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Court bars 'repressed memory' suit 2 women wanted to sue priest, alleging sex abuse; Circuit decision upheld; Plaintiffs said in '92 they recalled '70s school incidents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Maryland Court of Appeals refused yesterday to allow two women who claimed "recovered memories" of longtime sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest during their high-school days to pursue a $40 million suit against him and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The high court's opinion is Maryland's first legal test of whether recovered or repressed memory in a sexual-abuse suit is sufficient to extend the usual three-year time limit for filing lawsuits.

"Repression of memories is an insufficient trigger" to justify extension of the statute of limitations for filing civil suits, the court wrote in upholding former Baltimore Circuit Judge Hilary D. Caplan's dismissal of the suit after a weeklong hearing in May 1995.

Called Jane Doe and Jane Roe in court papers, the women alleged that while they were students at Archbishop Keough High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s they were abused repeatedly by the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, the school chaplain and counselor, but only began to recover memories of the incidents in 1992.

After the charges surfaced, Maskell resigned his position at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, Elkridge, in August 1994, and Cardinal William H. Keeler suspended his priestly functions that December. The archdiocese also forbade Maskell to celebrate Mass.

Bill Blaul, archdiocesan spokesman, said that the state court's decision has no bearing on Maskell's status as a priest and that he remains under suspension. He said Maskell attempted to resume his priestly functions in Ireland, where he has been living, but that diocesan officials there checked Maskell's background in Baltimore.

Blaul said the Court of Appeals "made the proper decision for the proper reasons."

Dr. Neil H. Blumberg, a psychiatrist who testified for Roe before Caplan, declined to comment specifically on yesterday's ruling, but said "it reflects the continuing controversy about the issue" of repressed memory across the country.

On the other side, Dr. Paul C. McHugh, director of the psychiatric department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the recovered-memory controversy may have reached its peak in 1992 and was "a craze that is closing out rapidly."

McHugh, who testified for the defense before Caplan, generally described recovered memories of sexual abuse as "psychological misadventures."

In the 1980s, before so many cases developed nationally, scientists presented themselves as the experts, saying "we know," and the courts accepted that, McHugh said. But now, courts are reversing themselves as more cases show "there is no objective evidence to confirm these recovered memories, he said, "A recovered memory is not sufficient for a criminal indictment or in civil cases," he said.

Caplan and the appeals judges found insufficient objective evidence to justify permitting the case to go to trial.

The Court of Appeals decision might still not be the end of the Maskell case, however.

J. Michael Lehane, Maskell's lawyer, said he planned to telephone his client last night to notify him of the decision.

He said they had consulted canon lawyers in Washington but have been awaiting the court decision "before we decide what to do about the archdiocese." Maskell might pursue action through civil or ecclesiastical courts, but "it depends on what Joe wants to do," Lehane said.

"He has been terribly traumatized by this whole thing," the lawyer said. "The science of repressed memory is seriously flawed. You can't use junk science to make good law."

The appellate judges said they tried to find a difference between forgetting and repression of memories and, in the end, could not distinguish between them legally.

The court said the women claimed that because they "repressed" their memories, and later "recovered" them -- rather than simply forgot and remembered -- it made them "blamelessly ignorant" and excused their failure to file suit in a timely manner.

The judges said they tried to understand "what repression is" by reviewing the expert testimony and scientific journals. In the decision, written by Judge Robert L. Karwacki, the judges said that after their review, "We are unconvinced that repression exists as a phenomenon separate apart from the normal process of forgetting."

The Court of Appeals ruled that extensions of time limitations were permissible in some instances, but that that applied to medical cases in which the effects of malpractice did not become evident until after three years. The exceptions were later expanded to other forms of professional malpractice in such professions as engineering, accounting and law.

The other defendants were Dr. Christian Richter, a retired gynecologist who Roe alleged participated in the abuse of her with Maskell; the School Sisters of Notre Dame who run Archbishop Keough, now Seton-Keough, and the archdiocese.

Philip G. Dantes, lead lawyer for the women, expressed disappointment at the ruling. "This was not a finding on the merits of the case, on whether the abuse actually occurred," he said.

Had the case gone to trial, Dantes said, other women were prepared to testify about sexual abuse by Maskell at Keough. The statute of limitations prevented them from joining the suit because they said they had never lost their memories of the abuse -- as Doe and Roe claimed -- even though they had never taken action against him.

The two plaintiffs and other former Keough students interviewed by The Sun -- but not known to each other -- gave similar accounts of abuse by Maskell, and of threats of punishment or disbelief if they ever told anyone about it.

In an interview with The Sun, Maskell denied ever committing any sexual misconduct.

Doe brought her original complaint to the archdiocese in 1992. Maskell was suspended during an investigation in which church officials said they could not corroborate her allegations.

Other women began to come forward, however, when Dantes placed a blind newspaper ad asking for women who had been students at Keough and had experienced or were aware of sexual misconduct to contact his office. He said more than 40 women called or wrote.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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