A Jackson County jury on Tuesday got a crash course on repressed memory as a sexual abuse lawsuit trial against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph stretched through a seventh day.
The day saw occasional heated exchanges as attorneys challenged opposition witnesses.
The trial stems from a lawsuit filed by Jon David Couzens, a former altar boy who says that when he was a student at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Independence in the early 1980s, the late Monsignor Thomas O’Brien sexually abused him. Couzens alleges that the diocese was told repeatedly that O’Brien was a danger to children but failed to prevent the abuse.
Couzens, 44, filed the lawsuit in 2011 after a longtime friend called and told him her daughter was possibly the victim of another priest. He said the phone call began unleashing the memories of his own abuse that he had repressed for decades.
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The diocese contends that no credible evidence exists to prove Couzens’ allegations and argues that his claims of repressed memory are invalid. O’Brien, who has been the subject of dozens of sexual abuse lawsuits, died last year at age 87.
Tuesday’s witnesses included Walter Sipe, a San Francisco pediatrician and psychiatrist who has extensively studied the impact of trauma on memory. Sipe spent two hours explaining repressed memory to jurors. The diocese’s attorneys will conduct their cross examination of him on Wednesday.
“Repressed memory often refers to any experience of forgetting a past traumatic event for an extended period,” Sipe said.
When trauma such as repeated sexual violence occurs, he said, “it’s absolutely essential” for that person to seek care. Treatment decreases the stress and helps victims talk about what happened and put it into context, he said, which helps with the memory of the event. But if there’s no help after trauma occurs, Sipe said, there’s no way to make sense of it.
Sipe conceded “there definitely is controversy” about repressed memory. That debate is not about whether it occurs, he said, but whether valid recovered memories are the norm.
Sipe said he diagnosed Couzens with delayed onset post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“He had a period of prolonged forgetting of events that were traumatic in nature,” he said.
Couzens testified last week that O’Brien told him he was doing a good thing even as the priest warned him that telling people about any abuse would mean he would go to hell, be disowned by his family and be kicked out of the Catholic Church. Sipe said such statements would greatly confuse a boy being abused.
So if a boy told, Sipe said, he could believe that “he would risk aloneness and damnation.”
By high school, Sipe said, Couzens had no memory of the abuse. But at age 18, he went to see a different priest about anger issues in the same rectory where the earlier abuse had occurred, Sipe said. That triggered fragments of memories, and Couzens blurted out that O’Brien was touching boys. Sipe said that priest’s response — asking, according to Couzens, if he ejaculated — was another powerful trauma that shut the memories back down.
“It created its own overwhelming stress and there was little opportunity to seek care after that,” he said.
More than two decades later, Sipe said, when Couzens got the call from a friend saying her daughter was a potential victim of another priest, the memories began flooding back.
Those memories, Sipe said, “really began to coalesce.”