Counseling Brings up 'Memories' of Assaults
By J.W. Brown
February 7, 1994
Ramon Gomez tried to tell his family when he was 12 that he'd been raped by their parish priest, but they wanted no part of it.
He said his mother covered her ears, his father beat him and his brothers called him a fag.
To survive, he said, he buried the memory deep inside for 16 years.
Yet Gomez said the horrific memories returned during recent therapy sessions, as did the realization of other instances of sexual assault by two more priests at Tempe's St. Margaret Catholic Church.
Revived memories prompted Gomez -- and at least four other men -- to sue the former priests and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix for alleged sexual assaults going back as much as 30 years.
The cases hinge on remembrances that for some of the men have been buried beneath layers of denial for decades. The phenomenon, called suppressed memory, is finding its way into courtrooms throughout the country.
In December, James Porter, a former New Bedford, Mass., priest, was sentenced to serve at least 18 years in prison for molesting 28 children in the 1960s.
The victims were silent for three decades until one remembered what had happened to him and ran an advertisement seeking others who thought had been molested.
Victims came forward, and Porter went to prison.
But the reliability of suppressed memories has been countered by skeptics with another phenomenon called false memory syndrome.
Sheryl Harrison, a Scottsdale psychologist, is heading a task force to study false memory syndrome for the Arizona Psychological Association.
"We don't know a lot about memory per se," Harrison said. "We have a lot of theories, but no one can fully explain how memories are retrieved. We know even less how traumatic memories are stored and released."
Harrison, whose practice includes female sexual assault victims, said false memory accusations commonly arise in sexual misconduct cases.
"We can prove that people have false memories," she said, pointing to studies that found a person's reaction to trauma can alter that person's memory of the trauma.
Stuart Litvak, a Phoenix psychologist who reviewed the Gomez case, said:
"Numerous survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience some form of repression. . . . It is a mechanism which enables victims of childhood sexual abuse . . . to bury the trauma in order to emotionally survive and develop."
Sexual assault victims who go to court can expect to have their credibility attacked, which can cause further psychological trauma and damage.
"To be challenged is very traumatizing to them," Harrison said. "Sexual abuse by its nature is very secretive. The reason many victims keep it secret is out of fear . . . fear of retribution from the perpetrator . . . of not being believed . . . of being punished."
OTHERS COME FORWARD
Gomez said he filed his lawsuit because of the damage he claims was done to him by the Rev. John Maurice Giandelone, the Rev. Henry Perez and the Rev. Laurence Florez.
Attorneys representing the former priests and diocese deny the allegations against their clients and say they are not responsible for the men's psychological problems.
But Gomez, 28, said he was robbed of his childhood because of the attacks.
"I didn't have a life after that," he said.
He stopped attending Catholic school, where the nuns showed him love and attention. He ran away from home, where he no longer felt protected.
"In some ways I am still running, but I have to face it, no matter what," Gomez said. "I need to help myself to better myself. I have to deal with it and tell my side of the story, one way or another. To heal, I have to tell my story."
After seeing news reports of Gomez's lawsuit, 29-year-old Lawrence Zubia of Scottsdale came forward. Zubia said he also was molested at St. Margaret's by Florez, his uncle. He joined in Gomez's lawsuit.
"Looking back, I felt like I had a very deep secret and could not tell anybody," Zubia said. "That was a hell for me. I was not feeling very connected to my peers because there was something very dark and miserable in my life. It controlled my life. That's when I began to be very socially misfit."
After news reports about Gomez's lawsuit, he said he knew he had to make a decision about going public.
"I could not live with myself if I didn't come forward," Zubia said. He said recently telling his parents about what happened to him at the age of 11, and getting their support, was a turning point in his life.
"Why was it a secret for 17 years? Because it became darker and darker and a deeper and deeper secret," Zubia said. "As a child, it was a way of dealing with it, by burying it. As an adult, it was a way to get through each day."
ARE CASES TOO LATE?
Attorneys for the former priests want the Maricopa County Superior Court lawsuits dismissed on the grounds they were filed too late.
But Mark Zuckerman, the attorney representing Gomez and Zubia, argues that although criminal charges are no longer feasible, the statute of limitations allows a lawsuit to be filed up to two years from the date an injury is discovered, or when the cause of an injury is discovered.
He said it wasn't until counseling sessions in the past two years that incidents surfaced and provided insight into the cause of the men's problems.
In November, Rene Soza of Phoenix and his mother, Yolanda, sued, seeking unspecified damages from the diocese and Perez, whom Soza claims sexually abused him between 1977 and 1980.
Soza's lawsuit also alleges he experienced delayed discovery of the cause of his injuries.
In December, brothers George and Joseph Anderson filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court seeking unspecified damages for allegedly being sexually abused and molested by a Roman Catholic priest from another church 30 years ago -- David Clark, who served Sacred Heart Parish Center in Prescott.
The Andersons' attorney believes Clark has resigned from the priesthood.
Clark could not be reached for comment.
Giandelone has left the priesthood, married and lives in Florida. Perez also is no longer a priest and lives in California. Florez is retired and lives in the Valley.
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