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Judge expected to rule today in suit by women who remembered sexual abuse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Baltimore circuit judge said he expected to rule today in a landmark Maryland case involving a lawsuit by two women who contend their claims of recalling sexual abuse merit an exception to the statute of limitations on most civil litigation.

Judge Hilary D. Caplan said he will deliver his opinion after today's final arguments in the weeklong hearing, during which the plaintiffs testified they were raped and abused by a Catholic priest more than 20 years ago.

Judge Caplan's ruling today will deal only with whether the exception to the statute of limitations will be allowed.

In 1981, the Maryland Court of Appeals created the exception rule for medical malpractice cases where the effects of inadequate care may not become apparent until the three-year statutory limit has passed. The suit is the first attempt in Maryland to apply the exception to a sexual abuse case in which recovered memory is claimed.

Beverly A. Wallace, one of the attorneys representing the women, said that in the past 10 years, 21 of 24 states allowed exceptions to a civil statute of limitations in cases similar to the Maryland abuse suit.

At least 15 other states have enacted legislation allowing for exceptions in sexual abuse cases, Ms. Wallace said.

Lawyers for each side have said they would appeal a decision against them.

The plaintiffs claim they were abused by the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, 56, while they were students at Archbishop Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore. They said they began to recover detailed memories of the abuse in the past three years.

The priest's co-defendants in the $40 million suit are the Archdiocese of Baltimore; the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who operate Keough; and Dr. Christian Richter, a retired gynecologist who is accused of collaborating with the priest in abusing one of the women.

Father Maskell and Dr. Richter have denied the charges of sexual abuse in separate interviews with The Sun.

Dr. Paul C. McHugh, director of the psychiatric department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, testified yesterday on behalf of the defendants and generally described recovered memories of sexual abuse as "psychological misadventures."

He said the recovered memories of the plaintiffs -- identified in court papers as Jane Doe and Jane Roe -- "can't be scientifically validated and are not generally accepted by the medical community."

Dr. McHugh acknowledged, however, that the national debate over the subject is "contentious, so much so one could expect blood to be shed" over disagreeing professionals.

In a light moment during an otherwise serious airing of academic and legal matters, Judge Caplan said, "It sounds like Charles Street vs. Wolfe Street" -- a reference to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, where top staff members lean toward favoring the recovered memory theory; and Johns Hopkins, where recalled memory has little support.

Dr. McHugh, who also teaches and participates in psychiatric research, testified that the validity of post-traumatic stress disorder "is very much under challenge" in the medical profession. Lawyers for the women contend they are suffering from the amnesiac aspect of PTSD caused by the abuse.

He said PTSD was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1980s after large numbers of Vietnam combat veterans displayed symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and inability to feel comfortable in crowds.

"We knew problems caused by trauma went back to the Civil War," Dr. McHugh said. "In later wars, it was shell shock or battle fatigue. But it is unlikely that there is an inability to recall important aspects of trauma" over a long period.

He said Ms. Doe's lost memory of 20 years and the recovery of those memories over the past three years "can't be scientifically validated, this is not generally accepted by the medical community."

Under cross-examination by Phillip G. Dantes, another lawyer for the women, Dr. McHugh said there is no consensus by health care professionals that diagnoses are driven by a rigid set of guidelines. The diagnoses are constantly in a state of evolution, he said.

"In a given case," Dr. McHugh said, "a diagnosis might be correctly or incorrectly applied."

Conclusions drawn from professional guidelines, he said, "are not governed by rigid rules which would compel a particular diagnosis."

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