Kansas City sex abuse trial features flung accusations, theories on repressed memories

Independence, Mo. — On a day of downpours in the Kansas City region, the real thunder rang here in a Jackson County courtroom, where lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a priest struck to discredit each other's expert witnesses on the issue of repressed memory.

On Thursday, Dr. Harrison Pope, a research psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, retook the stand to continue what he stated the day before: There is no scientific evidence supporting the idea of repressed memory. The notion has so far been a central aspect of the suit brought by Jon David Couzens against the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

Couzens has alleged that Msgr. Thomas O'Brien sexually abused him and three other boys on several occasions at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Independence when they were children. Two of the other three boys have since died, and the third has denied any memory of abuse. O'Brien died in October 2013 at the age of 87.

Couzens has testified that memories of the abuse had remained buried in his mind until a May 2011 phone call from a friend, who was worried that her daughter had been sexually abused by a priest, resurrected them.

The Kansas City Star has reported that the case is the first for the diocese involving sexual abuse to go to trial.

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In his testimony, Pope pointed to the scant number of scientific papers published on repressed memory since 2010 (two) and opined that if the scientific community viewed it as a legitimate condition, more papers would be published. For example, thousands of papers were written on bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder during the same timeframe.

Pope also posed two possibilities to explain Couzens' belief that he was sexually abused: either some or all of the abuse happened and Couzens has always been able to remember it, or some or all of the abuse never occurred and thus wasn't there to be remembered in the first place.

"I'm not pretending to tell you which one of those is right," Pope told the jury Wednesday afternoon, though he allowed the possibility of a combination of the two.

At various points, defense lawyer David Frye walked Pope through alternative rationales, based on depositions and medical files, for Couzens' change in emotions following the May 2011 phone call: anger could be attributed to increased testosterone level; his depression to his family's history of fibromyalgia.

But the bolts really began to fly in the cross-examination.

Plaintiff's lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray began his questioning of Pope by asking if he knew the nickname for Missouri is the Show Me State -- an allusion to the importance of presenting all the facts.

Irigonegaray attempted to paint Pope as an "expert for hire," one who has testified against the idea of repressed memory for numerous Catholic dioceses in the United States and who in doing so has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pope testified he has billed the Kansas City diocese approximately $55,000 so far for his consultation, or $600 per hour.

Irigonegaray pointed out to Pope that Pope has never taken the stand or participated in a case where a child alleged sexual abuse by a priest.

"I think what you wanted to ask me is if I gave testimony on behalf of an abused child," Pope replied.

The answer, though, was no.  

But Frye fired back in the redirect, noting that Dr. Walter Sipe -- a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and pediatrician -- billed $400 per hour while highlighting that the trial represented the doctor's first time as an expert witness. Frye said Sipe is relatively new to psychiatry (he began residency in psychiatry in 2011) and had limited writings on repressed memory.

On Tuesday, Sipe testified that a conversation between an 18-year-old Couzens and a priest in the Nativity rectory where the alleged abuse occurred triggered fragments of memories, which Sipe said Couzens again repressed when the priest asked if he ejaculated -- what Sipe described as another trauma.

Asked about that explanation, a second expert witness for the defense, Dr. Park Dietz, replied, "No, that's nonsense ... that is not how human memory works."

Dietz -- a noted psychiatrist who has testified in several major cases, including those of Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Kaczynski, the D.C. snipers, and Jared Loughner -- said he examined Couzens in June. He also said repressed memory lacks scientific basis and questioned how Couzens could contend the memories of his abuse remained hidden to him for most of his life but recalled them during the meeting with the priest and told various news outlets in 2011 that he had remembered the events all his life.

Dietz also challenged Sipe's diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder for Couzens, and Dietz himself diagnosed Couzens with a bevy of disorders: opioid use disorder, histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood.

Throughout Dietz's discussions of the various diagnoses, Couzens' attorneys raised numerous objections to his testimony. Cross-examination of Dietz is expected to begin Friday.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]


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