‘Sex Panics Make for Bad Law’

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This May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear the appeal of Paul Shanley, a Catholic priest who, famously and several years ago, was sentenced to a dozen plus years in prison after four men recovered memories of alleged abuse in the 1980s. But how, exactly, do we judge the science of repressed memories?

In the March 16, 2009 issue of the Nation, reporter JoAnn Wypijewski provides the fascinating back story of how–flush with moral panic–judges, lawyers, and jurors allowed a scientific leap of faith to preclude due process. “People who may not believe in God or aliens believe in repressed memory, with no more justification and maybe less,” she writes. Yet to date there is no conclusive evidence of the hypothesis of repressed memories, which means the theory should be inadmissible in court.

Wypijewski reported on the Shanley case in 2004 for the much lamented, no-longer-in-print Legal Affairs, and her expertise shows as she navigates the legal terrain. “Shanely had had sex,” she writes for the Nation. “He’d had sex with hustlers and teenagers and other men. And he, a priest, had lied about it. That any else might be lying, or confused, or seeking attention, or wanting money, or needing an explanation for the mess of a life only muddied up a good gothic tale.”

Sources: The Nation, Legal Affairs

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