Sex-Abuse Victim Backs Veracity of Repressed Memories
By Robin Washington
March 17, 2003
As the Archdiocese of Boston prepares its defense in the Rev. Paul R. Shanley civil trial by questioning the repressed memories of plaintiffs claiming the priest raped them years ago, a man who has gained near folk-hero status among sexual abuse victims says his long-buried memories are real.
And, says Frank Fitzpatrick, who hunted down former priest James R. Porter 11 years ago and was the first to accuse the now-convicted pedophile of abuse, he has a taped confession to prove it.
"(Porter) just admitted it, openly, that he abused dozens of kids," Fitzpatrick said in the living room of his Cranston, R.I., home.
With hundreds of clergy abuse cases pending against the church, the validity of repressed memories looms as a legal hot button as both sides struggle to prove what is truly in an accuser's head.
But the case for repressed memory may be strengthened if incidents can be shown where abusers have admitted crimes long recessed in victims' minds, advocates say.
"Certainly, the fact that some perpetrators have admitted to abuse in these cases proves beyond a doubt that repressed memories can and do happen," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Though in Fitzpatrick's case, Porter did not specifically acknowledge molesting him - or any victim by name - Fitzpatrick said it was unlikely his memories could have been a lucky guess leading to the discovery of likely the most notorious pedophile priest ever.
"I'm not someone who's into voodoo or into New Age or any of that stuff. I'm a very hard-headed person," he said.
In another high-profile case, however, the Rev. James L. Gummersbach did specifically admit to the abuse recalled in a repressed memory when he gave a written apology to Henry Bachmann for molestation occurring in a St. Louis, Mo., church in 1964, Bachmann's lawyer, Rebecca Randles, said.
"In terms of repressed memory, that case was absolutely clean. There was no prior counseling," she said, discounting the notion a therapist could have "planted" the memory in her client's mind by suggestive questioning.
As further proof, she said, Bachmann recalled the priest tying him up and taking pictures - a fetish Gummersbach's psychiatric records subsequently revealed he had engaged in with other children.
Dr. Judith Herman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and author of "Trauma and Recovery," said such admissions should end the debate over the veracity of repressed memories, which she said are scientifically based.
"What happens with traumatized people, they seem to lose voluntary control over memory," she said, explaining that the memories return in the form of nightmares and flashbacks.
Yet skeptics point out that just because a person claims a memory is repressed doesn't mean it is.
"We don't know if (the victims) knew it all along," said Philip S. Holzman, a Harvard professor emeritus and director of the Psychology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital.
"A person may feel guilty that they may have enjoyed it or may have been the priest's favorite. It certainly brings with it shame and guilt."
Fitzpatrick said he isn't lying or making his memories up, however.
"There's really no way I could have concocted Father Porter. I had no reason to," he said.
"I heard the sounds. I had the pain. It was not a thinking process. It was a feeling process."
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