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  Why a Court Accepted 'Recovered Memory
While Its Legal Validity Is Debated in One Sexual-Abuse Case, a Judge Rules That It Is Reliable and Admissible in a Trial Involving a Catholic Priest

By Tom Mooney
Providence Journal-Bulletin (Rhode Island)
April 13, 1998

As several leading skeptics of "recovered memory" recently flew in to defend John Quattrocchi III against child-molestation charges, his lawyer declared the case a dinosaur - a vanishing breed being driven out of courtrooms around the country because of unreliable evidence.

"This is the only case that I'm aware of where someone is being prosecuted on recovered memory," lawyer Christopher Barden said. "This could be the last one."

Barden was apparently unaware of State of Rhode Island vs. the Rev. Alfred R. Desrosiers.

Father Desrosiers, a Catholic priest, is charged with raping a parishioner 26 years ago, when she was 15.

Cynthia M. Lewis, now 41, of Lincoln, has claimed that her memories of a two-year relationship with Father Desrosiers lay repressed for more than two decades until a day in 1993.

On that day, Lewis's mother, dying of cancer in a Boston hospital, expressed one wish: to see the Rev. Desrosiers, a long-time family friend. The request, Lewis has said, unearthed her memories of sexual assault by Desrosiers.

In January, after a hearing similar to the one continuing in the Quattrocchi case, Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Needham ruled that Lewis's memories were reliable and would be admissible in Desrosiers's trial.

Needham said last week in an interview that he based his decision on two factors:

First, that Lewis recalled the alleged assaults before seeking therapy, therefore "false memories" of the incidents could not have been planted by a therapist - a claim Quattrocchi's defense witnesses have made in the case of his young accuser.

And secondly, Needham said, there was corroborative evidence that what Lewis alleged may have happened.

Needham referred to conversations Father Desrosiers had with Louis E. Gelineau, then Bishop of Providence, and the Rev. Normand Godin after Lewis reported her recalled memories to the diocese.

Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin later gave police and prosecutors statements about their conversations with Father Desrosiers. Prosecutors have argued in court that those statements indicated Father Desrosiers had acknowledged a sexual relationship with Lewis.

"For a period of time, she (Lewis) repressed it," Needham said. "It wasn't a case of her recollections being refreshed" through therapy. "And there was . . . evidence that could show Father Desrosiers did have relations with her."

Father Desrosiers's trial, however, has been put on hold while prosecutors appeal to the state Supreme Court Needham's decision to prohibit Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin from testifying about their conversations with Father Desrosiers. Needham ruled that those conversations were protected under canon law. And unless the two men testify, the statements they gave police and prosecutors cannot be used.

There is no similar corroborating evidence in Quattrocchi's case.

In 1994, a jury convicted the former Lincoln town solicitor of sexually molesting a girl a decade earlier.

His accuser, now in her early 20s, testified that she first experienced flashbacks in 1992 of long-forgotten assaults by Quattrocchi, who dated her mother between 1978, when she was 4, and 1983.

One assault occurred on a dinghy in Narragansett Bay off Middletown in 1981 or 1982, she testified. The other allegedly took place at Quatrocchi's house in Lincoln in 1983.

Quattrocchi's was the first case tried in Rhode Island based on an accuser's recovered memories. (The prosecution had the help at trial of two other young women who accused Quattrocchi of having made lewd and improper advances when they were children.)

But in 1996, the state Supreme Court, questioning the validity of recovered memories, threw out Quatrocchi's conviction and his 40-year sentence.

The high court ordered him retried, saying the trial judge failed to hold a preliminary hearing to determine if his accuser's "flashbacks" of abuse, revealed during therapy, were reliable.

That hearing began last month. For three weeks some of the nation's leading skeptics of recovered memory took the stand before Superior Court Judge Edward C. Clifton. They included Paul R. McHugh, director of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Richard J. Ofshe, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The hearing recessed earlier last week until next month, when Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist at the University of Washington and president of the American Psychological Society, will be called as a defense witness.

Father Desrosiers's lawyer, James T. McCormick, said he didn't call in any nationally-known experts during the hearing before Needham to determine the credibility of Lewis's memories.

But there were a pair of opposing psychiatrists and reams of the latest scientific studies all claiming to either support or disprove the existence and reliability of repressed memories.

"There is no consensus about whether repressed memories are reliable," he said. "And in my opinion as a defense attorney, it's too big of a risk to allow someone with a recovered memory to base a criminal charge on it."

 
 

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