Priest abuse hearing hinges on memory, time

By Robert King

John Doe RG, as he is known in court papers, always struggled with trusting people.

Personal relationships usually lasted no more than a year. His second-guessing of his bosses sent him hopping from job to job.

But it wasn’t until 2003 that his therapist asked him a question that would unravel his life and rattle the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis: “Do you have any sexual abuse in your past?”

“I sat there for a second and it was like a light switch went on,” he said in an interview with The Indianapolis Star. “I just remember staring at the bookcase in front of me. I said, ‘Yeah, there was an incident with a priest.’ ”

That memory, unlocked after lying dormant since the mid-1970s, is the subject of a court hearing today in Marion County that will prove critical to the course of John Doe RG’s lawsuit against the archdiocese — a somewhat unusual claim in Indiana because it is based on what psychiatrists refer to as “repressed memories.”

The Star generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Normally, cases of childhood abuse must be filed by a victim’s 20th birthday. But Judge David Dreyer must decide whether to grant an exception for John Doe RG, who filed his at age 40, based on the argument that he had no memory of the abuse until he was 38.

Attorney Patrick Noaker, representing John Doe RG, says the statute doesn’t apply when a victim recovers his memory of childhood abuse later in life. He says his client had a two-year window to file the case from the time he recovered the memory, a deadline he beat by three days.

Attorney Jay Mercer, representing the archdiocese, says there’s not enough scientific consensus about the concept of repressed memories to grant such an exception to the statute of limitations.

Repressed-memory cases are relatively rare in Indiana, said Henry Karlson, an emeritus professor of law at Indiana University. But state courts have recognized the phenomena and allowed it to be used as a basis for staying, or extending, the statutes of limitation.

John Doe RG, a former altar boy at St. Andrew Catholic Church, said memories came back to him of a priest named Harry Monroe, who John Doe RG says sexually abused him in the church rectory and on camping trips.

Monroe was assigned to parishes in Indianapolis, Terre Haute and Tell City from 1974 to 1984. The lawsuit John Doe RG filed in 2005 was the first of 13 that alleged Monroe was a child molester and that the archdiocese either neglected to protect children or, in some cases, kept the abuse hidden from public view.

Monroe was never prosecuted, because the criminal statutes of limitations had expired. Now out of the priesthood and living in Tennessee, he admitted in a deposition that he sexually molested at least five of the 13 boys who brought allegations. He wouldn’t rule out others but said he couldn’t remember. One of the cases he wouldn’t confirm was that of John Doe RG.

Of the 13 lawsuits, John Doe RG’s is the only one to involve repressed memories.

To support their positions in the case, both sides have secured Harvard University experts to testify.

The archdiocese has turned to Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry who asserts, according to court documents, that there are serious questions about repressed memories in the scientific community and that there is a lack of consensus on the disorder, which some say is overly diagnosed.

John Doe RG has turned to Dr. James A. Chu, an associate professor of psychiatry, who says the only doubters of repressed memory are those who work in laboratories and aren’t treating patients. Among clinicians, he said, there is no real debate. And although there’s no biological test for the accuracy of a recovered memory, his experience with those that can be verified has been that they are amazingly accurate.

Until John Doe RG filed his suit, there had been no publicity about Monroe’s abuse. Yet Noaker said the memory he retold bore strong similarities to the dozen cases that would follow — abuse that took place on camping trips and in St. Andrew’s church rectory. His mother also remembered John Doe RG going on camping trips with Monroe.

The recovery of the memories in 2003 sent John Doe RG’s life into a tailspin.

Over the course of eight sessions, he said, he began remembering bits and pieces of the abuse. Throughout his life, he’s had an aversion to baby powder. John Doe RG remembered Monroe using baby powder during one of their encounters. Memories came back in other settings, too, even during sex. Things got so bad that John Doe RG, now a 44-year-old business executive who lives out of state, found himself sobbing at his desk at work during the middle of the day.

“At that point, the lid was off Pandora’s box,” John Doe RG said. “And I looked inside.”

In today’s hearing, the archdiocese isn’t challenging the truthfulness of John Doe RG, just his legal claim.

Mercer said the legal avenues that typically allow a case to go forward so long after the normal statute of limitations has expired don’t apply here. He said discovering the abuse late in life has been rejected in Indiana courts as a reason to allow a case involving a childhood injury to go forward. And Mercer said the church can’t have concealed information about abuse that the plaintiff didn’t remember for 28 years.

Finally, he said John Doe RG waited almost two years to file his lawsuit after recovering his memory. Mercer said Indiana courts require cases to be brought in a “reasonable” amount of time. And some courts have said waiting even 13 months is too long to be “reasonable.”

That, said Noaker, the attorney for John Doe RG, is going to be up to the judge to decide.