Repressed Memory Debated at Hearing
Should Expert Testimony on the Condition be Allowed at a Trial
Involving Sexual Abuse Allegations at Girls and Boys Town?
By Rick Ruggles
Omaha World-Herald [Nebraska]
August 18, 2005
Lawyers and experts argued today over the concept of repressed memory and whether it should play a role in a trial involving sexual abuse allegations at Girls and Boys Town.
Todd Rivers of Omaha contends that he was sexually abused by a family teacher, Michael Wolf, and by the Rev. James Kelly while Rivers lived at Boys Town in the 1980s.
Rivers, 36, alleges that a repressed memory prevented him from recalling the sexual abuse until three years ago. He has since sued Boys Town and Kelly. Wolf died in 1990. Kelly and Boys Town deny that any sexual abuse occurred.
The two-day hearing before Douglas County District Judge Sandra Dougherty is designed to establish whether expert testimony on repressed memory will be allowed in the yet-to-be-scheduled trial. Dougherty may take the question under advisement after hearing Friday's testimony.
The concept of repressed memory is generally defined as a condition in which a person cannot remember a traumatic event.
Attorney James Martin Davis, defending Boys Town and Kelly, contends that repressed memory is an unproven hypothesis over which psychology experts are split.
Rivers' attorney, Patrick Noaker, argued in opening statements that repressed memory is scientifically accepted and has been proved through numerous studies.
"It's a theory," Davis said of repressed memory in his opening statement. "It's not reliable, and it's not valid."
Davis said his experts would show that repressed memory is "just a fad."
"At best, it's unproven," he said. "At worst, there's no such thing."
Noaker said many studies at universities around the nation have shown that repressed memory exists and is accepted by the psychological community. The American Psychiatric Association officially took the stance that repressed memory is legitimate, he said.
"It's not a theory," he said. "It's a fact, a psychiatric condition."
A widely used psychiatric reference book, called DSM-IV, recognizes memory problems as a feature of post-traumatic conditions, he said. The reference books cites "dissociative amnesia," or repressed memory, as a legitimate diagnosis, he said.
As to controversy surrounding repressed memory, he said, a "loud minority" has sought to debunk it. Repressed memory, he said, is recognized as real and reliable by most psychology experts.
Davis' expert, Dr. Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School, said studies endorsing repressed memory tend to lack scientific validity and sometimes confuse simple forgetfulness with repressed memory. He said DSM-IV itself notes that the concept is controversial.
"It's not a hypothesis that has acquired general acceptance," Pope said.
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