Woman Relies on Repressed Memory in Alleging Priest Abuse
Cynthia Yerrick Takes on a Diocese in Massachusetts over Incidents She Didn't Remember for 25 Years
By Jason Wolfe
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
October 26, 1997
Gripping a black marker, Cynthia Yerrick stared at the blank sheet of paper on the table in front of her.
Asked by her therapist to draw a picture of what made her so angry, the troubled young mother of two felt a sudden rush of emotion. She sketched the Catholic church she attended as a 4-year-old in a small Massachusetts town.
Soon, Yerrick began to recall horrifying memories of abuse she said were locked away in her mind for 25 years. Memories of molestations and rapes and threats by a priest in the church.
The revelation four years ago turned Yerrick's life inside out, taking her to the brink of suicide, threatening her marriage, forcing her to confront dark, private fears.
Her emotional journey also drew her into the web of an often unyielding legal system. A Massachusetts judge 10 days ago awarded her $ 528,000 she is unlikely to collect. A showdown with Yerrick's own Catholic church looms.
She finds herself in the middle of a debate among psychotherapists and legal experts over whether repressed memory - and repressed-memory civil suits - are nonsense.
Supporters of "recovered memory" cases believe the minds of young children often cannot handle the trauma of sexual abuse. As a defense mechanism, the memories are stored away in the subconscious mind until the conscious mind is ready to deal with them.
Some experts disagree, saying there is no way someone like Yerrick could have buried all memory of the abuse she claims she suffered for so many years. They say therapists often coax people to unintentionally confuse or invent memories of childhood abuse, as a way to explain difficulties in their adult lives.
But Yerrick and her husband, Mark, remain convinced she has unlocked the truth.
"I can tell if it's a nightmare and I can tell if it's true," she said. "I know in my gut what happened to me."
Earlier this month, she told her story to Justice Daniel F. Toomey in a Worcester, Mass., courtroom. The judge then awarded $ 528,000 in damages against the Rev. Robert E. Kelley. The priest - convicted and jailed for molesting another girl years later - did not contest Yerrick's civil lawsuit, so the judge was required to assume the allegations were true.
The next step is more formidable: Taking on the Worcester Diocese of the Catholic church. Yerrick says the church is negligent because officials knew or should have known about Kelley's sexual misconduct.
The case could hinge on her credibility.
"Cynthia deserves a lot of credit for taking this all the way," said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based support group SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The vast majority in her position never even think about suing."
Yerrick's story begins in Southbridge, Mass., where she was the youngest of four children in a middle-class, strong Catholic family.
Her father worked in a manufacturing plant in Southbridge, a small town south of Worcester near historic Sturbridge. Her mother stayed home with the children.
At the center of the family's life was Notre Dame Catholic Church. Her two brothers were altar boys. Her father coached a youth basketball team there. Her parents often hosted priests for holiday dinners.
"We never missed a Mass," Yerrick said. "It was unheard of."
In 1968, when she was four, a young parish priest named Robert Kelley arrived. He ran the scouting program for boys and girls in the parish, she said. She knew him as Father Kelley.
Everybody, including her parents, seemed to like Kelley. He even sometimes stopped by her home to chat with her parents and was invited to her grandparents' camp, she said.
By the end of 1969, her family had moved away. They eventually settled in western Massachusetts.
Yerrick did not see Kelley again for 26 years - after he had traded in his clerical collar for prison garb.
Yerrick excelled in high school and fostered a reputation as someone who had her act together. She was the one friends turned to for advice.
She met her future husband as a freshman. They dated throughout high school. The only other boy she dated pressured her for sex.
At the time, she said, few people knew of her inner struggle - to feel good about herself, to live up to expectations she had set for herself.
When the time came to follow the rest of her brothers and sisters to college, she balked. Instead, she told her disappointed parents, she wanted to get married and start a family with Mark.
They married in 1983 when she was 19. Three years later, his job brought them to Augusta. Their first child, a son, was born in 1987. They had a daughter in 1989.
Yerrick carried with her few memories of her own early childhood, except for what could be reconstructed through snapshots, and the time a dog attacked her when she was two. She needed more than 20 stitches and still carries faint scars on her face.
As a young mother, Yerrick said her feelings of low self-esteem grew. She became moody and prone to fits of anger over small things. She recalled times she would throw up her hands, storm out the door and drive around for two hours, all because the children left a few toys on the floor.
"Nothing seemed to please me," she said. "I was angry and unhappy and bitter. But I didn't know why."
