Blinded By Science

Remember Paul Shanley? He was said to be the worst of the pedophile priests, sentenced in 2005 to 12-15 years. But soon, he’ll get another day in court, as Massachusetts’ top tribunal takes up questions about the evidence used to achieve his conviction. The problem with the trial of Paul Shanley, says JoAnn Wypijewski, wasn’t bad faith, it was bad science, and even worse religion reporting. “Shanley had had sex,” she writes in The Nation. “He’d had sex with hustlers and teenagers and other men. And he, a priest, had lied about it. That anyone else might be lying, or confused, or seeking attention, or wanting money, or needing an explanation for the mess of a life only muddied up a good gothic tale.”

At the heart of the story told by the prosecutors and parroted by the press was a piece of magical thinking.

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.

Did the accuser really believe that? Quite possibly. Should the psychologists who supported that claim have believed it? No, says Wypijewski. “Repressed memory” of the sort used to convict Shanley — four accusers with identical memories of repeated rapes in crowded churches with no physical damages — is no longer credible in many courts. Serious research just doesn’t bear it out.

Dr. Chu’s testimony revealed the leap of faith at the heart of repressed memory belief. “There are patients who report no amnesia,” he said, “and I don’t know whether they in fact have no amnesia or that they just haven’t yet remembered something that they forgot.” Defense counsel floundered in the face of this purported scientific expertise. Dr. Chu admitted that the concept of the brain erasing all knowledge of a traumatic event until some mysterious mechanism unlocks the deep freeze of memory “doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense.” He was relying on the stories patients told him, the symptoms from which a therapist can “construct meaning,” as Dr. Brown had put it, and the studies based on people’s self-reporting, without controls, methodological standards, error rates; in other words, without scientific validity.

Read more in The Nation. Then read more in Wypijewski’s longer report on the politics of sex panics and “The Passion of Father Paul Shanley” in a 2004 issue of Legal Affairs.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).