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Prosecutors finish sexual abuse case against former priest

Ex-classmates say accuser want sent to Shanley for discipline

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

Paul Shanley
Court TV:  Case coverageexternal link

EAST CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Court TV) -- Prosecutors rested their child rape case against defrocked priest Paul Shanley by calling his accuser's Sunday-school classmates, who offered the only testimony to corroborate the accuser's claims of abuse 15 years ago.

Four of his peers from catechism class at St. John's Parish in Newton, where Shanley was assigned in the 1980s, testified that the accuser was part of a "rowdy" group of boys often sent from class to visit Shanley for disciplinary action.

"The best word I can use is very chaotic. It was hard to pay attention," Kerry Lessard testified of the classroom environment.

"The three boys seemed to get in a lot of trouble," Christine Michelon said.

The three boys were all included in the indictment against Shanley in June 2002. In an effort to "streamline" the case, prosecutors dropped the other accusers from the indictment, letting stand just the charges pertaining to one accuser.

When asked what would happen to the boys when they got in trouble, the four witnesses testifying Monday all said they would get sent out of class to visit Father Shanley.

One of the class's teachers previously testified that she never sent anyone to visit Shanley, nor did the former priest ever take anyone from the class, as his accuser testified.

Only one of the former classmates testified that Shanley personally removed his accuser from class.

The alleged victim claims his repressed memories bubbled to the surface when one of his former classmates went public with his allegations against Shanley in 2002.

All three men sued the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, and received settlements up to $500,000. The defense claims the accuser's allegations were motivated by the prospect of a large payout.

Shanley faces life in prison if convicted of two counts of child rape and two counts of indecent assault and battery. One count of child rape was dropped Monday without objection from prosecutors.

Court observers had anticipated the charge dismissal, after the now 27-year-old firefighter from Newton, Massachusetts, could not recall the incident on the stand.

Middlesex County Deputy First Assistant District Attorney Lynn Rooney questioned the accuser about the alleged incident when he testified last week, even pointing him to his own journal entry. But, upon reviewing the entry, he testified, "I remember writing that, but I don't specifically recall it happening."

The stocky, dark-haired accuser offered testimony over three days, punctuated by an impassioned request not to be forced to return on the final day.

Memories in question

Though some members of the 15-person panel were dozing off at the start of the fifth day of testimony, they perked up once Dr. James A. Chu took the stand as an expert witness on the controversial practice of diagnosing repressed memories, or disassociate amnesia.

While his testimony seemed to lend credence to the controversial practice, Chu conceded that without corroborative evidence he would consider any claim of a recovered memory with skepticism.

The chief clinician at McLean Hospital in Boston and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Chu testified that, in a study he did for the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1999, 17 out if 19 subjects who claimed to have recovered memories of sexual abuse from childhood were able to corroborate their memories with evidence such as medical records or knowledge from a third party.

Although the accuser testified that, among other incidents, Shanley would play strip poker until they were both naked, he said he could not remember how many times the incidents occurred. He also conceded he did not remember any one particular incident very clearly.

Chu testified that victims of reoccurring abuse were more prone to repress their memories than one-time victims. "If you're seriously traumatized just one time, you tend to remember those things better, heightened awareness sticks in mind," he testified.

"Repeated traumatization tends to be forgotten. With chronic trauma, there may be a mechanism in the way the brain works that leads to people having pervasive amnesia," he said.

"There's usually a trigger, something they read, see or feel that reminds them of the trauma," Chu said. "Memories from women who've been sexually abused as children sometimes start to emerge after childbirth," Chu testified.

On cross-examination, the witness admitted the practice of purging dissociated memories was a "polarizing" topic in the medical community.

He conceded the skepticism derives from the sometimes overwhelming power of suggestion. He also testified that clinicians were advised to look carefully at abuse claims that were part of lawsuits or excuses to get out of work.

"So if a person was referred to you by a personal injury laywer for the purposes of pursuing a personal injury suit, would that cause any red flag for you?"

"I think so," Chu said.

The defense is expected to call its own expert on recovered memories when the trial resumes later in the week.

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