Shanley defense to call just one witness

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff  |  February 3, 2005

CAMBRIDGE -- When the child rape trial of defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley resumes today, the defense will call only one witness: a California professor who has built a long and prominent career out of debunking repressed memories.

Elizabeth Loftus has drawn both accolades and death threats, as well as a steady stream of legal consulting work, for her contention that false memories can be planted in susceptible minds.

She represents the debate at the core of the Shanley case: whether his accuser's 20-year-old memories are genuine or were suggested to him by personal-injury lawyers and the experts they hired.

Loftus's believers are drawn to her vivid descriptions and striking experiments; at the University of California-Irvine, where she teaches social ecology, she once persuaded some lab subjects, falsely, that they remembered hugging Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

"Elizabeth Loftus has done a lot of research which helps us in understanding that not all of the repressed memory cases are legitimate," said Michael Avery, an evidence professor at Suffolk Law School.

But advocates of child abuse victims have long criticized Loftus's methods and her willingness to help certain defendants. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, calls her "a hired gun for the defenders of child molesters."

And some mental-health specialists question whether her research, often done within the confines of a lab, bears weight in a highly charged case of child trauma.

"She's not a clinical psychologist," said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Newton psychiatrist who has treated abuse victims of former priest James R. Porter. "She's never studied strong emotions. She's never studied the effect of emotion on memory."

The alleged victim in this case, now 27, says Shanley repeatedly raped and fondled him at St. Jean's Church in Newton in the early 1980s, abusing him in the boys' room, rectory, pews, and confessional.

He says he forgot the abuse for years and remembered it only in 2002, when he heard of news reports about Shanley.

But defense attorney Frank Mondano has pointed out that Shanley's accuser was in touch with a personal injury lawyer, who was preparing a class-action suit against the Archdiocese of Boston, shortly after allegedly recovering his memories.

The alleged victim was later awarded $500,000 in a civil settlement with the archdiocese.

The Globe does not identify victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse.

On Monday, the Middlesex Superior Court jury in the Shanley case heard from a witness who says recovered memories are real: Dr. James A. Chu, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont. But under cross-examination, Chu acknowledged that some in his field disagree with his view.

Loftus is among the best known of those dissenters. As a witness or consultant, she has taken part in some of the most famous cases in recent memory, including the Rodney King trial and abuse allegations at the Virginia McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in which seven people were charged with abusing children before a jury deadlocked and the case was dismissed.

After Loftus testifies today, the prosecution and defense each plan to present an hourlong closing argument, and Judge Stephen Neel will instruct the jury.