- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

The sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has raised the specter of a new round of emotional debates on repressed memories, which some people claimed to have "recovered" when making abuse charges.
One of the members of the U.S. bishops panel to police the abuse problem is a well-known critic of therapists who claim to have evoked recovered memories, suggesting the bishops are preparing for this debate.
But Dr. Paul McHugh, former chairman of psychiatry at John Hopkins University, said he was tapped as a specialist on mental health problems related to why priests abuse minors.
"I'm there for the broader psychiatry issues, not the memory issues," Dr. McHugh said in a phone interview yesterday. "I've worked with behavioral disorders my whole life, and that's what this abuse problem is all about."
He said his main work will be the panel's mandated studies on how the sexual abuse problem arose and its prevalence in the church.
When the names of the 12-member panel of lay Catholics were announced last week, victims groups decried Dr. McHugh's appointment because he had testified in court against "repressed memory syndrome" and sat on the board of an organization that questioned the diagnosis.
"Of all the thousands of therapists and professionals the bishops could have chosen, it's disturbing that they picked only McHugh," said David Clohessy, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"I'm worried victims will throw in the towel with him on the panel," he said yesterday.
Repressed memory, also called "traumatic amnesia," was debated furiously in the late 1980s and early 1990s when therapists were helping clients recover memories ranging from abuse by parents to abuse in devil worship.
Recovered-memory therapy never has won official medical status. While less common in courtroom battles today, it still touches a nerve among mental health professionals.
"It's a great debate and there are very strong and articulate proponents on both sides," said American University psychology professor James J. Gray, who said "false memory syndrome" also is part of the debate.
"You can have very believable stories on both sides," he said.
Dr. McHugh agreed that people forget under trauma but opposed the claim of some clinicians that a one-on-one therapy recovers the lost memory.
"There has never been evidence that this is a particular syndrome that a psychiatrist can identify," Dr. McHugh said. "The 'memory wars' were over whether this was a legitimate form of therapy rather than a form of persuasion."
No priest abuse claims are known publicly to hinge on recovered memories; more common are cases involving people who now feel safe to disclose their complaints publicly.
Worry about repressed memories "is not a conversation I have heard among priests," said the Rev. Gene Hemrick of the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood. "They are most concerned about due process" after being accused.
Dr. McHugh said memory disputes may arise in church cases. "It's possible that people will come in an say they recovered a memory," he said. "That's OK. That doesn't mean the memory is wrong."
But critics say such memories must stand up to scrutiny, considering that the men who made accusations against Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Iowa Bishop Gerald F. O'Keefe in 1993 later recanted after citing repressed memory.
SNAP, whose other claims of abuse have been stymied by the bishops for years, backed the accusers in those cases.
"I think that child abuse is a terrible crime," Dr. McHugh said. "But I also think false accusations being made that someone is an abuser is a crime as well."

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