese, Frank Fitzpatrick remembered, without therapy, being molested by priest James Porter when he was a boy. He was able to confirm the memories by reconstructing Porter’s trail. Porter, who was eventually convicted of abusing 28 children and sent to prison, even confirmed Fitzpatrick’s recollection of being served a rum-laced mincemeat pie.
District Attorney Martha Coakley, the prosecutor in the case against Shanley, would not discuss Busa’s claims of recovered memory. But she said prosecutors have “credible evidence that will be corroborated.”
“To the extent that these are old allegations and they involve memories from a long period of time ago, that’s always an issue with adult victims of child sexual abuse,” Coakley said, “but we will deal with any of those issues.”