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2 defense psychologists in sex case question validity of repressed memory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two psychologists testified yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court that claims of repressed and recovered memory have no verifiable scientific basis.

The psychologists testified for defendants in a $40 million lawsuit in which two women have accused the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, a Catholic priest, of molesting them while they were students at Archbishop Keough High School. The woman say they began to recover memories of the abuse within the last three years.

The repression concept "lacks any empirical validation. There is no scientific basis for it," said Melvin Guyer, a psychology professor and lawyer from the University of Michigan. Repression cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory, he said.

Dr. Guyer and Jason Brandt, a clinical neuropsychologist from the Johns Hopkins University medical school, said repressed memory is a "theoretical concept" propounded a century ago by Sigmund Freud as a defense mechanism erected to force painful thoughts, fantasies and desires into the unconscious. "It is impossible to test empirically because you can't study something which is unconscious," Dr. Brandt said.

Judge Hilary D. Caplan is being asked to decide whether the women's claims of memory recall and their supporting scientific testimony are sufficient for an exception to the three-year statute of limitations that normally applies to civil litigation.

The Court of Appeals created the exception to deal with medical malpractice cases where the effects of the malpractice do not become apparent until the statutory limit has passed. This is the first attempt in Maryland to apply the exception to a sexual abuse case in which recovered memory is claimed.

Father Maskell, 56, was chaplain and counselor at Keough, a girls' high school in Southwest Baltimore, from 1967 to 1975. He is the 11th local Roman Catholic priest to be publicly accused of sexual misconduct since 1987.

Father Maskell's co-defendants are the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who operate Keough, and Dr. Christian Richter, a retired Ruxton gynecologist accused of collaborating with the priest in abusing one woman.

Father Maskell and Dr. Richter have denied any sexual improprieties in interviews with The Sun.

The women's scientific witnesses, Dr. Neil Blumberg, a psychiatrist, and Lawrence Donner, a psychologist, testified that they diagnosed the women as suffering from the amnesiac aspect of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by the abuse.

Although PTSD is diagnosed frequently, it is not a disease in itself, Dr. Brandt said. Rather, it is a "constellation" embracing signs and symptoms which are known as PTSD and which require attention of mental health professionals, he said. One symptom is inability to recall significant aspects of a trauma.

Recalling the distant past and reporting it accurately is the exception rather than the rule, Dr. Brandt said. Memory is a reconstruction of an event and sometimes even protagonists can be changed in recall despite certainty of the recollection.

The longer between an incident and the recall the more distortion is likely to occur, Dr. Brandt said.

"Research has shown that there is no correlation between certainty and accuracy in recalling events," he said. "There are vivid mental experiences that bear little resemblance to reality."

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