Psychiatrist: Altar Boy Saw Relationship with Sexually Abusive Priest As "Positive"
By Edmund H. Mahony
The Hartford Courant
February 7, 2012
A psychiatric expert for the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford on Tuesday disputed a diagnosis that a teenage victim of sexual abuse by a priest will suffer long-term mental health problems and even asserted that the boy's relationship with the priest was generally "positive."
"Were it not for this unfortunate perversity, it possibly would have been a tremendously positive aspect of his life," Dr. J. Alexander Bodkin, a psychiatrist affiliated with Harvard University, testified Tuesday at Superior Court.
Bodkin, who runs the clinical pharmacology program at McLean Hospital outside Boston, was the principal defense witness for the archdiocese in the trial of a lawsuit by a now-adult altar boy who was repeatedly abused by Farther Ivan Ferguson from 1981 to 1983.
The altar boy, identified in legal papers as Jacob Doe, claims that the church was negligent because it appointed Ferguson as the principal of his grammar school in Derby in 1981, after Ferguson had admitted to — and submitted to treatment at a church clinic for — sexually abusing two boys in the Tariffville section of Simsbury two years earlier.
Last week, Yale-affiliated clinical psychologist David Johnson testified for Doe that the emotion Doe experienced from abuse by Ferguson was so intense that he is likely to suffer for life from depression and symptoms ofpost-traumatic stress disorder. Johnson said the mental disease associated with the abuse has left Doe with a 10 percent vocational disability.
Bodkin dismissed the disability estimate and was disdainful of the broader diagnosis, which was shared by Doe's therapist. Bodkin said he would "bet the ranch" that Doe can be successfully treated in a couple of years.
"He has gotten pretty inadequate care, quite frankly," Bodkin said.
Doe's depression, Bodkin said, is not the result of the abuse. Rather, Bodkin said, it is mostly the product, 26 years later, of stress that Doe experienced when a lawyer asked him to "go public" about the abuse by testifying against the archdiocese for another victim. Doe later retained the lawyer, Thomas McNamara of New Haven, to bring his own lawsuit.
The lingering effects of the abuse could be a factor if the jury hearing the case decides to award damages to Doe.
The central element of Bodkin's testimony was his assertion that Doe does not suffer frompost-traumatic stress disorderbecause his abuse by Ferguson did not create the terror and paralyzing fear that the leading diagnostic manual says is required to trigger PTSD.
To make his point, Bodkin testified that Doe enjoyed and even looked forward at times to his relationship with Ferguson, who was about 30 years older. Doe and another boy were given pornography and alcoholic beverages. In some cases, Bodkin speculated that the molestation was physically enjoyable, with the exception of a painful assault when Doe was about 14.
Bodkin said that Doe's association as a seventh- and eighth-grader with a priest viewed by his classmates as "cool" enhanced his social standing. Bodkin said that the relationship with the priest might also have increased his sense of self-esteem and improved his nearly perfect grade point average.
"Through no fault of his own, [Doe] was given to looking forward to the next visit and was enjoying the situation that Father Ferguson had so cunningly created," Bodkin testified.
"He was eager to keep up the relationship," Bodkin said. "This was his choice. He was eager to see Ferguson. From his perspective, this was something he was looking forward to."
"It ain't nice," he said. "I'm not approving any aspect of it. But it is not the type of thing that is prerequisite to long-term mental illness, especially 26 years later."
Bodkin characterized what Ferguson did as criminal and despicable, but said that Doe, as a young teen, viewed Ferguson as a "cool guy." The abuse was "unfortunate and regrettable," Bodkin said. But he said that terror levels such as those associated with knifepoint rape or battlefield casualties are prerequisites for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At times Tuesday, it sounded as if Bodkin's testimony was designed not only to defend the church but to repudiate what he believes is the over-reliance on diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, a disorder that gained ground about 1980 among health professionals treating mental illness in veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Johnson, Doe's psychological expert, said he became an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder after beginning his practice in 1980 at the federal Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven.
Bodkin, who directs the Clinical Pharmacology Research Program at Harvard's McLean Hospital, is a leader in a school of thought holding that mental health professionals are over-diagnosing PTSD. He suggested in his testimony Tuesday that the clinical criteria for diagnosing the disorder had been manipulated to apply it to Doe.
In 2007, Bodkin was lead author of an article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders that said the diagnosis had been misapplied to thousands of Iraq War veterans. Bodkin testified Tuesday that the article "made quite a splash."