The couple entered marriage counseling. Her husband eventually bowed out, but she continued to see a therapist. They spent months trying to get at the root of her problems, she said.
One day in December 1993, the therapist handed her a marker and paper. Then, memories of what she claims Kelley did to her started coming back, she said.
She remembered the first alleged episode of abuse in his upstairs office while other children were below in the church hall. She claims Kelley stood her on top of his desk and molested her.
Her memories were so vivid she could pinpoint what was hanging from the wall in a room she hadn't seen in 25 years, she said.
Other memories flood in
More memories flooded back - sexual episodes, maybe 12 in all, in other parts of the parish and outdoors at a camp. She claims Kelley once angrily recited, over and over, "lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil," while raping her on his desktop.
In court documents, Kelley, who could not be reached for comment, has denied abusing Yerrick.
With the memories bubbling to the surface, Yerrick and her husband, who salvaged their marriage, decided to find out about Kelley. They learned that three years earlier, in 1990, he had pleaded guilty to molesting a 10-year-old girl and had been sentenced to five to seven years in state prison.
Yerrick said her life became even more miserable as the episodes of abuse continued to arise in her mind. She remembered the threats Kelley made to keep her quiet. He said he would throw her in an open grave and bury her alive if she told anyone, she alleged.
She didn't breathe a word to anyone.
"I was scared to death of him," she recalled. "I thought he was God. I really did. As a child, he was the closest thing to God I knew. I didn't dare go against him."
Yerrick's parents were shocked when she told them, she said. They immediately felt guilt and shame, she said. Her father did not know the full story until he attended the court hearing earlier this month. He cried.
In early 1994, Yerrick said, she ended up in a hospital, depressed and suicidal. She said the memories were haunting her. Once, she and her daughter were at a campaign event in Augusta for Sumner H. Lipman, a lawyer who was running in the gubernatorial primary. Lipman offered her daughter a lollipop, prompting Yerrick to grab her daughter's arm in a panic and leave.
The mention of a lollipop triggered a memory for Yerrick of something she alleges Kelley said to her during an episode of sexual abuse.
Yerrick sued Kelley and the church in 1995. She hired Lipman to represent her.
The suit alleges church officials knew or should have known about Kelley's abuse of her. Church officials in Massachusetts are not commenting on Yerrick's lawsuit.
Kelley "messed with the wrong person," Mark Yerrick said, sneaking a proud glance at his wife during an interview in Lipman's office.
Lipman said the details Yerrick has provided about the church and the allegations of abuse make her story believable, and one worth fighting for. "The truth is in the details," he said.
But if the case against the church reaches a civil jury, jurors could hear from defense experts who will say Yerrick's memories are more likely false memories than recovered ones.
Some memories planted
Treatment for mental illness linked to "repressed memories" soared during the 1980s and early 1990s as hundreds of patients reported that psychotherapy had brought forth memories of childhood abuse.
Since then, many patients have alleged that they are victims of "false memory syndrome" - memories of events that didn't happen but were implanted or suggested by overzealous therapists.
Yerrick insists her therapist, whom she continues to see, never suggested that she had been abused. And she knew nothing of Kelley's legal troubles when the memories came back to her.
"Of all the wildest things I could come up with and put myself though, why would I do this?" she asked.
Federal and state courts across the country continue to wrestle with the issue of repressed memory.
In Maine, courts for the most part do not make statute of limitations exceptions for repressed memory cases such as Yerrick's. Generally, the six-year clock starts to tick at the time of the incident, or once a juvenile reaches the age of 18. That makes it difficult to bring those cases here.
Massachusetts is among the states, however, that says the statute of limitations on tort claims does not kick in until a repressed memory is recovered, Lipman said.
Litigating the lawsuit has been grueling for Yerrick. The couple has made frequent trips to Worcester. And in the spring, lawyers for the church took testimony from her for 17 hours over two days.
Yerrick's attorneys also questioned Kelley in prison last year, shortly before his release. Yerrick sat in another room at the prison. Kelley denied the allegations.
Win or lose, Yerrick said, she is satisfied the truth has come out. She said her battle has never been about money, but is about righting a wrong.
Yerrick said she intends to devote her time to speaking out and advocating for others like her whose lives were ruined by childhood abuse.
Also, she intends to work to change the laws to make it easier for victims to seek justice from the courts. She also wants to find a place for organized religion in her family's life again. And she has a goal of attending college someday.
"I just want the truth to be known," she said. "I just want my life back."
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