Baltimore doctor's post on bishops' panel is criticized

Critics say work refuting repressed-memory theory should disqualify him

July 27, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The appointment of a Baltimore psychiatrist to a national board charged with overseeing the Roman Catholic Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis has drawn criticism because of his work debunking the theory that adults can recover long-suppressed memories of abuse in their childhood.

Dr. Paul R. McHugh, former director of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, was appointed this week by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to a 13-member panel of laypeople that will monitor the church's execution of a newly adopted policy to deal with child sexual abuse.

But two psychologists who work with abuse victims, as well as representatives of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said McHugh's opposition to recovered memory should disqualify him from participating on the bishops' panel. They also oppose his appointment because he has testified as an expert witness for the church and at least one priest accused of abuse.

The psychologists also object to his membership on the board of the Philadelphia-based False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a group that opposes recovered memory in sexual abuse cases. It was established in 1992 by several physicians and Pamela and Peter Freyd, whose daughter Jennifer, a psychologist, accused her father of sexual abuse when she was a child, an accusation her father denied.

"My problem is that I think he's an extremist," said Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist specializing in treatment of sexual-abuse victims. She addressed the bishops on the topic last month at their meeting in Dallas.

"They do not need someone with this baggage," she added.

Richard B. Gartner, a New York psychologist and president of the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization, called it "really disappointing that the board would choose as its only mental health professional someone whose main professional identification is involved with being skeptical of victims' stories."

"I think it gives the message that the church is going to be skeptical of accusations," he said, "and when at all possible, will try to once again abrogate its responsibilities."

Mark Serrano, a board member of SNAP, which had lobbied unsuccessfully to have one of its members on the board, said, "To appoint someone with a background like McHugh's, where he has worked directly against the interests of victims in the courtroom, I think reflects a cynicism and arrogance of power on behalf of the bishops that is reflected in [the sexual abuse policy adopted in Dallas] as well."

McHugh, by his own estimate, has testified in about 20 to 25 cases involving recovered memory. He testified on behalf of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, who were sued in 1995 by two women who claimed the priest raped them in the 1970s as high school students. The case went to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which rejected using recovered memory to extend the statute of limitations on such lawsuits.

McHugh said he was proud of his work with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and of his efforts to combat what he called the irresponsibility of some mental health professionals.

"The memory wars are over. This is an old battle that has been finished and that has nothing to do with these priests," McHugh said.

He noted that no recent cases have been filed using recovered memory as a basis for a sexual abuse charge.

His opposition to recovered memory does not mean he is not concerned about child abuse, said McHugh, who serves on the child sexual abuse review panel for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"I don't know why they would think for a minute that my concern with bad psychiatric practices would have anything to do with my concern with victims today," McHugh said.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference, stood by the appointment. McHugh "is not only a distinguished psychiatrist but a longtime administrator in one our finest universities," he said.

"Obviously there is a controversy in the scientific community over recovered memory," Maniscalco said. "But we're not talking about looking at individual cases. The work of the review board is to monitor the compliance of the dioceses with the [sexual abuse policy]."

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