Explosive allegations that the leader of Chicago's archdiocese sexually abused a young man 17 years ago are based on a "recovered memory," memory retrieved through a controversial therapeutic technique that is legally recognized by nearly two dozen states but is drawing growing skepticism from psychiatrists and other experts in human memory.
Steven J. Cook, 34, filed a $10 million lawsuit against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and another priest on Nov. 12, charging that they sexually molested him when he was a 17-year-old student at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati and attended a seminary on weekends.
But unlike many adults who say they were abused as youngsters, Cook contends he did not deliberately hide his experience for all these years out of shame or fear. Rather, like a growing minority of adults making such claims, he says that he only recalled the abuse a month ago while undergoing therapy.
In his lawsuit, Cook says he began recalling the alleged abuse in October and that it "included kissing, fondling of the genitals and buttocks" and sodomy by Bernardin. The complaint adds that Cook was "repeatedly subjected to psychological coercion, duress, religious duress and mental infirmity to the point that he has been unconscious and unaware of the sexual abuse that took place."
Bernardin, a highly respected Catholic prelate, has vigorously denied the allegations, and an array of supporters have flocked to his defense.
Cook's suit is the latest in a stream of such cases in the last five years. In lawsuit after lawsuit, alleged victims have based their charges on recent "recovery" of a long-suppressed memory.
The Missouri Supreme Court earlier this year threw out the charges of a man from St. Louis who had contended a Catholic priest in Jefferson City had abused him 20 years before.
David Clohessy, who sought damages for the suffering he had incurred, relied on a 3-year-old state law that allows child victims of sexual abuse to file civil suits years later. The law says such suits can be filed within three years of the date the person discovered a physical or psychological injury caused by child sexual abuse. The court, however, said that the Missouri Constitution prohibits any law that is "retrospective in its operation.
People making claims about earlier abuse rely on a much-disputed theory popularized by therapists, marriage counselors and some psychologists. It holds that the trauma of sexual abuse may cause a child to block the memory from his or her mind.
Long afterward, perhaps decades later, an event can trigger its return, they say. So can a discussion with a therapist. Either way, the distant past returns as a vivid memory.
An array of respected psychologists consider the theory valid, and it has led to a series of court judgments on behalf of victims.
But prominent memory experts - while making no specific judgments on the Cook case - have been debunking the notion of late, calling it an "embarrassing mistake" that is sweeping the field of human behavior.
"People don't forget important things that happen to them. If you were sexually involved at age 17, you don't just forget that," said Dr. Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
Skeptics, such as McHugh and University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, …