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
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
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
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, do not question the prevalence of