“Ann M. McCarron never forgot being sexually abused by her pediatrician from the time she was 7 until she was 12 years old, but she never told anyone about it until she was in her 30s, after years of therapy.
Believing that she would go to jail if she spoke out, she tucked it in the back of her mind and followed a path of self-destructive behavior, including drinking vodka until she passed out.
“I was scared silent and I was numb,” said Ms. McCarron, who is now 49 and the associate athletic director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
David K. O’Regan, 62, of Spencer, also blocked out for 40 years detailed memories of being abused at age 11 by a priest, until the bombardment of media reports surrounding the Boston clergy scandal forced him to face his past. He opened up for the first time, at age 52, to his wife.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I didn’t believe it,” said Mr. O’Regan, who is a victim’s advocate for the Worcester chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “
This shows that even those who have retained some memory of having been sexually abused as a child, will question their own experience as being real. Think how much harder it is for those of us who completely blocked out every single memory and all knowledge of having been sexually abused as a child by an adult we trusted.
“Although Ms. McCarron and Mr. O’Regan were aware of at least parts of their abuse, a number of victims suffer from what psychologists call recovered memory following dissociative amnesia. The victim doesn’t remember the trauma at all until something triggers recollection such as related news stories or returning to the place where the abuse occurred.
“If there’s one commonality here, it’s really painful and not something they want to do (talk about their abuse),” said Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso, who has represented scores of abuse victims.
“People come forward when the pain of not talking about it becomes greater than the pain of talking about it.”
“Mr. Durso estimated that about 20 percent of his clients have recovered memories, in which they didn’t remember the abuse for several years, and the others locked the awareness in their minds and stayed silent. They’re both normal reactions, he said, and are reasons why it can take decades before a victim seeks justice. “
Twenty percent is a good amount of people.
Studies show that fifty-nine percent of women who suffered childhood abuse will experience dissociative amnesia (also known as repressed memories) for all or portions of the trauma and for various periods of time. Other studies found that ten percent of victims are repressing all memory of having been abused. 1
“The issue of recovered memories in child sexual abuse cases has been controversial since it became prevalent in legal circles during the last 20 years. “
The only people who have made it controversial, are pedophiles, child sexual abusers, attorneys who defend perpetrators, people in the field of mental health who make big bucks testifying for perpetrators, the ignorant media, and a small number of people who are so closed-minded that they require absolute scientific evidence for every human experience.
‘Skeptics say people don’t forget trauma and argue that false memories can be suggested by psychotherapists.
But others, such as Ross Cheit, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, have documented more than 100 cases in which recovered memories were corroborated by witnesses, physical evidence or confessions. Mr. Cheit also compiled extensive summaries of cognitive research on post-traumatic recovered memories.
One of the most famous cases involving recovered memories took place in 2005, when defrocked Catholic priest Paul R. Shanley was convicted and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison for raping a boy during the late 1970s in the Newton church where he served.
Last week in U.S. District Court in Worcester, Florida plastic surgeon Richard B. Edison settled with 48-year-old Timothy Clark of Charlton, who recovered memories in 2008 of abuse that allegedly took place beginning in 1974, when Dr. Edison was a medical student and Mr. Clark was a 10-year-old in Shrewsbury.
Ann Hagan Webb, a Wellesley psychologist and SNAP New England coordinator, first remembered her own years of childhood abuse by a priest in Rhode Island when she was 40 years old. She said the memories were triggered by her children becoming the same age she was during the abuse, 5 to 12 years old. “
Interesting. I was just explaining this very thing to one of my readers.
“It comes back in bits and pieces — it’s not complete,” Ms. Webb said. “But when it comes back, it’s vivid.”
She said people often think they’re going crazy when the memories come flooding back, not believing it themselves at first. This initial turmoil is often used by defense lawyers to question the validity of the memories.
Ms. Webb explained that victims who have recovered memories actually dissociated, that is separated their emotional and physical pain, when they were being sexually abused by someone they were supposed to trust.
“For some reason, it seems like sexual abuse is extremely difficult to process. Especially in younger children, it seems like (dissociating is) the only defense mechanism available to them,” she said. Sexual abuse is also different from witnessing a robbery, for example, because, “It’s one of the few crimes where the victims feel shame, intense shame.”
It’s also a personal shame and a personal crime. Witnessing a crime is one thing, but being the victim of a sex crime as a child, and by someone the child loved or trusted, is a deeply personal trauma.
“Mr. Durso said the research supporting the existence and reliability of recovered or delayed memories is “very solid.”
But convincing the public or a jury based on years-old memories is difficult. “People are very resistant to the idea that otherwise normal-appearing people among us are bad people and perpetrators,” he said.
Mr. Cheit said, “I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and disagreement about how often it does happen and why,” but it’s an extreme position to deny recovered memories completely.
He disagreed with Harrison G. Pope, a clinical psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, who testified last week on behalf of Dr. Edison that “there is no satisfactory scientific evidence that you could lock up a memory of a major traumatic event.”
Mr. Cheit contrasted skepticism of recovered memories of sexual abuse to the public’s more ready acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks among war veterans, which share some psychological processes.
He also noted that traumatic memories reported by adult men tend to be believed more than those reported by women or children.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four girls and one out of six boys experiences sexual abuse as a child.
Advocates for victims of sexual abuse are hoping the Massachusetts Legislature acts on House bill 469 before the session ends July 31. The bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for indecent assault and battery and rape for all minors and eliminate civil statutes of limitation for past and future child sexual abuse claims, among other provisions.
Supporters, including Mr. Durso and SNAP, say that too many victims are shut out by statutes of limitations by the time they come to terms with their memories.
The current limits are 27 years for criminal prosecution and three years for civil lawsuits starting from either the victim’s 18th birthday or discovery of the abuse.
According to Yeshiva University in New York’s Cardozo School of Law professor Marci A. Hamilton, who wrote about the legislative proposal in her blog, “The Catholic Bishops have made the defeat of child sex abuse SOL (statute of limitations) reform a top priority in every state where it has been introduced, and particularly the window.”
James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholics Conference, did not return telephone calls to confirm his organization’s position on House bill 469.
Ms. McCarron eventually coped with her painful memories by being active in sports and in 1998, when she was recreational sports director at Assumption College, she founded Voices for Children — Bike Across America to raise awareness of child sexual abuse.
“I want victims to go from being a victim to a victor,” she said.
Mr. O’Regan coordinates monthly support meetings in the Worcester area. He said victims are amazed to hear others tell their stories, often for the first time.
“I carried the guilt and I carried the shame because I allowed that to happen to me,” he said.
Finally, he feels he’s made it through to the other side.”
1. Recovered Memories, Linda Stoler, Kat Quina, Anne P. De Prince, Jennifer J. Freud, 2001, Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two, pages 905-917, Academic Press, The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, Jim Hopper, PhD