Recalling Past Horrors Courts Back Repressed-Memory Claims

By Nena Baker
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
April 1, 2002

The memory washed over Sean Watson as he sat in a Scottsdale bar, high on methamphetamine, watching O.J. Simpson's acquittal in his 1995 murder trial.

A man had hurt Watson when he was a child and gotten away with it.

The man was a Roman Catholic priest.

At first, Watson, now 30, felt embarrassed and ashamed by the memory ofbeing sexually abused. But after sharing his newfound recollection with friends and family, he got angry. And he got a lawyer.

Watson sued the Diocese of Phoenix, which didn't contest that Rev. George Bredemann, a former Phoenix cleric and convicted child molester, had abusedWatson during outings in the desert years earlier.

Instead, the church set out to show that Watson had never forgotten that it happened and therefore didn't have a case.

Every state sets a legal timeframe, called a statute of limitations, within which a plaintiff must bring a civil lawsuit. Arizona's law requires that victims of childhood sexual abuse make a claim within two years of reaching18.

But the state Supreme Court has ruled that exceptions can be made if a controversial psychological condition called memory repression is present.And, as more state courts have begun accepting repressed-memory claims, the Catholic Church has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars.

For years, psychologists have hotly debated whether completely forgetting and then remembering a traumatic event is even possible. So far, there's no conclusive answer.

Plaintiffs, including dozens who say they were abused by priests, argue that they've recently recovered or accessed memories of molestation and resulting damage, which sometimes can't be fully assessed until well into a victim's adult life.

"What distinguishes repressed memory is the emotional context in which it occurs," said Richard Treon, Watson's attorney. "A kid who comes from a familythat is so Catholic, so tied to the church and so imbued with the idea that whatever a priest does is sacrosanct, this kid is put into a terrible dilemma."

Last month, the Diocese of Tucson settled 11 lawsuits totaling an estimated$15 million with plaintiffs who claimed they had repressed memories of sexualabuse by four priests in Tucson and Yuma during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Case on appeal

Watson's case is pending before the state Court of Appeals.

Treon contends Watson, the oldest of seven children from a Catholic family, pushed the molestation from his mind soon after it took place and didn't understand how it hurt him.

Watson began using alcohol in the seventh grade, shortly after his outings with Bredemann. He has abused drugs since his days at Brophy College Preparatory and has a record of drug arrests. Watson testified he has spent his adult years "couch surfing," or floating among the homes of friends andfamily for support because he can't hold a steady job.

Watson does not function at the same level socially, professionally or emotionally as his siblings.

But proving repressed memory is a high hurdle for any plaintiff.

In a 2000 ruling in Watson's case, Judge Paul A. Katz of Maricopa County Superior Court wrote that the court was convinced "unequivocally that Bredemann did, in fact, molest, or attempt to molest, Watson."

However, Watson failed to convince Katz he had repressed his memories of being abused by Bredemann, who is currently in a state prison after trying toleave the country while on probation. Watson was not involved in the 1989 criminal case against Bredemann.

Watson has turned to the Court of Appeals to reverse Katz's decision.

Delay creates burden

Defendants argue that if a plaintiff waits decades to bring a damage claim, the burden of countering allegations is too difficult. Some plaintiffs, defendants point out, might be malingering or looking for monetary gain.

"The type of conduct that's at issue ... there are no other witnesses to it," said Greg Leisse, a lawyer for the Diocese of Phoenix. "It's not like a car accident or type of event where it's pretty easy to go back and find people who remember what occurred."

Researchers who work in laboratories and clinical psychologists who treat patients in therapy hold contradictory views on repressed memory, reflected in the conclusion of an American Psychological Association panel on the subject.

In a nod to the clinicians, the panel concluded that forgotten events can be remembered. But it also gave credence to the research position that false memories can be constructed. The panel stated there is no way to tell these kinds of memories apart.

Dr. Charles Brainerd, an expert witness for the defense in the Watson casewho has participated in similar cases, said plaintiffs' evidence typically falls outside the clinical definition of repressed memory.

"You have to carefully distinguish between the scientific definition of repressed memory and the sort of thing that attorneys turn it into in a courtroom," said Brainerd, a professor in the surgery department of theUniversity of Arizona.

"What tends to get introduced (as evidence) is normal forgetting," headded.

For example, a person who has had a traumatic experience may choose not to think about the incident.

Or, that person may forget the details but never forget the gist. Neither of these circumstances constitute repressed memory, Brainerd said.

Many clinical psychologists disagree, however.

They insist that patients in psychotherapy often have no specific recollection of a past trauma until someone or something triggers a memory of it.

Cheryl Karp, a forensic psychologist in Tucson and co-author of a legal textbook on sexual abuse, said much of the repressed-memory debate revolves around jargon.

"A lab researcher might get real exact and say, 'Oh no, that was part of anatural phenomenon of amnesia from post-traumatic stress disorder,' " Karpsaid. "But a clinician will say, 'They're repressing it.' "

Despite divergent expert opinions, a number of state courts have weighed in on the issue.

A landmark 1998 Arizona Supreme Court ruling in Doe vs. Roe opened the door to repressed-memory claims in Arizona.

Two years later, in Logerquist vs. Danforth, the state high court found it reasonable to maintain skepticism about repressed-memory claims, but concluded that a jury must ultimately decide whether repressed memory is a fact in a case. Trial judges cannot simply preclude such evidence.

Separate trials

In one of the cases involving the Tucson Diocese, church lawyers argued for aseparate trial on the statute of limitations before proceeding with other parts of the plaintiff's claims.

But Judge John Nelson of Yuma County Superior Court rejected the motion.

After Nelson ruled the plaintiff was entitled to seek punitive damages, the diocese opted to settle all of its pending sexual abuse cases.

In the Watson lawsuit, attorneys for the Phoenix Diocese asked Katz for a separate trial on the statute of limitations. The judge agreed, and the parties eventually decided on a trial heard by a judge alone, without a jury.

Watson presented evidence that Bredemann, on three or four occasions, took him to a site near Wickenburg where the priest was building a camp for handicapped children. Watson was particularly eager to help because his toddler sister had recently been severely brain injured.

On one outing, Watson, then about 12 years old, spent the night alone in a shed with Bredemann.

Watson said he awoke, nude, outside his sleeping bag with Bredemann straddling him. As Watson began to access memories about the event, he told friends he had been raped by a priest.

But Katz concluded that the type of abuse Watson endured could not result in repressed memory.

"The event, while sexual, was non-violent and short-lived," Katz wrote. "While Watson clearly felt embarrassment or even humiliation, he was not the victim of a violent or repetitive trauma."

The judge wrote that he relied on expert defense testimony in concluding that Watson "willfully placed these events out of his mind because they were not important to him, or the benefits of remaining silent outweighed the turmoil that disclosure would cause in his family and church."

Treon, however, believes Katz missed key evidence in reaching his conclusion.

"Repressed memory occurs when you have an intensely personal relationshipbetween an abuser and a victim," Treon said. "It's bad enough when it's ateacher or a parent, but then you put God in the picture and it gets worse."


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