Specter of False Memories Can Taint Sex Cases

By Jean Latz Griffin
Chicago Tribune
November 21, 1993

Davenport, Iowa - Every weekday morning for the 16 months that Bishop Gerald O'Keefe was facing civil charges of sexually molesting two girls, about a dozen members of St. Ann's Church just north of Davenport gathered to pray that their bishop would be found innocent.

But they also prayed for the women who had sued him, and for all victims of sexual abuse everywhere, said Rev. Stephen Ebel, pastor of the parish of 615 rural and suburban families.

"Everyone was ready to grant that the women were abused, but they felt it had to be a case of mistaken identity," Ebel said. "No one who knew what a kind and gentle spirit the bishop was could believe he would do such a thing. But there was no denial that abuse by priests exists."

O'Keefe was sued in March 1992 for events that allegedly occurred more than two decades earlier. The case was dismissed a little more than a year later, after one of the two women said she could no longer be sure it was O'Keefe who had abused her.

The two women who sued O'Keefe relied upon what they said were repressed memories that they had retrieved during therapy. The abuse, they said, took place between 1961 and 1966 when they were schoolgirls in Minneapolis and O'Keefe was an auxiliary bishop there.

Likewise, the 34-year-old man who earlier this month accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexually abusing him at least 16 years ago said he repressed the memory for years before gradually recovering it under therapy. Steven Cook was a pre-seminary student and Bernardin was the archbishop in Cincinnati when Cook alleges the abuse took place.

O'Keefe vigorously denied the charges and stated when the suit was dropped that he would have liked to have had the opportunity to disprove the charges in court.

Bernardin has explicitly denied the charges, saying he has not abused "anyone at anytime."

Most charges of sexual abuse of children by clergy are brought by families of young victims soon after the alleged abuse occurs.

But in the past few years, a growing number of charges are being brought by people who say they were abused 25 or 30 years earlier, only they did not recall the incidents until undergoing "repressed memory retrieval therapy."

Controversy over the possibility of memory repression and retrieval in connection with childhood sexual abuse has pitted therapists against one another and has spawned at least three advocacy and support groups for victims-either of abuse or of false memories.

In the O'Keefe case, an unrelated suit by three women who shared the same psychiatrist as the two women who sued O'Keefe may shed some light on how some types of memory retrieval can go awry and create false and harmful memories.

Through a quirk in Minnesota law, suits like the one filed against O'Keefe can go back and forth between attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant without being filed in court, sometimes all the way to an out-of-court settlement.

So when Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented 250 alleged victims of clergy abuse since 1985, filed suit for the two women against O'Keefe, he simply mailed the suit to the bishop, who found it in his morning mail, said Minneapolis attorney Patrick Schiltz, who represented the bishop.

But Schiltz, after interviewing O'Keefe, advised him to make the suit public himself and be forthright in denying the specific charges.

"I was convinced O'Keefe was innocent," said Schiltz, who has represented churches from 10 denominations in more than 350 sexual misconduct suits in 40 states. "There was plenty of testimony that he had never even been seen in the company of children. That was unusual. In most of the cases I see, there is some evidence of misconduct by the priest or minister."

Schiltz said that before the recent influx of cases involving repressed memories, about 98 to 99 percent of the charges brought against clergy were valid. Now, he says, that number has dropped to about 95 percent.

"We have people who are coming in here saying they repressed memories of hugs, or long relationships with priests that involved going to movies and on picnics," Schiltz said. "You don't repress things like that. This is getting out of hand."

Anderson scoffs at that kind of talk. To him, if a person remembers something happpening, it happened.

"I give very little credence to false memories," Anderson said. "I would never say it never happens, but I would say that the frequency is so small as to be tantamount to being non-existent."

Although most mental health experts agreed that extremely painful memories can be repressed and later retrieved, they also agree that false memories can be created-people can be convinced that something happened to them when, in fact, it did not.

In June and October, three women who were not part of the case against O'Keefe sued Dr. Diane Humenansky, a St. Paul psychiatrist. Schiltz says Humenansky treated the two unnamed women who sued O'Keefe.

The three women who sued Humenansky charge medical malpractice, psychiatric negligence, infliction of emotional distress and fraud. They say that over a period of about two years, beginning in 1989, Humenansky misdiagnosed them with multiple personalities and gave them false memories of sexual child abuse, satanic rituals and cannibalism, according to suits filed in Ramsey County District Court.

Elizabeth Carlson, 39, said she went to Humenansky for depression and marital problems. Carlson says that she was sexually abused as a child, and has always had clear memories of the abuse substantiated by memories of others in her family who also were abused.

But as she began her sessions with Humenansky, Carlson said in an interview last week, the psychiatrist insisted that she must have been abused by more than just one person, and led her through guided imagery to imagine that abuse to retrieve memories of it.

Carlson said that Humenansky also had her read books and watch videos about abuse, and often railed against men and the evils of patriarchal societies and religions.

Eventually, according to Carlson: "My nightmares and imagination became reality. I started to believe that there was an intergenerational satanic cult in my family. I believed that I had been sexually abused as part of satanic rituals. I even believed I was forced to take part in the rituals, that I had eaten after-births."

Carlson said she was horrified that she might have done such things.

"I never went anywhere except to the therapy sessions. I was suicidal. I asked for a lobotomy more than once. My family (husband and two children) had to carry food up to my bed."

Carlson said that when she told Humenansky of these new memories, the psychiatrist said that they made "perfect sense" to her. Carlson said she couldn't tell the difference between true and false memories at that time because she was heavily drugged.

As part of her therapy, Carlson was in a group with several other women. At one point, upset with two disruptive newcomers, several women left Humenansky and formed their own group. Carlson said as they began to cut back on their medication, they all started feeling better.

"My mind became clearer," she said. "I woke up one day and felt well enough to get dressed. I made my family dinner for the first time in a year. We cried and laughed and hugged each other."

As she compared her new memories to those she had always had, Carlson said, she began to sense "a distinct difference" and realized the new memories were false.

Carlson's attorney, Christopher Barden of Minneapolis, said he believes Humenansky was negligant in not obtaining informed consent from his clients for what he called an "experimental and potentially hazardous treatment."

Humenansky referred inquiries to her attorneys. Attempts to reach her primary attorney, Craig Anderson, were unsuccessful. His partner, Barbara Burke, said that Humenansky "denies all the charges."

Craig Anderson has been quoted in the local Minneapolis press as saying that the charges against Humenansky are "outlandishly false" and that "any allegation of negligence or malpractice or impropriety is not founded and is not correct."

Whether the women who sued O'Keefe received the same kind of therapy is not known. They dropped their suit a few weeks before Schiltz was to have interviewed them. Jeffrey Anderson said he could not comment on his former clients' medical treatment due to confidentiality.

After the case against him was dropped, O'Keefe called it a "mixed blessing" in a letter to the people in his diocese, saying he would rather "prove in court that the allegations are false."

Schiltz said that proof would have included the fact that O'Keefe was in Rome attending the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s during the time he is said to have abused the girls and that a balcony where they said some of the abuse took place was not built until years later.

But Jeffrey Anderson says O'Keefe was not out of the country during the entire time in question, and that the women spoke of a discussion years later on the balcony, not abuse on the balcony.

"The bishop was never exonerated," Jeffrey Anderson said. "We dropped the suit for lack of proof."

And that is one of the tragedies of such accusations-the memory of them never completely goes away.

[Photo caption: Elizabeth Carlson is suing a psychiatrist who she says gave her false
memories of her past. Photo for the Tribune by Valica Boudry/AP.]


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