Above, defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley listened to testimony yesterday at Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge. At left, Dr. James A. Chu, a specialist in the field of dissociative amnesia, testified yesterday as a prosecution witness.

Prosecutors rest case vs. Shanley

1 of 3 child rape charges dropped

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff  |  February 1, 2005

CAMBRIDGE -- The former Sunday School classmates agree on this much: Their class was rowdy, the teachers were overwhelmed, and the three most raucous boys sometimes left the classroom, including one who accuses defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley of raping him during those hours.

But when they testified at Shanley's child rape trial in Middlesex Superior Court yesterday, the four classmates offered strikingly different memories of St. Jean Church in the early 1980s.

They disagreed about where the classes were held in the Newton church and whether Shanley himself pulled the boys out of class. Several couldn't name their teachers and could only recall a few classmates. One said she hadn't seen Shanley's alleged victim since confirmation, but the man testified last week that he was never confirmed.

In a case that hinges on recollections from two decades ago, jurors yesterday got a taste of the vagaries of memory, as Shanley's defense lawyer grilled the former students on the details of St. Jean's. The jury also heard testimony about the controversial subject of repressed memories and heard a psychiatrist acknowledge that some in his field believe they are phony.

Prosecutors rested their case yesterday, the fifth day of testimony in Shanley's long-anticipated trial. Superior Court Judge Stephen Neel eliminated one of the three child rape charges against Shanley, 74, after the defense and prosecution agreed there had been no evidence presented on it. Shanley now faces two charges of raping a child and two charges of indecent assault and battery on a child, and he could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty.

Those charges stem from the memories of a 27-year-old man, a firefighter who says Shanley repeatedly raped and fondled him in church pews, the boys' room, the rectory, and the confessional from ages 6 to 11.

The man described the alleged abuse in graphic detail on the witness stand last week and said he repressed his memories for nearly two decades, recalling them again in 2002 after hearing about charges from another Sunday School classmate.

The Globe does not name victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Yesterday, the prosecution called Dr. James A. Chu, chief of hospital clinical services at McLean Hospital in Belmont and a specialist in the field of dissociative amnesia, a less charged term, he said, for what are commonly known as repressed memories.

Chu described typical symptoms that were, in many ways, consistent with what Shanley's alleged victim described having. Memories can be triggered by something read, observed, or experienced, Chu said, and can manifest themselves in a flood of returning images and physical symptoms, such as anxiety and sleeplessness, all of which the alleged victim said he experienced three years ago. "It's really more of a reliving than an actual memory," Chu said. "It's almost as if it's happening again."

The memories are more likely to surface in someone who has been abused repeatedly than in someone who was traumatized once, Chu said. While peripheral details can be fuzzy, he said, "in general, the central themes of memories are relatively well preserved."

But under cross-examination from Shanley's lawyer, Frank Mondano, Chu acknowledged that dissociative amnesia is a highly controversial subject among psychiatrists; some believe it has been underdiagnosed for years, but others think it is overreported.

And he described, at Mondano's request, what is known as malingering: assuming false psychological symptoms for some other purpose, such as for financial gain or to avoid military service or prosecution.

Mondano laid out a hypothetical scenario: a patient who came to Chu with repressed memories, who also said he was referred "by a personal injury lawyer in anticipation of filing a personal injury suit."

Would that "cause any red flag to go off in your mind?" Mondano asked. "Would that fact, in and of itself, have any impact on you as a clinician?"

"I think so," Chu replied.

Shanley's accuser was awarded a $500,000 settlement in a civil suit against the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Mondano has suggested that the alleged victim could have made the abuse allegations to win money in the suit; prosecutors argue that he would not have gone through the pain of testifying if he were not telling the truth.

Mondano plans to call a single witness: Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who will challenge the concept of repressed memory. She will testify either tomorrow by videoconference from California, or on Thursday in the Cambridge courtroom. There will be no proceedings in the case today.