Compelling witness overrode questions on memories

By Jonathan Saltzman
Boston Globe
February 8, 2005

The lawyer for defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley gambled that jurors wouldn't believe that the priest's accuser suddenly remembered sexual abuse from two decades earlier.

Defense attorney Frank Mondano was so confident in the strategy that the only witness he called was Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, who testified that false memories can be placed by psychotherapists in susceptible minds.

Even some lawyers who thought Shanley was guilty said Mondano might have succeeded in convincing the jury of seven men and five women that there were serious questions about the credibility of Shanley's accuser.

But the Middlesex County jury believed the accuser, and Mondano lost his gamble.

Patrick Kierce, a member of the jury that convicted Shanley, said he had no reason to doubt the 27-year-old accuser, who testified that Shanley repeatedly raped and fondled him at St. Jean the Evangelist Parish in Newton in the 1980s.

Kierce, who lives in Medford, said the accuser's emotional testimony struck him as ''heartfelt."

Kierce said that he would have liked to see Shanley take the stand and that the defense could have been stronger.

''If they called more witnesses, it might have helped the case, you never know," Kierce said.

Two years ago, legal specialists predicted that the case against Shanley would hinge on the premise that his accuser had repressed traumatic memories of being sexually abused by the priest when he was 6 to 12 years old and only remembered the abuse in 2002, when he heard of news reports about Shanley.

The issue of recovered memories is a controversial one, pitting believers against critics who accuse psychotherapists of planting false memories.

Carmen L. Durso, who represented five men who settled lawsuits against the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and attended Shanley's criminal trial, said a few hours before the verdict that he believed Mondano had sowed enough seeds of reasonable doubt for acquittal.

Mondano, Durso said, had mentioned that Shanley's accuser was in touch with a personal injury lawyer, who was preparing a class-action suit against the diocese, shortly after the young man claimed to have recovered his memories in early 2002. Mondano suggested that the man might have accused Shanley for financial gain.

Shanley's accuser was awarded $500,000 in a civil settlement with the archdiocese.

''I've never been so happy to be wrong in my life," Durso said after the guilty verdicts. ''This is vindication for a lot of people, not just the people who testified in this case, but for all the people who have been victimized by Paul Shanley."

Another juror, Victoria Blier, said the jury agreed with prosecutor Lynn Rooney that the accuser's willingness to testify against Shanley after having won the settlement only enhanced his credibility.

''I think one of the more convincing things that was spoken by a lot of people was that the victim had already won a civil case and had already been awarded half a million dollars and had no motivation, no reason, to pursue the criminal case other than personal conviction," said Blier, a 53-year-old window treatment designer from Lexington.

Before the trial, some legal specialists predicted that prosecutors might have a tough time because the civil case came first, giving Mondano much more material to use in challenging the accuser's account and questioning his credibility.

The case was the last remaining against Shanley, after prosecutors dropped charges involving three other alleged victims from St. Jean.

Several legal specialists and experts who have studied how the mind handles traumatic events such as sex abuse said the verdict should not be misread as blanket acceptance of recovered memories.

James M. Doyle, a Boston criminal lawyer and author who cowrote a treatise on eyewitness testimony with Loftus, said he believes there are true recovered memories, but also false ones recounted by witnesses who may believe them.

Doyle said the testimony of Shanley's accuser contained inconsistencies, and Doyle wondered whether his recollections were reliable. But the account was so wrenching and seemed so sincere, he said, that the jury accepted it.

''I think [the verdict] shows that the power of memory evidence coming from an emotional and compelling witness can trump virtually any inconsistency or unlikeliness," Doyle said.

Ross Cheit, a Brown University professor of political science and public policy who has documented numerous cases of recovered memories of sexual abuse, said the verdict illustrated that juries will assess evidence of recovered memories as they do any evidence, cautiously and skeptically.

''What I think it means is that we really need to analyze each case on its own facts, and that no world view about trauma and memory will in and of itself resolve any case," said Cheit, who himself said he recovered long-buried memories of sexual abuse that occurred as a child at a summer camp in California.

''I was pleased, because the only thing the defense was offering was a complete rejection of these claims without looking at the facts."

Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Heather Allen contributed to this report.Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at


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